Will President Donald Trump go down as the worst president in history?
That question is being asked a lot, by scholars and columnists, and the result is a new spotlight on our 15th president, James Buchanan, who has locked down that spot for most of the past 159 years, since he slinked out of town on the eve of the Civil War.
Why is Buchanan always so near the bottom? How, exactly, did he screw up? The lists don't usually go into much detail, except for a few vague sentences about how he failed to avert the war. But that passive formulation doesn't really get at his spectacular awfulness. Repeatedly, he made terrible decisions, and when presented with various options, pursued the most extreme pro-slavery position (despite the fact that he came from Pennsylvania). He chose a Cabinet dominated by corrupt slave owners who lined their own pockets and stole government assets. When crises came, he had no answers, because he didn't think the federal government should intervene. As more people questioned his choices, he angrily dismissed their criticism. All of these deficits have kept him permanently at or near the bottom of presidential rankings.
Over the course of his career, Buchanan had grown comfortable with small moral surrenders. A New York diarist, George Templeton Strong, called him an "old mollusk," as if he were not quite in the vertebrate class. Other nicknames were not much better: to John Quincy Adams, he was "the sneaking scrivener"; to James K. Polk, "an old maid." Early in his career, he flip-flopped from the fading Federalists to the Democrats, who were rising behind Andrew Jackson. For a time, the Democrats became a meaningfully national party, with a big tent that included many Northerners, and some Southerners who did not love slavery.
But greed and paranoia began to change Democrats in the 1850s, and Southern bosses began to practice an angrier politics, flaunting their wealth, calling for new slave states in Cuba and northern Mexico and arguing that slavery was good for America. Buchanan was happy to acquiesce, and was prominently involved with efforts to bring in Cuba, by force if necessary. For his loyalty, he succeeded in winning the nomination in 1856.
He won the election easily, despite a rising threat from a new party, the Republicans, who were organizing to resist the growing stranglehold of slavery. But his inaugural festivities seemed to suggest that a storm was coming. The day began "genial and bright," according to the New York Times, until the exact moment of the inaugural, when "clouds portentously lowered over the head of the new president and the assembled thousands." That dark moment is captured in the earliest photo of an inaugural. Buchanan was also fighting dysentery after eating a bad meal in one of the city's hotels.
It was the beginning of a long run of bad luck that always seemed to find Buchanan on the wrong side of history.
During his inauguration, he was seen whispering to the chief justice of the United States, Roger Taney, who issued the infamous Dred Scott verdict two days later. That notorious decision concluded that African Americans held no rights of any kind, and could never be citizens of the United States. Buchanan hoped the decision would put the slavery debate to rest. Instead, it did the opposite, enraging Northerners who saw it as proof that the Slave Power would stop at nothing to enshrine slavery as a national institution. While it is routinely considered the worst Supreme Court decision in American history, by conservatives and liberals alike, Buchanan had lobbied hard for the verdict, inappropriately writing to justices before his inauguration while promising the public that he would "cheerfully" accept their verdict.
Then, Kansas, still a territory, fell apart. Kansans were organizing into pro- and anti-slavery factions, violently opposed to each other. Buchanan tried to protect slave interests, doing everything in his power, including bribery, extortion and voter suppression - all actions that propelled Congress to launch a formal investigation into his administration's corruption.
He also intimidated members of his own party who did not toe the line. Northern Democrats were bullied and removed from their jobs, while pro-slavery zealots were given every crumb that fell from the government's table. Buchanan vetoed legislation that Northerners liked, including an act to build land-grant colleges (later adopted as the Morrill Act of 1862).
Another kind of disaster struck in the fall of 1857 when the overheated economy crashed, throwing thousands of Americans out of work. With his distrust of big-government solutions, Buchanan was hapless at providing relief. Thousands of local businesses and banks collapsed, and the federal deficit mushroomed.
Eventually, the combination of vindictiveness, corruption and poor leadership during an economic crisis split a Democratic Party already divided on the issue of slavery firmly in two with a Northern and Southern faction each running its own presidential candidate (Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, respectively) during the 1860 election. That secured Abraham Lincoln's election, along with a growing feeling, even among Northern Democrats, that the Slave Power was out of control. Buchanan missed these signs, and supported the Southern faction (Breckinridge was his vice president).
Things continued to disintegrate in the final months of the year. It was not simply that Southern states began to secede from the Union, after Lincoln's election in November - with barely a response from the White House. There were also stunning new revelations of corruption. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb left the Treasury bare and resigned. The secretary of war, John Floyd, resigned after massive evidence of fraud was traced to him (he was nicknamed "the $6,000,000 Man," after the amount in question). The secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson, crisscrossed the South, drumming up support for secession and leaking information to secessionists. All three would serve the Confederacy in high offices. It was the closest any Cabinet has come to treason.
As the secession crisis deepened throughout the winter of 1860-61, Buchanan was utterly incapable of meeting it. Sarcastically, a leading Republican, William Seward, remarked that Buchanan's policy was that no Southern state had a right to secede . . . unless it wanted to. When a newspaper reported that he had gone insane, stocks actually rose. Buchanan was looking worse, too; his strange hair even more angular than ever, his complexion sallow and strange honking sounds coming from blocked nasal passages.
That was the situation Lincoln inherited, and it remains a small miracle that the United States survived what Henry Adams called "the Great Secession Winter." That phrase feels resonant again, in the wake of Dr. Rick Bright's prediction that "2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history" and the increased possibility of Trump joining the bottom of the presidential ranking list.
Pennsylvania's only president has had his defenders over the years. Naturally, he was one of them - he wrote a dense and unreadable memoir of his administration that came out in 1866, long after anyone had stopped caring.
But the quirkiest effort came from the pen of his fellow Pennsylvanian, John Updike, who wrote a play about Buchanan, with an 89-page afterword that tried to argue for a better ranking. That too, failed. It did not help that Updike published it in 1974, a year when Americans were glued to their televisions, watching the flameout of Richard Nixon. They did not want to be reminded of presidential disasters. Still, Buchanan is not entirely forgotten. In a city cluttered with monuments to every cause, he is represented with a large seated statue in Washington, at the southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park, just off Florida Avenue, below Columbia Heights. Appropriately, he is joined by a neighboring statue of Dante, who specialized in defining the many circles of hell.
What is the legacy of bad presidents today? Do we need them to remind us of the perils of the job? Our bottom-dwellers failed for different reasons. Andrew Johnson stubbornly refused to work with Congress; Herbert Hoover was overwhelmed by the Depression; Nixon felt that he was above the law. Buchanan shared traits with all of them; a difficult trifecta to recover from.
Still, his brief career in the White House was important for one reason. It convinced voters that change was needed, desperately. That, in turn, led to the election of an obscure Illinois one-term congressman who reminded Americans of their better angels. For that, we still owe him something.
Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. He edited the two-volume set "American Speeches" for the Library of America. His next book, "Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington," comes out in the spring. This piece was written for The Washington Post.