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Posted September 19, 2000
If I were James Buchanan, I would hope for two things from my biographer. First, that he portray me as something more than that old colorless bachelor who had the historical misfortune of preceding Abraham Lincoln. Second, that he interpret the convoluted final days of my administration in such a way that I am not remembered as my century¿s Herbert Hoover nor, heaven forbid, as a closet Confederate. Philip Klein gets half the job done. Klein is at his best in providing a fairly rich biography. Buchanan was a true frontier baby, born in 1791 in the mountains of southern Pennsylvania. His early years were not exactly a struggle for survival in the wilderness, as the family business, a hostel and storage facility at a major crossroads, prospered. Two traumatic events colored the young adulthood of a man remembered today as the soul of convention. He was expelled from Dickinson College for disorderly conduct [though he later graduated], and a few years later his fiancée, the tempestuous Ann Coleman, died suddenly amidst a period of emotional conflict between the young lovers. Klein notes that the Coleman tragedy cast Buchanan as something of a mysterious and desirable object of women¿s attentions. In fact he enjoyed feminine companionship immensely throughout his life, as he did good cigars and expensive spirits. We are left with the impression that Buchanan remained a bachelor simply because he was too busy. He made a very comfortable living as an attorney, but his primary avocation was his role as the good uncle to the large and diverse Buchanan family and to the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania. Both roles called for essentially the same skills. Senior by age and easily the most financially successful of his clan, Buchanan devoted much of his time and resources to the care of the family widows, orphans, and failed businessmen. Some members of his family resented his success but took his money all the same. Over time Buchanan placed limitations and conditions upon his familial philanthropy. Easy money made him nervous, as did political colleagues who depended upon patronage rather than established family wealth. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party was also large, divided, and frequently ungrateful; it was more preoccupied with local patronage than national ideology. Buchanan spent the better part of forty years in national office, as congressman, senator, and ambassador to Russia and England. But he understood that the key to his own fortunes rested upon his home state¿s political unity, particularly his ability to hold together the Philadelphia Dallas Family machine and the rustic Trans-Allegheny constituency, among others. Buchanan could claim to have achieved convincing state party unity only once, in 1856, the year of his successful presidential run. As Buchanan himself came to appreciate, his ambassadorships and his state involvement had insulated him from the bruising congressional showdowns that destroyed his major national opponents. Buchanan, in effect, won the nomination in 1856 because he was perceived nationally as pure and bland. The 1856 returns proved to be a harbinger of the difficulties Buchanan would face as president. Although victorious, he was a minority president. A majority of Americans voted for parties that did not exist in 1852, the Republicans [Fremont] and the Know-Nothings [Fillmore]. On the day of his inauguration Roger Taney informed him privately of the impending Dred Scott decision. It was downhill thereafter. John Brown and secession were not far behind. Klein is less successful in his ¿Fort Sumter watch¿ a rather lengthy defense of Buchanan¿s final forty days in office. There is some truth to the author¿s argument that Radical Republicans would have loved to see Buchanan take the blame for starting what they viewed as an inevitable conflict, and that Winfield Scott and Robert Anderson, among others, gave confusing or misleading advice to the president. As Klein warms to the subj
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