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Book Review: President James Buchanan: A Biography

By Philip Shriver Klein

James Buchanan was a brilliant, ambitious, prideful, and politically savvy man. Like most others who ascend to the presidency, he built his political base, made his alliances, and fought his detractors. Given his pedigree, he should have gone down in history as a successful executive and remembered fondly. Unfortunately, fate was not kind to him. Elected president at a time when the union was at its weakest, James Buchanan’s disastrous policies pushed America further into what I truly believe was inevitable: the Civil War. But Philip S. Klein expands on what could easily be a biased book on an unloved man and sticks to the facts. In doing so, he provides the full story of what has become a largely unremembered and misunderstood president in his 1962 biography.

Mr. Klein’s biography spans about 430 pages in total. The first 230 of them cover the admirable part of Buchanan’s life. Born from Scottish and Irish immigrants, Buchanan was the son of a successful Pennsylvanian merchant. His father pushed him into college and then a career in law. From there, he entered politics and worked his way to the senate where he become the Pennsylvania leader of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party. Jackson appointed him as minister to Russia and Polk would later make him Secretary of State. From there on, he used his influence to gain what he was always interested in. He was elected president in 1856 and, with his election, begins the second half of Mr. Klein’s book – Buchanan’s Decline.

As president, Buchanan’s policy heavily favored the slave owning south. He pushed for the supreme court to decide on the Dred Scott case, declared the Missouri Comprmise unconstitutional, and backed the Lecompton (pro-slavery) government in Kansas despite the fact there was rampant fraud in its election. When the economy collapsed in 1857, he backed southern legislature reforms which favored the land and slave-owning southern aristocracy. Why? According to Klein, to appease the south and prevent them from seceding. But it had the opposite effect. Buchanan’s policy instead drove the north into the arms of the abolitionist Republican party and the south into open rebellion.

His weakness in the stormy years of his presidency was magnified by enraged partisans of the North and the South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained him a place among the great presidents of his country, were quickly overshadowed… He staked his reputation on the supremacy of reason, and lost.

Philip Shriver Klein

I have to stress that this book is not for the casual reader but will be a perfect addition to the library of any avid history buff. My copy is a photocopy of the original, literally, which is considered a historical artifact. That means the words were sometimes hard to read, the pictures were poor quality, and whole paragraphs were skewed from time to time. The book itself was not widely circulated, not because of its content or author, but because of the subject matter. Getting a copy was a hassle but I feel it was ultimately worth it. Mr. Klein provides such a vivid understanding of both James Buchanan and the state of America leading up to the Civil War that I am now ready to jump right into my next subject – Abraham Lincoln.

Interested in reading it? Buy it from Amazon here!

**This post is part of Neal’s project POTUS and Me: Reading My Way Through Presidential History. Check out the link to read more about Neal’s project!**

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