President James Buchanan and the Crisis of National Leadership

Thomas A. Horrocks. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., New York, 151pp. 2012.

This slim volume is part of a series in the “First Men, America’s Presidents Series” edited by Barbara Bennett Peterson. It is the 21st in the series, so they are close to halfway towards completion. It was written by Dr. Thomas A. Horrocks, formerly curator of the Abraham Lincoln Collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard College. Dr. Horrocks has since left Harvard and now serves as head librarian of the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence which, as we know, is the repository of a world-class Lincoln collection. Accordingly, it comes as something of a surprise that he was asked to write the Buchanan bio; however, the Lincoln biography was one of the first ones written in 2004.

Given that this is part of a series, one suspects the target audience is students. That well may be the case, even though the style and use of language does not hint at a juvenile readership. It is a straightforward narrative of Buchanan’s life and career. Dr. Horrocks resists the temptation of writing a reactionary tome, contrarian in nature to all that preceded it. Rather, he seeks to be accurate, precise and analytical. It would have been challenging to locate a silver lining in Buchanan’s Presidency. In practically all polls of historians taken, he ranks at the bottom of the list, or next to the bottom. Buchanan felt that history would come to understand him and vindicate his Presidency. After 151 years and counting, it is safe to assume we will never witness this apotheosis. In the presidential horse race, the nag “Buchanan” can literally “see them all.”

This is an easy read and most people can finish the book in a day or two. The footnotes are conveniently placed on the bottom of each page. We were pleased to see that references to conclusions and observations drawn by other biographers are very limited. We hate to see overuse of the lead-in “according to so-and-so” or “so-and-so concludes…” As far as we could tell, the book contains no historical inaccuracies. Mention is made that Southerners threatened to secede in 1856 if Fremont was elected. One would expect that, but I have never seen any concrete evidence of it . Here is a situation where a footnote or specific reference would have been helpful. In 1860, the threats to secede should Lincoln win election were fast and furious, as well as assassination plots and death threats after Election Day.

We also like the concluding chapter of the book which attempts to give an overall evaluation of Buchanan and analyze his actions while President. He was one of the most qualified men ever to hold the office and doggedly pursued the prize. Perhaps he never heard of the expression: “Be careful what you wish for… you might get it!” I couldn’t help but thinking of Nixon, another highly-qualified and ambitious politician who, despite his accomplishments, will never escape the long, dark shadow of his shortcomings. It makes one think that qualifications and experience are not as important as character and leadership qualities. Dr. Horrocks does a fine job of trying to determine Buchanan’s bias towards Southern planters, despite his Jacksonian antecedents. But, prior to that, he started his political career as a Federalist, a party that tended to favor the well-off and privileged classes. After all, in 1812, he stated that 10-cents a day in wages was enough for any worker! So, his later proclivities should come as no surprise to anyone.

An an editor, I am sensitive to typo’s and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are way too many of them in this book. Hopefully, they can be rooted out and expunged in a later edition. On the whole, I would recommend this book for those interested in the Presidency and the era of Lincoln in particular. And, we wish Dr. Horrock’s the best of luck in his new position. Being surrounded by piles of Lincoln stuff is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it!

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