The 2024 election is a long way off, but hopeful presidential candidates are already beginning to campaign. Former president Donald Trump has announced that he is running again. Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, formally declared her candidacy last week. As the field grows more crowded, candidates will be touting their resumes and experience — which makes this President’s Day weekend an apt moment for a historical reminder that glittering credentials are no assurance of a candidate’s fitness for the White House.
When James Buchanan was elected to be the 15th president of the United States in 1856, America was riven by sectional tensions and a deepening antagonism over slavery — an antagonism that had descended to violence in “Bleeding Kansas,” where scores of pro- and antislavery settlers were murdering each other in a fight over the territory’s future status.
To many Americans, it must have been reassuring to see a president with Buchanan’s extraordinary record in public life take the helm. The 65-year-old Pennsylvanian had begun his political career as the youngest member of the state legislature before winning five terms in the US House of Representatives. In 1832, Andrew Jackson appointed him ambassador to Russia. He was elected twice to the Senate, served as secretary of state under James Polk, and was chosen by Franklin Pierce to be ambassador to Great Britain.
When Democrats in 1856 sought a standard-bearer untainted by the polarizing furor over slavery and Kansas, Buchanan, with his scintillating resume, seemed ideal. In a three-way election, he handily defeated John Frémont, the candidate of the fledgling Republican Party, and former president Millard Fillmore, who represented the nativist Know-Nothing Party.
The new president, a respected Northerner who carried most of the South, was well-positioned to make peace among the country’s contending factions. He did the opposite. He explicitly blamed the growing national discord on the new Republican Party, which had been created to halt the spread of slavery and drew nearly all its support from Northern voters.
“The great object of my administration will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the slavery question at the North, and to destroy sectional parties,” vowed the president-elect. “Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain.” The idea that harmony could be restored by a blatant prejudice in favor of Southern interests was delusional, but Buchanan had chosen sides. As a matter of policy, he was convinced that the antislavery movement was unwise, unjust, and unconstitutional. And as a matter of personal preference, he deeply admired Southerners.
Though he had been born and reared in a free state, writes the historian Jean H. Baker, Buchanan felt a “social and cultural identification with what he perceived as the Southern values of leisure [and] the gentleman’s code of honor.” He regarded white Southerners as natural aristocrats and their legislators as statesmen. In the political argot of the 1850s, Buchanan was a “doughface” — a Northerner who favored the South. If Americans imagined they were sending a diplomatic moderate to the White House, they were soon disillusioned.
It was customary at the time for presidents to assemble a Cabinet that balanced disparate views within their party. But Buchanan surrounded himself entirely with Southerners or fellow Northern doughfaces. That amounted to a stinging insult to antislavery Northerners, especially the “free-soil” faction of his own party led by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois.
For the next four years, Buchanan would repeatedly act to appease Southern interests. The result was to intensify the gathering storm over slavery and make Civil War inevitable.
In his inaugural address, the new president referred to the Supreme Court’s pending decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he said ought to settle the question of slavery in the territories and to which he would “cheerfully submit.” What he didn’t say was that he had secretly interfered with the court’s deliberations, pressuring Justice Robert Grier, a Pennsylvania friend, to support a sweeping ruling that would shut down all attempts to ban slavery. Grier did so, joining the court’s Southern justices to produce a ruling that Americans of African descent could never be citizens and that slavery could not be prohibited in any territory.
“As the North erupted in anger,” writes Baker, “Buchanan endorsed a Kansas constitution written by proslavery settlers, again infuriating many Northerners and inspiring Southerners to expect even more from a president they had reason to consider their special advocate.”
As Buchanan maneuvered to advance Southern interests, the Republican Party grew stronger. In 1858, Republicans won control of the House. If Democrats were to retain the presidency in 1860, the president would have to unite the party. But Buchanan could not overcome his hostility to Douglas and his Northern supporters — not even to block the rise of Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose election, politicians from the Deep South warned, would drive them to secession.
In the end, the Democrats split, running two candidates for president. That assured the election of Lincoln, which in turn triggered the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The president who had pledged “to restore harmony to the Union” wound up presiding over its dissolution.
And still Buchanan would not move against the South. In his annual message to Congress in December 1860, he railed against “the Northern people,” blaming the worst crisis in the nation’s history entirely on them and their “intemperate interference . . . with the question of slavery.” Splitting hairs, he insisted that secession was illegal but that the Constitution gave him no authority to prevent it. Incompetent to the end, Buchanan bequeathed to his successor the leadership of a nation plunging headlong into a civil war that would send three-quarters of a million Americans to early graves.
Buchanan spent his post-White House years working on his memoirs. “I have no regret for any public act of my life,” he wrote, blind and stubborn to the end. “History will vindicate my memory.”
History has done the opposite. The 15th president has long been regarded by scholars as the worst president ever elected. His failure is sometimes attributed to indecision and weakness: Running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy portrayed Buchanan as “cringing in the White House, afraid to move.” But Buchanan didn’t suffer from timidity. What he lacked was flexibility, prudence, tolerance, and moral judgment. He was succeeded by a president who, despite his skimpy political record, possessed those qualities in abundance.
The Buchanan administration is ancient history now, but its overriding lesson is timeless: The seeds of presidential greatness are not to be found in a candidate’s resume but in his or her character. That was true in 1856. It will be no less true in 2024.