April 23 – Happy Birthday, President Buchanan

Posted on April 23, 2017

What's the most common first name of U.S. Presidents? If you guessed Barack, no, actually, that's not correct! George is the first name of three presidents (including two recent presidents and "the father of our country"), William is the first name of four presidents (including one recent president), and John is the first name of five presidents (JFK was most recent - and he's not that recent!). 

But the most common presidential first name is James. That's the first name of today's presidential birthday, James Buchanan, and it was also the first name of James Madison, James Monroe, James Polk, James Garfield, and James ("Jimmy") Carter.

James is also the first name of my husband, and I have always noticed that it is always pretty darned popular. Back in 1900, it was #3 in popularity in the U.S., and recently it only fell to #7 (John fell from #1 to #26 in the same time period). 

James Buchanan might have had a common first name, but he was uncommon as a president in several ways:

He was the only president who was a life-long bachelor.

Despite the fact that Pennsylvania is a fairly large state, was one of the original thirteen states, and was hugely important to the new nation back when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were being written there - despite all of that, Buchanan is the only president to have come from Pennsylvania!

Buchanan, who was born on this date in 1791, was the last president to have been born in the eighteenth century.

Buchanan had high hopes for himself, wanting to be as great a president as George Washington. But he ended up being ranked as one of the worst. While he was president, the crisis over slavery, over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave or a free state, and other "sectional" issues that divided the nation were reaching a fever pitch. An economic panic hit the nation during his four-year term, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected on a platform of keeping slavery out of all Western territories, seven Southern states seceded from the nation.

That's right, Buchanan spent four quite-possibly-miserable months being president of a country that was splitting apart!

Buchanan, who like many presidents was a lawyer before he was a politician, said that secession was illegal - in other words, that it wasn't legal for the Southern states to break away from the United States - but he also said that going to war over secession was illegal, too. 

This message made everyone mad. Southerners were mad that Buchanan said that secession was illegal. Northerners and abolitionists were mad that Buchanan said military response to secession was illegal.

Several of Buchanan's cabinet resigned. A Southerner said he could no longer work for Buchanan, and a Northerner said that Buchanan wasn't doing enough to stop the secession.

Tensions continued to rise. A really great leader might have been able to lower tensions and - who knows? - avoid the bloodbath that was the Civil War. 

But Buchanan was not a really great leader. He basically did nothing.

By trying to please everyone, Buchanan pleased no one.

Many historians have said that Buchanan's failure to deal with secession was the worst presidential mistake ever made.

Also on this date: 

The Day of the Rose and the Day of the Book in Spain

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