James Buchanan was one of the most qualified and accomplished men elected to the presidency, and yet he turned out to be one of the worst. As sectional conflict veered toward civil war, Buchanan and all his preparation proved unequal to the challenges of his times. In this new cradle-to-grave, life-and-times biography, Paul Kahan reconstructs (but does not rehabilitate) the life of James Buchanan and emphasizes why and how such an accomplished individual proved unable to manage the defining crisis of the nation.
Drawing on a diverse range of primary sources, Kahan reconstructs the life of James Buchanan: his early legal career in Pennsylvania and his stint in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; his service in the U.S House, during which time he helped consolidate the Pennsylvania Democratic Party around Andrew Jackson; his time as minister to Russia (which helped him avoid the Bank War); his years in the U.S. Senate; his term as Polk’s Secretary of State (during the Mexican War); and his service as Pierce’s minister to Great Britain (which, important for Buchanan’s career, kept him out of the country, and from taking a position, during the Kansas-Nebraska crisis). By the time he was elected president in 1856, Buchanan had assembled one of the most impressive resumes in American public life.
Approximately half the book covers Buchanan’s presidency, a tumultuous four years that left the nation teetering on the precipice of Civil War—and much of the blame can be laid at the feet of James Buchanan, whose southern sympathies led him to make a series of bad decisions that inflamed the North (Republicans in particular) and contributed to splitting the Democratic Party: support for the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, the strong-arming of Kansas into the United States as a slave state, and an expansionist foreign policy that appeared to match up with southern dreams of expanding slavery beyond the borders of the United States. When southern states started to leave the Union after Lincoln’s election, lame-duck Buchanan—who opposed secession—was too weak, and weakened, to act firmly and in any event not inclined to inflame his friends in the South. It would fall to Lincoln, in many ways Buchanan’s opposite (a Republican, a prairie lawyer with but two years’ experience in the U.S. House), to save the Union, and Buchanan has always suffered—rightly—by the comparison.
Paul Kahan holds bachelor’s degrees in history and English from Alfred University, a master’s degree in history and literature from Drew University, and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Temple University. His previous books include Eastern State Penitentiary: A History, a popular history of the prison; Seminary of Virtue: The Ideology and Practice of Inmate Reform at Eastern State Penitentiary; The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry; The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance, the first narrative history of this turning point in American political history in more than half a century; Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War; and The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy. He lives near Philadelphia.
This book goes behind Cameron’s reputation for shady dealing and demonstrates that as a senator, ambassador, secretary of war, and political boss he advanced important policy achievements, including the abolition of slavery and equal constitutional rights for freed slaves.
Paul Kahan has given us a solid, readable, balanced biography of Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first secretary of war and one of the great, if controversial, politicians of his generation.
This is a much-needed cradle-to-grave biography of one of Lincoln’s most important, and most maligned, early cabinet officers. Kahan peels away the stereotypes and myths to paint the kind of complex portrait this undyingly loyal Lincoln man deserves.
Lively re-evaluation of a skillful politician. . . . A fine political biography.
Successfully infuses humanity into its portrait of the statesman.