Baker - James Buchanan

August 23, 2004

Jean Baker
James Buchanan
New York : Times Books, 2004.

This is another in the Presidents series.

Baker is a remarkably good historian, working primarily in the political culture of Jacksonian America. Her book Affairs of Party is most remarkably good, and she draws on her experience in Jacksonian politics for this biography of the man widely regarded as our worst President ever.

Baker tries hard to be sympathetic to Buchanan, and he did have some pretty good diplomatic skills and he was a pretty solid party hack. He pulled where directed, worked the patronage machine, and did what he could to serve the nation as he saw best.

As Baker presents his Presidency, the focus of the book, his problems were twofold. Firstly, Buchanan was a throrough-going doughface. From Pennsylvania, he consistently voted and executed policies that favored the South. This pattern appeared throughout his Congressional and diplomatic careers -- he constantly worked to annex Cuba, for example -- and he continued this pattern as President. Thus not only did he systematically take the strongest possible pro-slavery position in disputes about slavery in the territories, supporting the manifestly anti-democratic and anti-republican pro-slavery constitution in Kansas, but once secession was underway he aided rather than impeded its progress. He pulled federal troops out of the South, he had earlier tried to move federal armories into the South so that they might be more readily seized by secessionists, and in many ways acted like the President of the Confederacy and not of the Union. Buchanan is a bad president, fundamentally, because he abetted the dissolution of the Union he had sworn to protect.

Buchanan was also a fairly incompetant President. Baker traces that incompetance to his personality and his cabinet. The man was not a lifetime loser - despite being stiff, formal, and a bit boring he had been an effective diplomat and an adequate Congressman. But, he was lonely. Buchanan never married. He only had one long-term emotional relationship, a lifelong friendship with Rufus King of South Carolina. And, after King died, Buchanan had no one to talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one he could trust to tell him the truth. He filled this emotional void with his cabinet. Not only did he meet with them daily, but he dined with them, invited them to sleep over at the White House, and otherwise turned them into a ersatz family. They were a failed family, for his cabinet turned out to be composed of yes men, and their close living relationship made it very difficult for his advisors to tell him hard truths. The combination meant that Buchanan served his term in an echo chamber, and it echoed bad decisions.

Baker writes well and smoothly. It is a truism that we learn more from failure than from success. And yet, it is always painful to read about failure. For a clear, well written, short (150-odd page) book, this was a very hard read.

Posted by Red Ted at August 23, 2004 07:19 PM | TrackBack
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