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Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan

America's worst president
The worst president in U.S. history 04:44

Who among our presidents deserves the dubious distinction of being called WORST EVER? Mo Rocca tells us that, of all the possibilities there’s one who stands out:

James Buchanan was at Wheatland, his Lancaster, Pa., estate, when he was notified he’d been elected president in 1856.

It’s a gorgeous home, with one very special amenity, which Wheatland’s director, Patrick Clarke, showed Rocca: an outhouse for five.

James Buchanan’s Wheatland, in Lancaster, Pa. CBS News

“This is pretty unique,” said Clarke. “It has two adult seats, one for maybe a teenager, two for little kids. … This is the family that ‘goes’ together!”

“You could have a whole cabinet meeting in there!” said Rocca.

But ask historians where they rank our 15th president and, well, he’s in the proverbial toilet.

Lyons Press

“Oh, he’s definitely the worst,” said author Robert Strauss. “The worst president ever.”

Which is also the title of Strauss’ book.

Buchanan had his detractors, like President Andrew Jackson, but not everyone hated him. After all, he was elected president in 1856. But this Northern Democrat’s sympathies with the slave-holding South exacerbated long-simmering tensions.

Under Buchanan, the country split apart, a crisis bequeathed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln.

Yet at Wheatland, they’re not quite so hard on the guy. When asked where he would rank Buchanan among the 43 men who have occupied the Oval Office, Patrick Clarke replied, “Probably 42nd.”

If Buchanan is remembered at all, it’s for being the “Bachelor President” -- the only president never to marry.

Rocca asked Strauss, “Let’s just get this out of the way right now: What was the deal with James Buchanan?”

“He did have a bad relationship early on,” Strauss replied. “His fiancé probably committed suicide based on --”

“Because he was gay?”

“Well, maybe so,” Strauss laughed.

Clarke says, “There’s no evidence to say that he was gay. But there’s no evidence to prove that he was a heterosexual, either.”

But there’s plenty of evidence that he knew how to throw a great party.

“He threw the best party of the middle part of the nineteenth century, the Inaugural Ball,” Strauss said. “Six thousand people show up!”

And Buchanan seemed worth celebrating, if only for having the greatest resume of anyone who’s ever run for president: “He served in both houses of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, served in both houses of the U.S. Congress, he was ambassador to Russia, ambassador to Great Britain, he was also Secretary of State,” said Strauss.

All of which raised high hopes at the beginning of his administration.

But, Strauss noted, “They were dashed pretty quickly.”

Only two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down the infamous Dred Scott decision, allowing that escaped slaves be forcibly returned to their owners.

Buchanan backed this decision. Slavery would be the country’s -- and his -- undoing.

“He feared that if you handled the issue of slavery too robustly, that it would create what he believed would be the end of the union, secession,” said Clarke.

And that’s exactly what happened. After Lincoln’s election but before his inauguration, seven states seceded while a politically-paralyzed Buchanan presided.

What was his reaction, once states started seceding?

“Well, his biggest reaction is his friends are leaving him, because many of his cabinet are Southerners,” said Strauss. “Many of his friends are Southerners.”

“So his biggest reaction is a personal one, like, ‘Guys, I thought we were all friends’?” Rocca asked.

“Yeah -- ‘I thought we were all friends!’”

President James Buchnan with his cabinet c. 1859. By the end of his administration Cabinet members from Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia seceded, along with their home states.  Library of Congress

The ensuing civil war would become known as “Buchanan’s war.”

So what did Buchanan get right? “Not much, to tell you the truth,” according to Strauss.

Upon leaving Washington, Buchanan is said have told incoming President Abraham Lincoln, “Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”

“He said to friends and family alike, ‘I could well be the last president of these United States,’” said Betty Nauman, who has been giving tours of Wheatland for close to 30 years.

Correspondent Mo Rocca with Wheatland guide Betty Nauman. CBS News

Still, at 91 Nauman doesn’t plan on abandoning Buchanan, or his home, any time soon.

“I think this house keeps me young,” she told Rocca.

Well James Buchanan did something right!

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