The short list of America’s greatest presidents is one that most historians agree on. Many books have been written about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the three men who top most any list on the topic. But what about America’s worst presidents?
In his new book, journalist Robert Strauss examines history to come up with quite a few candidates. But one man takes top billing when it comes to the bottom: James Buchanan, a Democrat who served as the 15th president from 1857 to 1861. Strauss explains why Buchanan left a lousy legacy in the Oval Office in his book, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents. He spoke on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on Wharton Business Radio, SiriusXM Channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Some people would say that in the category of final four for worst president ever, you could pick one or two from the people who are running for president right now.
Robert Strauss: Well, here’s the scoop. Of course I didn’t write the book last week, so I didn’t have Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to think about. But when I proposed the book to my agent, I said that half of America thought that Barack Obama was the worst president ever, and half thought George W. Bush was the worst president ever. But neither of them started the Civil War. And that’s where I get to James Buchanan.
Knowledge at Wharton: James Buchanan is your pick for the worst president ever. But you do throw in other candidates in there as well.
Strauss: Yes, Franklin Pierce. He wins over Buchanan because even though he was his predecessor, the war didn’t start on his watch. You could certainly surmise people who ran into great difficulties, like Herbert Hoover. The Depression happened on his watch. You could say Warren Harding because he had scandals in his administration, and Richard Nixon had to resign. But each one of them had more positive attributes.
Knowledge at Wharton: But for Buchanan it was pretty much bad thing after bad thing?
Strauss: From day one. I don’t try to bring too many parallels to this election, but he was sort of the leftover Democrat. He was the most experienced man ever to run for president. He had been a state legislator in Pennsylvania, congressman, senator, secretary of state, ambassador to Russia, ambassador to Great Britain. A lot of experience. But still when he ran, he was sort of just the next guy in line.
He started out bad, and I’ll tell you why he becomes the worst. There is this law case that was going around, the Dred Scott case. He was a slave. His master was in the Army. When his master died, Scott sued because he said he had been a free man, so he was a free man. The case was going to get maybe to the Supreme Court, but it was going to be a narrow decision. Just like today, after Justice Antonin Scalia died it was five to four conservatives and liberals, back then it was five to four Southerners and Northerners. Buchanan says, “I won the election. I’m going to solve the slavery problem.” And by solve it, what he was going to do was influence this court case.
He got a northern judge from Pennsylvania to go along with the majority, then a New York judge wrote a concurring opinion. It was 7-2, so they were able to have a broad decision. And the broad decision was basically interpreting the Constitution that slavery existed everywhere, that neither Congress nor state legislatures could outlaw slavery.
“I always say that Buchanan is the second most consequential man in American history. … Essentially, it all tore apart on his reign.”
So what are you going to do? We had a 20-year expansion. Things were going great. Railroads led the expansion. Railroads grew up and all the businesses [grew] around railroads. Say you’ve got this business in Chicago making tin cups and you want to move out to Cicero [in Illinois] and have a second plant. Well, you’re not going to do it because somebody from Tennessee might come up with slaves and be your competition. You don’t know what your competition is. Precipitously, businesses failed. All the banks in New York close for a day. They don’t accept script anymore. It’s only gold and silver. Well, you have your tin cup factory, but you don’t have a bar of gold sitting around to pay for things.
That started the Panic of 1857, which was the most precipitous drop of all our panics and depressions. Buchanan’s answer to that was, “Sorry. You guys speculated. Government can’t do anything to help you.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Right after Buchanan came Abraham Lincoln, who is considered to be one of the best presidents. You almost get the sense that Buchanan certainly earned some of the designation of being a very poor president right off the bat, and that Lincoln changed so many things for the positive is part of the reason why Buchanan was so bad.
Strauss: But maybe the bar wasn’t so high for Lincoln, you know? I always say that Buchanan is the second most consequential man in American history. George Washington is the first because he started everything. Essentially, it all tore apart on Buchanan’s reign.
… The attribute you want most in a president is decisiveness. No matter what you think, even liberals have to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was decisive. You might not have liked what he did, but he said he was going to do it and he did it. Lincoln was certainly the same way.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you refer to President Andrew Jackson as kind of a Don Corleone [fictional mafia boss] figure. Why?
Strauss: People say, “Well, Buchanan couldn’t have stopped the Civil War?” If you go to the very end of his reign … [there was conflict with the Democrat nominee for president,] Stephen Douglas, so it sort of makes sure that Lincoln is going to be president.
[After the election but with Buchanan still in office,] the southern states start to secede. He interprets it as the Constitution doesn’t let them secede, but there’s nothing he can do about it. So, seven states secede. You could say, “Well, who could do anything about it?” Andrew Jackson did something about it. South Carolina wanted to nullify a law. They said, “If we have to keep this law we’re going to secede.” And Jackson says, “Sorry, you’re not.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What about the financial issues of the country at the time?
Strauss: What I like to do in the book is tell stories. One thing we forget about history is that — we forget history. Fifty years from now somebody is going to start writing a book about our era and say, “You mean they actually doubted the president was born in the United States?” Even though this is imbued in this time, that’s going to be way in the background until somebody brings it up. My personal story about this — and I like to relate myself to history — is I was in a coin shop. I wanted to buy something for our 25th anniversary. I’m looking around at the coins and see that in 1857 the coins suddenly became about one-third of their size. The guy in the coin shop says, “Oh yeah, panic of 1857.” This was Buchanan’s solution. We’ll save on gold and silver and make the coin smaller.
But that exacerbated everything else because the South was sort of insular. It could sell its agricultural products within its own area. Your farm isn’t going to fail quite so badly, or at least you’ll be able to provide for your family and your neighbors.
