American history, biographies, book reviews, James Buchanan, Jean Baker, Philip Klein, presidential biographies, Presidents
The more I learned about James Buchanan, the more he seemed a mix of equal parts of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and Franklin Pierce- with pastoral Pennsylvanian rather than New England roots.
JQ Adams: for his extensive experience as a lawyer, diplomat, US Senator and Secretary of State
Martin Van Buren: primarily for his active role on the NY state political scene and work as a party leader and strategist (though he was also a lawyer, diplomat, Senator, Secretary of State…)
Franklin Pierce: for his role as state political “party boss” and his ill-fated presidential effort to eliminate slavery as a national policy issue by charting an odd course of quasi-appeasement…which obviously did not work
James Buchanan certainly seemed as well-prepared for the presidency as any previous chief executive. Why then was his term so unsuccessful and why is he considered one of the worst presidents in our nation’s history? That’s the story told by Buchanan biographers Philip Klein and Jean Baker.
* * *
*My first Buchanan biography was Philip Klein’s 1962 classic “President James Buchanan: A Biography.” Klein grew up in Pennsylvania near where Buchanan was raised about a century earlier (which may explain his interest in this obscure president). Klein’s biography is comprehensive but not exhausting, and his portrait of Buchanan errs on the side of being too forgiving.
But while I found his review of Buchanan’s presidency complicated and a bit dull (probably because the four years themselves were complex and in no way uplifting), I particularly enjoyed Klein’s description of Buchanan’s earlier life and career. “Pre-presidency Buchanan” is far more interesting (and compelling) than “President Buchanan”. This biography may be on the lengthy side for someone merely looking to “check the box” on the Buchanan presidency, but otherwise it is a must-read on this president. (Full review here)
*My second, and final, Buchanan biography was Jean Baker’s 2004 contribution to The American Presidents Series: “James Buchanan.“ This biography is delightfully concise, potent, entertaining and easy to read. Rather than forcing readers to tease out the important themes and messages, Baker presents them openly and clearly. As a result, there is never any doubt how the author feels about Buchanan or his presidency.
Baker’s perspective is consistently one-sided and her criticism generally harsh; I almost didn’t recognize the Buchanan I met in Klein’s book. On balance, Baker’s negative view of Buchanan is more potent than Klein’s sympathetic view, but the bias in both cases is easy to spot. For someone reading “a biography on every president” but without the patience to tackle a lengthy book on an esoteric president, this biography of Buchanan is entertaining and informative…though not nearly as comprehensive or nuanced as Klein’s. (Full review here)
– – – – – – –
Best Biography of Buchanan: Klein’s “President James Buchanan: A Biography”
If you are interested in a more unconventional take on Buchanan — or at least PART of Buchanan’s life — you might try John Updike’s novel “Memories of the Ford Administration.” Half the novel tracks the adventures of a college professor in the 1970s (hence the title of the book), but the other half details that professor’s unpublished book about James Buchanan. It’s a bit odd, but interesting.
I’m visiting Wheatland in a couple of weeks and wanted an easy to read bio about Buchanan, of whom I know almost nothing. Thanks for the recommendations. I plan to do the Baker book first (because of the quick and easy) and appreciate the heads up on the biases of both.
Enjoy your visit – I’m considering a stop at Wheatland on my next trip to the NY/NJ area (I’m also in the DC area), so I’d love to hear what you think about it after your visit!
Who do you think was the better presidents between J.Q. Adams and Lincoln?
Trick question, right?!? While JQA was clearly better “prepared” for the position, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Lincoln at the time he assumed office.
Sorry I guess I meant who do think is the best president in the time period between 1829 and 1861?:)
Answering *that* question seems fraught with danger! But ignoring what you may think of their particular policy perspectives, I thought Andrew Jackson and James Polk were the most effective and, quite possibly, the most interesting of that time period.
Thank you! I was curious because listening to the podcast it seemed that most of the presidents of that time period were not considered good presidents! 🙂
brian westervelt said:
for buchanon try this one
James Buchannan was another president I knew barely anything about, except he is generally considered one of the least effective presidents and may have been gay, so I was looking forward to learning a bit more about him. I chose Philip Klein’s biography and was pleasantly surprised. Klein definitely had a positive leaning towards Buchannan, but he was also critical at times. The book was thorough and somewhat academic, but is readable for people really interested in learning about Buchannan. I agree with Steve’s perspective that Buchannan was well-prepared and wanted to “run” for the presidency several years prior to his actual candidacy, but due to many variables including a fair to poor Cabinet, he was ineffectual as an executive.
