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Sioussat, St. George L. “Memoirs of an Unhappy President.” The Dial 51 (September 16, 1911): 198-199.


Fifty years have passed since James Buchanan, retiring from the four unhappy years of his presidency, brought to a close a long and industrious political career. A sincere believer in old-school doctrines of strict construction, and honestly intent upon compromise and peace, he bore with him to private life the bitterest criticism of the inefficiency of his acts and the insincerity of his motives, and was objurgated both by the North and by the South which he had so vainly tried to hold together. Deeply persuaded of the rectitude of his course in this as in former parts of his public life, he prepared in his retirement an extended defence of his administration, which he published in 1866 with the title “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion.” Some years later, his voluminous private papers were used by Mr. George Ticknor Curtis in the preparation of a biography which was published in two large volumes in 1883. In 1895 appeared a volume of essays under the title “Turning on the Light: A Dispassionate Survey of President Buchanan’s Administration from 1860 to its Close.” This was written by Horatio King, who was assistant postmaster-general under Buchanan, and became acting postmaster-general when Mr. Holt was appointed Secretary of War. But neither this, nor Curtis’s able work, nor Buchanan’s own apologia, has done much to relieve the unfortunate President from the severe judgment of historians as to the weakness of his course in the years before the Civil War. One finds the strictures of Mr. James Ford Rhodes only a little less severe than those of von Holst; to Professor Hart it is still “the profligate administration of Buchanan”; while Admiral Chadwick writes of “the lawyer wrapped in the technicalities of his profession, with a character developed into the softness which comes with continued success, chiefly the result of encountering no obstacles;…the mediocre politician, a being who always seeks to work on the line of the least resistance.”

Possibly destined to be the foundation for a more successful defence of Buchanan’s policy as President, and certainly to be the basis of all future accounts of his career, there now comes from the press, in twelve handsome octavo volumes, a splendid edition of the “Works of James Buchanan.” In the Introduction, the editor, Professor John Bassett Moore, explains that it is to the devotion of Mr. Buchanan’s niece, Mrs. Henry E. Johnston (formerly Miss Harriet Lane), that this series is due. For the documents which fill the twelve volumes the editor has drawn upon the Buchanan papers now deposited with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; upon Curtis’s biography, which contains some writings missing from the manuscript collection; upon the “Annals of Congress,” the “Register of Debates,” and the “Congressional Globe”; upon the executive and diplomatic archives of the Unites States, with which Professor Moore’s life-work has given him an intimacy most valuable for the task in hand; and upon various manuscript collections chiefly in the Library of Congress, such as the Polk, the Jackson, the Van Buren, and the Holt correspondence.

For Buchanan’s congressional career, Professor Moore has reprinted a judicious selection of his speeches; but a detailed synopsis makes it easy to refer to the congressional documents. In presenting Buchanan’s letters and state papers, the editor frequently prints letters or extracts of letters from other sources which serve to throw light on the text. A most conspicuous instance of this is found in connection with the famous reference in Buchanan’s inaugural address to the expected decision in the case of Dred Scott. Professor Moore prints (vol. x:, pp. 106-108) a letter from Associate Justice Catron and one from Associate Justice Grier, which indeed show that there was a confidential correspondence with the President-Elect prior to the decision, but also point to the conclusion that the determination to enter into the whole question of slavery in the territories was not due to the wish of Associate Justice Wayne, but was rather chargeable to the minority of the court – to Associate Justices McLean and Curtis.

Throughout the work, Professor Moore for the most part expresses his own views very rarely, contenting himself with a helpful note here and there. Often he has to call the reader’s attention to some omission or mistake in the reprinting of a document which he has found in Curtis’s life of Buchanan. Into the last volume of the work he has gathered the biographical material concerning Buchanan, – the President’s own account of his administration; an earlier autobiography; and a sketch by Buchanan’s nephew, J. Buchanan Henry. To these Professor Moore has added a discourse upon “Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion,” read in January, 1908, before the Cliosophic Society of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by the Honorable W.U. Hensel. This Professor Moore considers an able address. Finally, besides devoting some words of appreciation to the positive side of Buchanan’s career – his “laborious industry,” his “capacity for business,” and his rehabilitation of the work of the Department of State – he finds room in his Introduction to criticize the harsh judgment of Buchanan, which, as we have suggested in the beginning of this review, has been his fate at the hands of American historians. The work is made the more helpful by an unusually excellent index.

St. George L. Sioussat.