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September 24, 2016

Pennsylvania's only president was the 'worst ever'

New book says James Buchanan's presidency was historically bad

Pennsylvania is known for a lot of things. The Amish. Pretzels. A mini Grand Canyon. And the worst president in the history of the United States.

That last one is according to Robert Strauss, a South Jersey-based journalist whose written for several local and national publications, such as the Philadelphia Daily News and The New York Times.

Strauss has been promoting his new book: "Worst. President. Ever." He's written a series of articles summarizing the arguments in the book, which is all about James Buchanan — born in Franklin County, Pa. and the only president from the state — and why he ranks at the very bottom out of the 43 people who have held the office.

Buchanan is one of the most qualified individuals to ever hold the office, Strauss wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times piece. He served as a Pennsylvania state legislator, U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, a minister to two countries and secretary of state before his victory in the 1856 election. He was also cozy with several former presidents and knew how to throw a party.

"Yet as president, Buchanan chose the wrong path at every fork in the road," Strauss wrote. Among Buchanan's blunders in his one term in office:

• Pushing the Tariff Act of 1857, "which subdued manufacturing just as it was modernizing in the North."

• Influencing the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision, which ruled that descendants of slaves — free or enslaved — were not U.S. citizens.

• Doing essentially nothing about the Panic of 1857, a sharp nationwide decline in the domestic economy.

• Not taking a side and working to resolve Bleeding Kansas, aka a period of bloody violence over slavery in then-territory Kansas.

That's the short version. In a Politico piece, Strauss details more of Buchanan’s bad decisions — and the list is long.

But Strauss' general assessment isn't necessarily a new one. Buchanan is consistently placed in the cellar of historical rankings of the nation's presidents.

And the proof is in the pudding. Buchanan's lack of leadership is often cited by the academic community as a major factor in the cause of the Civil War.

Yet ultimately, America might have Buchanan's ineptitude to thank for giving the country one of its best presidents.

"As the election of 1860 came close, Buchanan refused to support the one Democrat who could win, Stephen Douglas, because he just plain didn’t like him," Strauss wrote in Politico. "That caused the party to split into three factions, each nominating a candidate, virtually ensuring Republican Abraham Lincoln the election.""

Some dispute Buchanan's title as worst president. Presidential historian Constantinos E. Scaros wrote in a letter to LancasterOnline earlier this year that some of the heat Buchanan gets isn't deserved.

Yes, Buchanan felt "completely powerless" at a pivotal moment in history, showed a "dogged refusal to compromise," and had an "inability to rein in his corrupt advisers," among other things.

But much of what led up to the Civil War was essentially inevitable, according to Scaros, and the shadow of Abraham Lincoln makes for an unfair contrast.

"It is a shame that a man with such an impressive resume — congressman, senator, foreign minister to Russia and England, and secretary of state — would have such an unsuccessful presidency," Scaros wrote.

"It is particularly unfortunate because it was a job that he coveted during his entire adult life. Yet by the time his term was over, he couldn’t wait to go home."

It says something when a defense of Buchanan acknowledges his presidency was "unsuccessful." The candidates in the 2016 election are historically unpopular. But if they win, Strauss notes, they have a pretty low bar to reach to become the worst president ever.