I would recommend the more recent biography of Buchanan by Robert Strauss – well paced, well written and it nicely explores the notion that Buchanan was the “worst president ever” through comparisons with other contenders for the title…
I would disagree with this title for anyone looking for a serious study of Buchanan’s life and presidency. Strauss meanders through contemporary and historical events without much focus, and lacks substance in his claims. I understand the need to be concise, but I would have preferred more scholarship to this book.
This website has been very helpful in my quest to roll through the Presidential bios in sequence. My intent has been to gain an understanding of not just American history, but of America through the life & times of our top Executives. My thought has been that even the lesser known Presidents had to do something significant in order to reach that pinnacle in the times that they did, and in their stories I would find the untold story of America through overlapping biographies that cover the same historical events from multiple perspectives. Currently, I am up to Franklin Pierce and have found myself referring back to previous books to see how a President was discussed in other bios in order to gain perspective. One of the helpful points of these reviews is the degree that an author may be sympathetic or critical of a President. I have found that previous bios help to temper bias in a bio that I am currently reading. It is also true that a lot of issues are complicated, so I have referred to other bios for clarification. One of the primary reasons that I have embarked on this quest for knowledge is a desire to see how we became the nation that we are, not necessarily to observe history, but to understand the present. These overlapping biographies have been a great way to fill in the gaps in history that are very often left out.
I’m reading my way through the presidents with the help of your website. It’s amazing how much Buchanan was involved in. I fundamentally disagree with his mission of saving the Democratic Party no matter the cost, but it was fascinating to read his story (at least pre-1857). Thanks for helping me find Klein’s book!
Thanks and congrats on your presidential adventure! You will probably find that a number of presidents you thought were inconsequential turned out to be more important (for better or worse) than expected. And if you’re proceeding chronologically you are about to be in for a real treat!
First off this is a great blog! I stumbled upon it when I was looking for books on some of the more “non-descript” Presidents and this was one of the first sites listed via Google.
I too am trying to read a biography on every President. I am taking one step further in trying to read about American history and all the major events that has happened. I started with a book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke and now up to the James Buchanan Presidency. So I am on precipice of the Civil War which I expect to be on for quite a while.
Before I go on I should mention I am somewhat limited in that because of space in that I can only get digital books at this point in my life. Hopefully that will change in the near future. But I have a devil of a time trying to obtain good digital books about these lesser known Presidents. This is the case for Buchanan. I am about to start in just a few moments at lunch The Worst President by Garry Boulard. The only other digital biography of Buchanan I can find is from the Presidents series that Amazon sponsored. I am hoping the one I am about to start is OK enough although I wish the title was different. I did find one on Amazon about Buchanan that was written around 1880 by George Tickner Curtis. It is a two volume set but only volume one is available on Kindle. I have no idea why volume two is not available? It is digitally available on the Gutenberg site but being technically challenged at times I’m not sure how or if I could download to my Kindle. I tried to via my Kindle Fire 7 but wouldn’t let me. I was hoping someone out there may have read this two volume biography of Buchanan and whether it is worthwhile?
Keep up the good work on this blog and I will certainly keep referring to it often. I have picked up a couple of your recommendations already!
Either Boulard’s or Baker’s book would be your best option if Klein’s is not available. Both are skewed to a negative portrait of Buchanan. Curtis’s biography is quite dated at this point. Google books has both volumes available as free eBooks, but I am unsure if it is compatible with a Kindle. If you have access to a library system they may be able to help you borrow a copy Klein’s book. (It is not available as an eBook.)
A minor clarification: The Times Books series on the American Presidents was not sponsored by Amazon.
Thank you for the clarification on the Presidents series. For some reason I had just assumed it was by Amazon.
I finished the Boulard book. It was very short but a good overview of his Presidency. It was negative but I’m not too sure there was very much positive about his time as President.
Walter Bauer said:
I am reading Franklin Pierce by Peter Wallner and from the book I find Pierce to be a good honest man who tried to please everybody while strictly following the Constitution.