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Book Review: James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War

James Buchanan regularly ranks among the worst of the Presidents of the United States in ratings done by historians and scholars. He is criticized for his weak and ineffective response to the coming of the secessionist crisis, his obsequiousness to the southern slave-holding political powers, his ethical impropriety in seeking to influence the outcome of the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford, his backing of the pro-slavery constitution in Kansas when a majority of Kansans opposed slavery in their territory, his inaction as southern cabinet members raided federal resources for their own cause on the eve of the civil war, his refusal to axe corrupt cabinet members, and the fact that he is the only president to leave office with fewer states then when he entered it. It's quite a shopping list of failings for which many argue that Buchanan has earned the title of "worst president ever."


In September of 2008, an all-star team of Buchanan scholars gathered at Buchanan's estate (and now his Presidential museum) called Wheatland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a symposium on the Buchanan Presidency. This delightful nerdfest of Buchanan historians produced James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, a collection of essays on various aspects of the Buchanan Presidency leading up to the civil war, written by the great minds on the subject of all things James Buchanan.

This book has limited appeal and you have to be a real history geek to enjoy it as much as I did, but for anyone with an analytical mind and a love of antebellum US history, this is pure gold. Edited by respected historians John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner, the book covers many of the most interesting aspects of Buchanan's presidency, including the Dred Scott decision, the "Utah War" with Mormon leader Brigham Young, a comparison of the reactions of Andrew Jackson and Buchanan to the threat of southern secession, Buchanan's foreign policy, the Kansas Constitutional Crisis, a contrasting of Buchanan with contemporary political figures, and a look at Buchanan in retirement during the Civil War. My favorite chapter of the book is a verbatim transcript of a Q & A session with eminent historians William Freehling and Michael Holt, full of what ifs and Monday morning quarterbacking of the Buchanan Presidency.

This is a history geek's treasure trove. While this book's appeal is to a limited audience with a unique taste, if you find yourself among the subset of people who enjoy an in-depth analysis of the prelude to the civil war or antebellum US history, then you will love this book.
Tags: author: b, author: q, category: anthology, category: essay, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history

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