James Buchanan. When the average American with a passing familiarity with American history thinks of this name, they usually call him one of our most inept, incompetent, if not completely unsuitable Presidents. Rarer few are those who even bother to dig deeper than that, but Jean H. Baker, writing about the titular president for The American Presidents series, believed a closer look into why he earned the scorn of history was warranted.
Like all books in the same series, this one can be read independently of the others. It more than adequately makes the arguments it needs to on its own, but I highly recommend reading the last few books before it and the one immediately after on Abraham Lincoln This is mainly because they give even more detailed perspective after reading this one.
That said, this book is a fairly comprehensive and straightforward experience. It covers Buchanan from childhood to manhood. It details his increasingly large involvement in politics and public life. It exhaustively details his presidency and why it ended in public disgrace. And finally, it covers the period after until his death, noting in those final years Buchanan devoted his time entirely to try justifying his presidency as anything but a failure of his own making.
It has three questions it sets out to ask, then answer. First, what shaped Buchanan into the man who would become our fifteenth president, and how did that lead to his failed administration? Second, what did he do well, and why were his failures more known to history as opposed to his success? Most importantly, it asks how such a man considered so qualified for public service became President, and how under that office he did so much to gravely injure the union of the United States he alleged he held so dear.
In my reading, I came to a few conclusions of my own. Not only was Buchanan a nakedly partisan political figure, but his partisanship was also such it gave him tunnel vision to the point he could not begin to try to understand those who disagreed with him, and that this failure led him to fail to take the pulse of the people to a catastrophic degree. Second, Buchanan was certainly qualified for public service, and had he been President after the period slavery divided the public discourse, history might have looked on him more favorably, as he was ill-equipped to deal with that issue despite all his experience. His being grotesquely out of touch, his inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to change any of his opinions no matter how badly they served the people did no one any favors, least of all himself. Finally, he had once claimed the President should be a just and wise arbiter of the national discourse, but he utterly failed to heed his own counsel to the injury of a nation he nearly left too damaged for his successor to save.
Overall, I would consider this book very educational, straightforward, and suitable for any serious student of American history. It wastes little time, filling each page with as many relevant facts as possible, and has simple-to-understand prose. For anyone needing to have the resources for a research paper or book report, this is a well-researched volume on the 15th bearer of the title of US President I recommend highly.
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