Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

James Buchanan’s presidential senioritis

January 27, 2012 by Benjamin Brown


James Buchanan. Author: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

On the eve of the Civil War, President James Buchanan was like a high school student with a bad case of senioritis. Buchanan could not wait to leave office. He was coasting and slacking off on his work. As a result, he is regarded among the worst U.S. presidents.


True to its word, South Carolina seceded following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election victory. In his waning days in office, Buchanan made only feeble attempts to hold the Union together.


In his 1860 State of the Union Address, given just over two weeks before South Carolina seceded, he claimed that secession was unconstitutional but that the federal government could not legally stop states that chose to secede. So much for his presidential oath to “protect, preserve, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


Buchanan deferred to other politicians to solve the crisis. Senators Stephen Douglass of Illinois and William Seward of New York made numerous speeches on the Senate floor, but to no avail. Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky tried to reinstitute the Missouri Compromise, but it too was shot down. The Peace Convention in Washington, D.C., in February 1961 proved unproductive. Meanwhile, Buchanan watched from the sidelines.


Buchanan did attempt to reinforce federal forts in the South, but revoked his orders at the urging of pro-Southern friends and politicians. Buchanan changed his stance again after bringing in staunch Unionists to replace the Southern sympathizers in his Cabinet. Buchanan’s efforts to reinforce federal forts in the South only increased tensions.


Then the senioritis really hit. Because the relief efforts failed, Buchanan elected to remain inactive and wait for Lincoln to take office. Like a high school student relieved to finally graduate, Buchanan said to Lincoln, “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man.”


Buchanan had a reputation for rowdiness worthy of temporary expulsion while at Dickinson College. He was also the only bachelor president. Perhaps he was too accustomed to a partying lifestyle. And perhaps seniors itching for graduation can learn from Buchanan’s mistake: if you don’t want to go down in history as worst-in-class and miss out on opportunities to make a difference, you should probably keep showing up for class and doing your homework.


Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and web manager of the school paper.


Sign up for our email newsletter