June 08, 2011

James "Backfire" Buchanan

Alright! James Buchanan is happening!

ATD has been 100% dull recently while I work on other writing assignments, but this summer is going to be epic – as in, I’m going to read Buchanan and Lincoln and hopefully all of Shelby Foote before my friend and I visit Gettysburg in August.
But for now, Buchanan. JB almost always tops the list of “worst presidents in history,” because he allowed the South to secede, and war to break out. This puts an interesting lens on the early years of his life. While I’m reading about his education and career as a lawyer, I’ve got my eye out for the tragic flaws, the enormous lapses in capability that will one day throw the Union into turmoil.
So far, they’re few. Biographer Klein is being fairly coy about how poorly JB’s career will end. He’s keen on letting the early, state government phase of JB’s career stand alone, without breaking in with foreshadowing. I’m not a big fan of this tactic, because the first 100 pages of a presidential biography are reliably the least interesting. In general, any man who eventually rose to the presidency was the smartest and most admired young man in the milieu of his young life, so these sections of presidential biographies all read the same. “What a talented young lawyer/congressman/soldier! So smart! He’ll definitely go far,” say all their friends and family.
And then, God help us, they enter state politics. Know who cares about Pennsylvania state politics in the 1810s? No one. It’s not until, usually, page 200, that they get to national politics, and I’m finally like, “Oh hi John C. Calhoun! Hi Senator Adams!”, and I generally re-enter the narrative that runs through presidential history.
Those first 200 pages can be awful, as the dudes slowly climb the ranks of government, but of course they’re important for character development. Klein is being fairly objective, but lets The Buck’s flaws shine through.
And yes, while he is an obviously smart and talented lawyer and politician, he can be kind of a snot. He was a mama’s boy, and grew up fussy and conceited. He almost got expelled from college for acting like a douche all the time. His father, who clearly recognized his son’s Achilles heel, was always writing him letters reminding him to be humble about his academic prowess and to try to be agreeable. The society of Lancaster, PA, and later PA government, seemed to acknowledge that he was an important member, but not an endearing one.
He took offense easily, and wrote fussy letters about it, and his political views seem quite malleable. I first met JB when he was Polk’s Secretary of State, and Polk grew to despise his fussy, demanding ways. I will never stop describing him as fussy.
That’s not to say that sometimes he wasn’t right to throw a fit. He seemed to have chronically bad political timing. He would form an alliance of PA politicians, and then everyone they excluded would get elected to higher office. He switched political parties, and his old party swept the state elections. He went to visit presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, and Jackson later accused him of being there to strike a corrupt bargain. He was always working for his political betterment, it frequently backfired.
The tides turned when he was appointed as minister to Russia. Far-flung foreign appointments, as Klein points out, were given to politicians who you didn’t want in your government, but were too important to ignore. Jackson or Van Buren (I forget which, but they both disliked him) wanted him out of their hair without angering his supporters by an outright snub, so they packed him off to Russia. It turned out to be his big break.

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