Given my interest in the way we rank and remember our presidents, I found Michael Landis's piece, "In 'Defense' of James Buchanan," to be a fascinating challenge to the consensus view. In almost every case, Buchanan is considered our worst president. While there are a number of strikes against him, he is most commonly condemned for doing nothing to stop the onset of the Civil War.
Landis argues that most people who rank Buchanan last are holding him to a moral standard that most other presidents are not held against. He makes the wise choice of comparing Buchanan to Polk, a president who is ranked far higher in most polls. The argument for Polk rests on his accomplishing all of the goals he set for himself when he ran for the presidency. If this is the standard, Landis argues, we need to give Buchanan more credit.
Buchanan's accomplishments -- recognizing the pro-slavery state government in Kansas, advocating for the Dred Scott decision to be more comprehensive -- are viewed negatively for good reason. At the same time, these are the things Buchanan set out to accomplish. As Landis writes, "These were Buchanan's priorities, and we historians must respect them as such." This is an excellent point and he makes me want to reconsider Buchanan's place. Like most historians, I rank Polk as an effective president, despite not admiring the things he accomplished. Given that standard, it seems only far that Buchanan receive more credit or at least a closer look.
I won't be able to make a clear decision on this until I read more about Buchanan, but Landis makes a compelling case while reminding us of our responsibilities as historians (amatuer as well as professional.) Buchanan's wins were victories for "the Slave Power," but they were the wins he wanted. This is not to say he was a good president or a good person. But perhaps there are other presidents who were less capable and thus more deserving of the bottom spot in our presidential rankings.