“Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people,
it must one day perish.”
—President James Buchanan, 1860
A poll of American historians, not long ago, chose James Buchanan as “the worst” American president. But judgments of “best” and “worst” in history are not eternal and indisputable truths. They are matters of perspective and values, even of aesthetics. They can change as the deep consequences of historical events continue to unfold and bring forth new understandings. These historians show their characteristic failure to pursue balance and their subservience to presentism and state-worship. They think Buchanan should have ordered a military suppression of the seceded Southern states during the last months of his term of office in 1861. Not only do they have no sympathy for a desire to avoid civil war, but they totally fail to understand the context. There was only a small army, most of the best officers of which sympathized with the South, and there were eight states that had not seceded but were averse to action against the Confederacy. More importantly, there was an immensely powerful and even...