The Presidential "ranking" polls that are conducted every ten years among historians are a little bit like the Cy Young Award, although I think that more historians get to rank Presidents than baseball writers are allowed to mark Cy Young ballots. There is one by Siena College that so seriously ranked current President Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson above Ronald Reagan - done shortly after Obama was elected President and had basically done nothing yet. The C-SPAN rankings have some history and a balanced method for evaluation that includes being able to place the President's leadership qualities in context for their time.
The bottom-dwellers on the Siena College list at 42 and 43 were James Buchanan (D) 1857-1861 - the pre-Civil War President, and Andrew Johnson (D) 1865-1869, the post-Civil War President. Andrew Johnson was a pro-War Southern Democrat selected by Abraham Lincoln (R) 1861-1865 as his running mate on the Union Presidential ticket during the secession period, and was the only President to be actually impeached, although not convicted, suffering through one actual trial, and being threatened with another. Mr. Johnson was reportedly not too smart, having shown up drunk at his Vice Presidential inauguration with Abraham Lincoln, and giving a rambling, incoherent acceptance speech.
But - James Buchanan was next-to-last on the Siena College list, and dead last on the C-SPAN list. He routinely switches out places with Andrew Johnson on these lists, although - it's really hard to say who was worse in any objective fashion.
However, is the person who caused the Civil War through incomprehension, weakness of approach and lack of an effective moral center more at fault than one who experienced difficulty leading afterward, especially after the shattering assassination of the nation's true leader, Abraham Lincoln? The fruit of James Buchanan's indecision and refusal to deal with the times and hand that he was dealt as President, was a major contributory cause to the Civil War. During his Presidency, the Democratic party split, ensuring that the Southern, slave-holding states would secede from the Union, becoming the Confederate States of America (CSA) for the Civil War period. On a personal level, James Buchanan remains the only U.S. President who never married. He was also the last U.S. President born before the turn of the 19th Century. Born in 1791 to what is described as a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Buchanan attended Dickinson College and was a lawyer. He had considerable foreign policy experience, having previously served as Secretary of State, and foreign minister to Russia and Great Britain.
According to the White House Presidential biography, Buchanan "thought the crisis [over slave vs. free states] would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and could persuade the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it." Now, this was the Supreme Court of Justice Roger B. Taney, who is best-remembered for the Dred Scott decision.
And I'll add some words that Justice Taney wrote about the rights of the former slave and black man Dred Scott who asked the Supreme Court for his freedom. Mr. Scott, Taney wrote, was one of the "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." In other words: Dred Scott was cattle, not man. Today we respect the rights of cattle, dogs and cats more than Taney did a human being named Dred Scott.
In the midst of Southern secessionism, Northern rage and ire at the "peculiar institution" (slavery), and rampant violence over "Slave vs. Free" states, James Buchanan took office. Mr. Taney was the Supreme Court justice. The old Whig party had completely split over the states' rights and slavery issue, giving rise to the new Republican party. The Democrats remained, but following the Dred Scott decision and Buchanan's disastrous lack of leadership during this tumultuous time, split into Northern and Southern factions, one side of which seceded, giving rise to the War Between the States, also called the American Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression. "Northern Aggression" in the South meant busybody, moralistic, interfering Northerners who were trying to tell Southerners how to conduct their business and lives (i.e. keeping slaves and having them work for them).
One price that our poor school education costs us is lack of knowledge of basic facts and context about life-and-death situations like the Civil War. It's fair to say that the United States is the only major world nation to have fought such a war over a human rights and economic issue like slavery. It is certainly the only nation to survive such a conflict and re-assemble into a stronger union, having successfully stopped the human rights abomination that slavery was, and, however difficult and painful it was, start on the path toward greater human and civil rights for all.
The cost? 620,000 lives, and perhaps as many as 700,000 - about 2% of the U.S. population. More young men's lives were lost in an average Civil War battle than during the entire Iraq War. More young men's lives were lost at the costliest Civil War battle, Gettysburg, than in the entire Vietnam War. The nation's entire population counted during the 1860 Census (which counted "slave" and "free") was: Total Free Population: 27,489,561; Total Slave Population: 3,953,760, for a Grand Total of 31,443,321. Census records show that "free vs. slave" populations in the Southern states were nearly 50-50 - half "free" and half considered to be slaves.
