In This Review

James Buchanan
James Buchanan
By Jean H. Baker
Times Books, 2004, 192 pp

Historians generally agree that James Buchanan was the worst U.S. president. After all, it was on his unhappy watch that the Union disintegrated. Far from wishing to rehabilitate Buchanan, Baker wants to bury him deeper in infamy. She brilliantly shows how Buchanan's mishandling of the mini-Civil War between pro-and anti-slavery factions in Kansas led to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and helped make the greater conflict inevitable, and how his vacillation and dithering allowed rebels to seize federal forts and arsenals across the South. She would have done him more damage had she made a closer study of Buchanan's record as leader of the Democratic Party, the last truly national organization committed to avoiding civil war. Buchanan was unable to hold it together, and his failure to ensure a united Democratic ticket in the 1860 election made a Republican victory, and the ensuing war, inevitable.