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Professor talks about the ‘Worst President Ever’ in American history

By Staff | Nov 1, 2019

From left, Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Rob Tudor talks with Michael Birkner about his lecture on the "Worst President Ever" in the Robert C. Byrd Center on Oct. 24. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Who was the “Worst President Ever?” While historians regularly vote in polls asking this question, according to Gettysburg College Professor of History Michael Birkner, the answer to this question might surprise many people today.

Sponsored by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Department of History, Birkner gave one of the popular answers to this question and explained why, on Oct. 24 in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium.

“James Buchanan didn’t really have a vision for his presidency, other than to replicate Andrew Jackson’s, which was 25 years past its time,” Birkner said of the 15th American president, mentioning he is often on the bottom of the popularity poll.

According to Birkner, who has published a number of books on Buchanan, Buchanan was not only uninspired, he was also deceitful.

“He essentially engages in bribery to get enough senators to support his admission of Kansas into the United States as a slave state,” Birkner said, noting Buchanan’s bribery failed to win him the votes he desired. In 1861, Kansas was admitted into the U.S. as a free state.

Another failure in Buchanan’s presidency Birkner mentioned, was his listening to propaganda from southern plantation owners, rather than thoroughly investigating the issue. Instead, Buchanan tried to buy Cuba from Spain, so slavery could be moved out of many of the states and relegated to Cuba and the southernmost states.

“He became involved with the Red Scott case, which was his first big mistake,” Birkner said. “The Red Scott case backfires on him — it was an impetus for the growth of the Republican party. His horrible presidency made it possible for Lincoln to win the next presidential election, despite him winning virtually no votes from the states below the Mason-Dixon line.”

While many presidents are reviled or applauded and then viewed differently years later, historians’ opinion of Buchanan today matched the opinion of those closest to him.

“Buchanan’s cabinet used to make fun of him behind his back, even though he viewed them as family,” Birkner said.

“You can be a weak leader and rank low, or a strong leader and rank low. Buchanan wasn’t a weak leader — he was tempestuous, and would make a decision at a moment’s notice,” Birkner said. “It’s a kind of errantly decisive behavior. It’s not what you’d call thoughtful decision making.”

While many Americans might look at Buchanan and compare his presidency to that of other presidents, Birkner cautioned his audience to think from a historian’s viewpoint, and not make any judgments about a president’s time in office until it is a couple decades in the past.

“We as Americans love historical analogies, in order to put things into perspective,” Birkner said. “As far as Trump is concerned, his time in office, it’s not history yet. So I don’t touch it with a 10 foot pole.”