Useful Notes: James Buchanan

"Just wait it out," he said.

"If you are as happy to be accepting this office as I am to be leaving it, then you are a very happy man."
James Buchanan "welcoming" Abraham Lincoln.

"Meanwhile the nation's chief executive, James Buchanan, did nothing."
Ken Burns, "The Civil War"

James Buchanan (April 23, 1791 — June 1, 1868) was the fifteenth President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861, and the fifth representing the institution known as the Democratic Party. He immediately followed Franklin Pierce, but, more notably, preceded Abraham Lincoln. He was the last president born in the 18th century and the only president from Pennsylvania, although that state currently isn't very proud of that. Buchanan remains the only President to never marry; his niece fulfilled the duties of First Lady. He was engaged to a woman at one point, but they broke up and she died (likely suicide) shortly after. Is often believed to have been a closeted gay man, who allegedly had a long relationship with Alabama Senator William King, who died six weeks into his term as Franklin Pierce's Vice President. The truth died with Buchanan, since his relatives burned his diaries and personal documents upon his death, as per his request.

Buchanan began his political career in the House of Representatives in 1814. He was not popular with fellow politicians. Andrew Jackson gave him the position of Minister to Russia in an attempt to keep him out of the country, where he would, in Jackson's words, "do the least harm". Unfortunately, this lead to the impression that he had serious diplomatic/political credentials. This post was followed by time in the Senate, as Secretary of State under James K. Polk, and as Minister to Great Britain. Part of the reason he won the election in 1856 was because he was out of the country during the unpopular presidency of Franklin Pierce and couldn't be blamed for any of the administration's hated policies, particularly the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It also helped that the main opposition party of the last two decades, the Whigs had disintegrated since the previous election, and the opposition vote was divided between former president Millard Fillmore's "Know Nothing" party and the newly-formed Republican Party.

Those who know their American history dates know full-well what happened during his presidency. Tensions between the North and the South reached their peak, and it would have taken a skilled executive to reach a compromise that could have avoided conflict. Buchanan's policy was, to put it bluntly, to do nothing and either let everyone calm down or wait until someone else came up with a solution. Needless to say, it didn't work. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, seven southern states seceded from the Union during the last few months of the Buchanan presidency (and four would later follow). Although each of the three previous Presidents had played a part in creating the circumstances that led to the Civil War (Zachary Taylor's belligerent approach to the slave states got things off on the wrong foot, Millard Fillmore signed an ultimately ill-advised compromise agreement, and Franklin Pierce proceeded to piss off the free states by breaking the terms of said agreement), the final, fatal lurch towards the conflict happened on Buchanan's watch. It didn't help that he ordered the invasion of Utah for the purpose of persecuting an unpopular Christian denomination (to be fair, he did this after receiving false information about Mormons taking over every post in the territory), or that the economy entered a panic the year he entered office.

Shortly before his death in 1868, Buchanan said "History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion." It didn't. Buchanan's desire to merely maintain the status quo (he said that secession was illegal but using military force to stop secession was also illegal) did nothing to mend a bitterly divided nation. By the end he was only interested in holding off the by-now inevitable civil war long enough for him to get out of office and leave the problems to the next president. He also once admitted after he left office that he didn't try to stop the South because he was afraid that hostile African Americans would try to take over the nation. Today, he is considered to be one of the worst presidents in US history, if not the absolute worst.

Tropes he embodied:

  • Ambiguously Gay: As noted above, he's often speculated to have been gay. Made fun of here.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: several.
    • "The Old Public Functionary" was one he accidentally gave himself during a State of the Union Address
    • Old Buck - because Buchanan can be hard to say.
    • Andrew Jackson referred to Buchanan and Senator King as "Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy". This is actually even more of a blatant innuendo than it seems: both nicknames were contemporary euphamisms for gay men and dandies. Could represent an Insult of Endearment, however, because despite their conflicts Jackson never openly accused them of being homosexuals, which would have destroyed both men at that time. note 
    • Ten Cent Jimmy- for his rather lukewarm attitude toward the idea of a minimum wage, which he considered should be about 10 cents a day (even at that time, fairly low- 25 cents was considered a good day's pay at a decent job)
  • Hidden Depths: During his presidency, he secretly bought nearly a hundred slaves and set them free in Pennsylvania with 100 dollars for each to start their lives as freemen.
  • The Namesake: His cousin named her son James Buchanan Eads (who later became a famous engineer, building more than thirty ironclads for the Union during the American Civil War) after him in 1820 - of course, at that point he was still a young Pennsylvania politician and hadn't reached his full flower of ineptitude.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: President Focus Group, definitely, with maybe a touch of President Buffoon
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: After he screwed up the House of Representatives impeachment trial of heavily corrupt Judge James H. Peck, then President Andrew Jackson appointed him as Ambassador to Russia, believing that it would be a position where Buchanan would "do the least harm". Buchanan proceeded to screw up a trade agreement by erroniously sending a boat to America with Russian goods that hadn't been purchased yet and nearly caused an international incident. Whoops.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Not Buchanan himself, obviously, but rather his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane. Due to him being unmarried, she served as his First Lady and helped create the modern role of the First Lady (in fact, the term "First Lady" was coined to describe her, since she couldn't be called "the President's wife"). She was very popular with the public, even after her uncle had become very unpopular.
  • Transparent Closet / Open Secret: While it will probably forever be left a Riddle for the Ages, there is quite a bit of evidence that Buchanan was likely homosexual. Buchanan's effeminacy and general non-interest in women aside, if Buchanan and King were not life partners, they certainly did nothing to discourage others from making that assumption. They openly shared an apartment, attended dinners and public events together, adopted each other's mannerisms, traveled together constantly, and the two planned to run as President and Vice President together prior to King's death (four years before Buchanan assumed office). Years later in a letter to a friend Buchanan wrote the following:
    "I am now 'solitary and alone,' having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection."
In a time when the social convention regarding sexuality was "Don't ask, don't tell", Buchanan seems to have done everything but tell.