“The attribute you want most in a president is decisiveness.”
They still had some export markets in Europe, but the North really suffered. And that really sort of pulled them apart. They were like Georgia vs. Michigan in football. They would be the teams on opposite sides. Once the Northerners viewed the South as being favored, Buchanan was called a doughface, a Northerner who had Southern views, accepted slavery but didn’t have slaves. That really pushed us further towards Civil War.
Knowledge at Wharton: The other part of it is the railroads, which were becoming a very important piece to not only trade but travel. The impact that the railroads felt from having Buchanan make some of the statements and the decisions that he made ended up being very important.
Strauss: Right. Railroads sort of grew up in that time and the 20 years before, and people then had the American dream just like we have now. They kept on moving west or north or south. Wherever they wanted to go, railroads helped them get that way. It was a lot faster than walking. Railroads were trying to expand, then the whole movement stops after the Dred Scott decision. They had debt. They went belly up in a lot of cases.
Knowledge at Wharton: I was reading about the Tariff Act of 1857, which had an impact on goods overseas for the United States.
Strauss: Correct. As with his influence of the Dred Scott decision, another place where Buchanan didn’t have the separation of powers was Congress. He says, “Well, I’m coming into office. My signature economics bill is going to be the Tariffs of 1857.” It was just at the time when we’re expanding and getting more manufacturing. The pre-Industrial Revolution is going on, and all these manufactured goods now suddenly are much too expensive. More European goods are coming in. That sort of exacerbates the other residue of the Dred Scott case and what I’ve just said.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why was it that Buchanan thought he didn’t have any power on the issues of the states seceding and slavery?
Strauss: My interpretation of this is that he was a conciliator. James Buchanan had some good qualities. He was the best party-giver of mid-century America. He was good at glad-handing. He never wrote anything bad about anybody. But he was a waffler. You come up in this crucial time and, forgive me, but I don’t think whoever wins, Trump and Clinton, are going to be facing times like he did, and he just cannot make a decision. If you’re faced with somebody who doesn’t make a decision, you don’t know how to work.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also mentioned that part of the reason why he is thought of so negatively is that he wasn’t supportive of the Democratic candidate for president during that 1860 election cycle.
Strauss: Right, Stephen Douglas. It was the one guy he didn’t really like. Instead of bad mouthing him, he just stood on the sidelines. As the party leader, he chooses Charleston, South Carolina, as the place where they’re going to have the convention. It’s the worst possible thing he could have done. Douglas, of course, is not popular in Charleston, so people walk out. They form another party, so to speak, with John Breckinridge as their candidate. This third party tries to play sort of like the anti-Trumpians here, like we’re going to save the country. It splits Douglas’ party … and obviously Lincoln’s going to win at that point.
“One thing we forget about history is that — we forget history.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Of the other presidents that you talk about, like Franklin Pierce and James Garfield, what were some of the big things that put them in the running to be in this category?
Strauss: Well, Garfield got assassinated. You can’t even count people who only were in for a few months, like him and Zachary Taylor and William Henry Harrison. But Pierce was also a doughface. Similarly, he was the only president to have the same cabinet through his own term. The person who had his ear most, the Dick Cheney of his administration, was Jefferson Davis, who of course became the Confederate president. This is who he listened to for the most part.
His biggest issue: was Kansas going to become a state. Was it going to be free or not? This lasted until Buchanan’s time. Both of them waffled through it, and by Buchanan’s time there became a mini-Civil War. John Brown was the most prominent person in that. Brown eventually goes to Harpers Ferry [in West Virginia] and tries to capture this armaments town. We didn’t have a lot of soldiers — only 12,000 soldiers in the Army at that point. Fortuitously, Robert E. Lee is home visiting in Arlington. He says to Buchanan, “This is not a very good idea, 40 miles down the road to have an insurrection,” and that sort of stops that.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also mentioned in the book that Buchanan was a career politician. That’s something that a lot of people believe can be a negative.
Strauss: Right. His experience was mostly conciliatory and not decisive. If you look at the people who are generally thought of as the best presidents — Washington, Lincoln, FDR — in all the historian surveys for the last 60 years, they’re the top three, they were very decisive people. They made mistakes, there’s no question. Their experience, well at least Washington’s experience, was certainly as a leader. FDR’s experience, while not very extensive, was as a governor. They had the advantage of personality, which is important.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Strauss: I was obsessed by the presidents from the time I was a little kid. My father dragged me to every historical sign and made me read it. I’ve always liked the minutia and the fun part of it. I’ve seen Grover Cleveland’s birthplace in West Caldwell, N.J. There’s a piece of his wedding cake that his sister saved. Can you imagine? That’s the kind of thing I love.
Knowledge at Wharton: Does it surprise you now that we have two presidential candidates that have disapproval ratings in the 60% range?
Strauss: Yes and no. In doing this book I studied the 1856 election, which was a much more bizarre election. The Whig party had dissipated. There had been a Whig president in 1853, only three years before. This new party, the Republican party, starts and they nominate a celebrity, much the same as today: John Fremont. He was the pathfinder. He was the guy who mapped out the west with Kit Carson. He wrote journals.
His young bride, she was 17 when they got married, was Jessie Benton, the daughter of the most prominent Democratic senator, Thomas Benton. She gussies up the journals and is sort of the Kris Kardashian to his Bruce Jenner. She makes him a celebrity. She knows everybody in Washington. Everything gets publicized, so he runs for president on this new Republican party. Then there’s a thing called the Know Nothing party. Can you imagine an election where somebody calls themselves the Know Nothing party? They were anti-immigrants. That election is bizarre enough that it sort of compares to the current day.