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File:James-buchanan.jpg
"If you are as happy to be accepting this office as I am to be leaving it, then you are a very happy man".
—James Buchanan "welcoming" Abraham Lincoln.
"Meanwhile the nation's chief executive, James Buchanan, did nothing"
—Ken Burns "The Civil War"

James Buchanan was the only President to never marry (his niece fulfilled the duties of First Lady). He was engaged to a woman at one point, but they broke up and she died (likely suicide) shortly after. Although each of the three previous Presidents had played a part in creating the circumstances that led to the Civil War (Zachary Taylor's belligerent approach to the slave states got things off on the wrong foot, Millard Fillmore created an ultimately ill-advised compromise agreement, and Franklin Pierce proceeded to piss off the slave states by breaking the terms of said agreement), the final, fatal lurch towards the conflict happened on Buchanan's watch.

Buchanan began his political career in the House of Representatives in 1814. He was not popular with fellow politicians. Andrew Jackson gave him the position of Minister to Russia in an attempt to keep him out of the country, where he would, in Jackson's words, "do the least harm". Unfortunately, this lead to the impression that he had serious diplomatic/political credentials. This post was followed by time in the Senate, as Secretary of State, and as Minister to Great Britain.

Part of the reason he was elected was because he had been out of the country for the past four years as an ambassador and was able to avoid blame for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. [1] He led America into the Civil War by attempting to maintain the status quo: enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and opposing abolitionist activism. Like most leaders at the time, he was utterly bewildered at the current high stakes conditions, so he just decided to... do nothing and try to maintain the Union until a solution appeared.

It didn't help that he ordered the invasion of Utah for the purpose of persecuting an unpopular Christian denomination.

Is often believed to have been a closeted gay man, who allegedly had a long relationship with Alabama senator William King (who became Franklin Pierce's Vice-President, but died only six weeks into his term, and just under four years before Buchanan became president). The truth died with Buchanan, since his relatives burned his diaries and personal documents upon his death, as per his request.

Buchanan once said that "History will vindicate me." It didn't. Much like Neville Chamberlain who would come 60 years after him, regardless of any of his other accomplishments, his legacy is ultimately judged on his reaction to the greatest challenge facing his nation[2]. Buchanan's desire to merely maintain the status quo (to the point that he would say that while secession was illegal, military force to stop secession was also illegal) did nothing to mend a bitterly divided nation. By the end, as his page quote shows, he was only interested in holding off civil war long enough for him to get out of office and leave the problems to the next president. Today, he is considered to be one of the worst if not the worst President in US history.

A one-minute biography of the guy can be found here.

Notes

  1. It was an act that let Kansas and Nebraska decide for themselves (popular sovereignty) whether or not slavery would be established there. Nebraska chose to ban slavery without a hitch, but Kansas, or "Bleeding Kansas" as it came to be known... yeah, the name kind of says it all.
  2. Though, at least Chamberlain immediately started to rearm Great Britain after the Munich Conference
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