If the Civil War were fought today, what would a comparable level of cost of human life be? 2% of today's United States' population is about 6.2 million people. It is said that over the entire 25+ year history of the AIDS epidemic, about 600,000 people have died of AIDS, while as many as a million current U.S. residents could have AIDS or are HIV positive - however, with today's treatments, being HIV positive or having AIDS is no longer a quick, certain death sentence. If any disease were to strike today that cost 6.2 million American lives, it would be considered a horrible epidemic of unprecedented proportions. It is this degree of devastation that James Buchanan's legacy engendered. So it's hard to see how he can even have battled it out with Andrew Johnson for "worst President" title, because that is the worst calamity in terms of human life, destruction of infrastructure, communities and entire states, that has ever occurred in the United States.
When people talk about soldiers giving their lives in battle for our freedom, this occurred not only overseas, but on American soil. An entire generation gave up their lives, with millions more gravely injured or falling prey to disease and starvation during the Civil War - Northern, Southern, men, women, children, formerly slave and free.
We should be placing these things in context. The difference between a man held in chains, beaten, not allowed to learn, grow, read, write, go where he wishes, and even having his family torn away from him and sold - sent somewhere else where he will never see or hear from them again, or a woman forced to have sex against her will, and then having her baby torn out of her arms, also sold and sent away, never to be seen or held again - is a difference of both degree and kind to today's debates over civil and human rights. We truly are in a place where there is a confusion or inability to distinguish right from wrong. The effect of trying to provide guaranteed outcomes for anyone who demands them is to deny basic human rights to others - whether intentionally or unintentionally.
James Buchanan appears to have been confused and overwhelmed by the maelstrom of conflict that resulted from new states and territories seeking to join the Union, and the main issue upon admittance being a "balance" between states that did not allow slavery vs. those that embraced it. He appears to have been unable to find a moral center and come to the same conclusion that Abraham Lincoln did - the solution was no slavery anywhere, ever. His indecision and moral wavering cost 2% of the entire population their lives.
An example is the moral confusion we face today is the case of Jamiel Shaw. The effect of people who support unlimited immigration with no constraints placed upon immigrants who enter this country "informally" - or without legal process or knowledge of authorities - is to basically say that Jamiel's life, his family's life, his school, friends and neighborhood, are worthless. In these "advocates'" minds, their concept, which basically amounts to people whom they favor being allowed to do what they want, unchecked, is more important that Jamiel's life, than public safety, or than laws that apply to others who live here legally. A legal immigrant or a U.S. citizen who did the crimes that Jamiel's killer, Pedro Espinoza, had done, would have received harsher punishment than Pedro, an illegal immigrant, did. Never is the devastation caused by unchecked illegal immigration and unenforced immigration laws ever viewed in human cost terms like this.
And the analogy is true. If our country had eliminated slavery upon forming the Union of the first 13 states, then the huge number of lives that were lost later, would not have been lost. If that had happened, today, many people would not still experience the sadness and loss of self engendered by slavery, which continues to cause suffering.
It's fairly certain that James Buchanan did not recognize the danger indicated by the building storm that led to the devastation of the Civil War, and did not comprehend why slavery was a practice that was bound to break apart the Union that had originally allowed it, but which could not sustain it. Today, we do not face a single issue like slavery, but rather an entire constellation of issues that call for rational, reasoned, empathetic solutions. Do we face a crisis of national survival today? One that could potentially cause an upheaval like the Civil War?
Perhaps. But I also know that America is the only country that has successfully persisted, grown and thrived in the wake of such a crisis and war. I know it's the only country that has fought a devastating, incalculably costly and bloody Civil War about a morally-indefensible, criminal practice and succeeded in stopping the practice. Today, there are a number of countries that are ahead of the U.S. in many areas - education, human/civil rights, and successful economic governance. Like any other country, we have experienced the best and worst that elected leadership has to offer. Is there among us a "best," like Abraham Lincoln? History would say - yes. For every Buchanan, a Lincoln will follow. And eventually, he or she will get a coin, and a stamp.