Best Books About James Buchanan
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This balanced account of the life of the most misunderstood president fills a glaring gap in American biography.
Almost no president was as well trained and well prepared for the office as James Buchanan. He had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate; he was Secretary of State and was even offered a seat on the Supreme Court. And yet, by every measure except his own, James Buchanan was a miserable failure as president, leaving office in disgrace. Virtually all of his intentions were thwarted by his own inability to compromise: he had been unable to resolve issues of slavery, caused his party to split-thereby ensuring the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln-and made the Civil War all but inevitable.
This book offers conclusions that are very different from most of the traditional historical interpretations of the Buchanan presidency. Historians have either condemned Buchanan for weakness and vacillation or portrayed him as a president dedicated to peace who did everything constitutionally possible to avoid war. Under the scrutiny of Elbert B. Smith, Buchanan emerges as a strong figure who made vital contributions not to peace but to the accelerating animosities that produced the war.
As James Buchanan took office in 1857, the United States found itself at a crossroads. Dissolution of the Union had been averted and the Democratic Party maintained control of the federal government, but the nation watched to see if Pennsylvania’s first president could make good on his promise to calm sectional tensions.
A group of Middle Period scholars met at Franklin and Marshall College in 1991 to commemorate James Buchanan’s bicentenary. This book grew out of that conference and consists of the papers given and a post-paper panel reassessing the Buchanan presidency. Michael J. Birkner introduces the essays with a brief biographical sketch of the fifteenth president. When Buchanan entered the White House in March 1857, he seemed well positioned to accomplish his main objectives. A canny and seasoned politician from Pennsylvania with a reputation for moderation on slavery-related issues, Buchanan had a straightforward agenda: the amelioration of sectional tensions, the promotion of American prosperity, and the extension of the Democrats’ control of the federal government. Four years later, Buchanan left Washington convinced that he had done his best and accomplished much. In fact, he left behind a shattered Democratic party, a new Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and a ruptured Union. Except for a cadre of faithful Pennsylvania friends, Buchanan’s reputation lay in ruins. He has consistently been ranked among the least effective presidents in American history.
Macaulay has called the disease of admiration, no one who can lay claim to any strength of mind need allow the fear of such an imputation to prevent him from doing justice to a public man whose life, for whatever reason, he has undertaken to write. But that my readers may judge of the degree of my exposure to this malady, a frank explanation of the circumstances under which I came to write this work is due both to them and to myself. In the summer of 1880, the executors and the nearest surviving relatives of Mr. Buchanan asked me to allow them to place in my hands the whole collection of his private papers, with a view to the preparation of a biographical and historical work concerning his public and private life. This duty could not have been undertaken by me, without an explicit understanding that I was to treat the subject in an entirely independent and impartial spirit. To be of much value, the work, as I conceived, must necessarily be, to some extent, a history of the times in which Mr. Buchanan acted an important part as a public man. Moreover, although I had been for far the greater part of this period an attentive observer of public affairs, I had no special interest in Mr. Buchanans fame, and was never personally known to him.
For the first time, readers will experience America’s gravest crisis through the eyes of the five former presidents who lived it. Author and historian Chris DeRose chronicles history’s most epic Presidential Royal Rumble, which culminated in a multi-front effort against Lincoln’s reelection bid, but not before