Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.
“To the Patriot Buchanan / The tribute we owe, / Til the people proclaim it again to bestow, / And the fourth day of March be again made to yield, / A harvest of Glory in Liberty’s field.”
-Col. W. Emmonn, an Ode composed in honor of James Buchanan’s inauguration
History has not been kind to James Buchanan. Historians in the business of ranking presidents generally place him near the infamous bottom of the list - beyond the relative harmlessness of being completely unknown (Millard Fillmore) and sometimes even the disgrace of scandal (Warren G. Harding). Arguably, he his lowly rank is, in part, due to his proximity to the near-universally accepted “best” president, Abraham Lincoln. The contrast does not serve Buchanan’s legacy well. To summarize his historical portrait: he is the president who believed that the South had no right to secede from the Union, and that the president had no right to stop them. Not surprisingly, his inaugural address gets very little attention from presidential scholars. While there is no use in arguing for renewed attention to Buchanan, it is worth noting that the inaugural addresses of “failed” presidents are at least as interesting as those of successful ones.
At the time, Buchanan’s inaugural did not enjoy a warm reception. The front page of the New York Times featured the speech the next day, together with an article entitled “Narrow Escape of the President Elect from a Violent Death,” which included unflattering details of Buchanan suffering from diarrhea as a side effect of accidental arsenic poisoning. Even more recent, evenhanded, considerations of Buchanan and his inaugural add only slight modifications to his “reviled” legacy. “James Buchanan,” writes Michael Carrafiello of Miami University, “was tragically ill equipped to become the nation’s chief executive at a time of burgeoning crises.”
The speech lives up to expectations, though it can be read two ways. It can be read as the best attempt of an incoming president to serve as an arbiter in a time of growing sectional conflict, or it can be read as a tragic miscalculation of an inept president-elect.