The story

James Buchanan Bought and Freed Slaves—But Not For the Reason You Might Think

James Buchanan Bought and Freed Slaves—But Not For the Reason You Might Think


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Every once in a while, a historical rumor turns up that just might change how you see a figure from the past. Take James Buchanan. Though the 15th president is often blamed for inaction in the years leading up to the Civil War, some claim that he purchased, then freed slaves out of his personal hatred of the institution.

So is the story truth or myth? It turns out that Buchanan did buy, then free slaves—but not for the reason you might think.

In 1834, Buchanan was running for Senate—a politically dicey proposition in the decades before the war. At the time, the issue of whether states had the right to allow slavery—and whether the rapidly growing country’s newest states should be slave or free—was a hot political topic. Having passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, Pennsylvania wasn’t a slave state, but plenty of other states were, and Buchanan felt it was important to maintain a neutral image to assure political capital from both sides.

But when Buchanan went to visit his family before the election, he learned about a bombshell that could ruin his carefully cultivated neutral position. It turned out that his sister Harriet, who lived in Virginia with her husband, a minister, owned two slaves—a mother and daughter named Daphne and Ann Cook.

This had the potential to blow up in Buchanan’s face, and he knew it. As biographer Philip S. Klein notes, “this was political dynamite.” If word got out about the slaves, it might look like Buchanan supported slavery—or be proof of his hypocrisy if he made anti-slavery statements. So Buchanan came up with an ingenious solution—to rid himself of this potential issue by freeing the two slaves.

But political calculus wasn’t the only reason Buchanan purchased the slaves. His personal need for servants seems to have played into the decision, too. “Anyway, thought Buchanan,” wrote Klein, “this might help to solve his house-servant problem.”

At the time, women managed house servants and organized the administration of household tasks. Buchanan, who was single, had no wife to do so. At some point in 1834, he hired Esther Parker, the daughter of a local innkeeper, as his housekeeper. Known as “Miss Hetty,” she served him for 34 years and became a trusted friend and confidant.

But a housekeeper needed servants to manage, and Buchanan had none. So rather than freeing the slaves, he turned them into his servants. The sales documents included an agreement that Daphne, then 22, would be indentured to his service for seven years. Her 5-year-old daughter, Ann, was required to serve Buchanan for 23 years. The Cooks might technically be free, but in reality they were bound to him for years.

Slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania, but the Cooks’ story is not unique. As historians Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund note, indentured servitude continued in Pennsylvania long after it had been abandoned in most states and was common for free blacks of the era—a sort of “twilight zone between slavery and freedom.”

The ambiguous transaction sums up the future president’s enigmatic attitudes toward the institution of slavery. As a candidate and, later, a senator, he was branded a “Doughface”—a derogatory term used to identify a Northerner who sympathized with Southerners when it came to slavery.

When the Senate tried to silence abolitionist petitions with a gag rule in 1836, Buchanan opposed it—but used a states’ rights argument that could be used to uphold slavery as he did. But he also refused to support the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed law that would have banned slavery in all of the territory the United States gained from Mexico (including Texas) at the end of the Mexican-American War. He also supported returning escaped slaves to their masters.

When Buchanan became president in 1857, he downplayed the issue of slavery and whether it should be legal in expanding U.S. territory that was on the verge of tearing the country apart. “This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance,” he declared in his inaugural address. Two days later, the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott’s right to freedom in what is now considered one of its most notorious decisions—a decision Buchanan is thought to have influenced as part of his desire to maintain peace among abolitionists and states’ rights advocates.

By casting slavery as an issue only states could decide, Buchanan thought he was opening the door for a more peaceful union. Today, though, his inaction is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.

But Buchanan’s personal view of slavery was a bit more ambiguous than his public stance might suggest. In the words of his nephew and adopted son, James Buchanan Henry, the president “simply tolerated it as a legal fact…He had no admiration for it whatsoever.”

Henry goes on to say he knew about multiple instances in which the president bought freedom for slaves in Washington, then brought them to Pennsylvania, “leaving them to repay him if they could out of their wages.” Did Buchanan have other indentured servants—or just buy and free slaves under the radar? It’s unclear. When it comes to James Buchanan and slavery, it seems, things were never as simple as they might seem.


Knowledge Problem

Nancy Maclean’s Generalized Rewriting of James Buchanan’s Views on Democracy

I have only read a small bit of Nancy MacLean’s book on James M. Buchanan, public choice, and politics. I’m reluctant to buy a copy, but I wanted to see if it was as bad as some critics have said. (Now you know something of my limited knowledge of and pre-existing bias against the book. -MG) A few weeks back I spotted a copy in the bookstore. I opened it up toward the middle, scanned a few pages, took a picture of pages 150-151 and a picture of the related endnotes for later reference.

Given the criticism the book was receiving, I was curious how well the book would stand up to a little quasi-random spot checking. Judge for yourself below.

A paragraph on page 151 stood out for appearing to claim that Buchanan reluctantly conceded that despotism might be the only way he would get his favored system into place (this is the same paragraph featured in my earlier, somewhat tongue-in-cheek post):

But if not by willing consent, then how could the cause stop citizens from turning to government? Buchanan wanted to see, somehow, a “generalized rewriting of the social contract.” American needed “a new structure of checks and balances,” well beyond that provided for in its founding Constitution, itself already a very pro-property-rights rulebook, as he well knew. He advised “changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label ‘revolutionary.’” The time when it seemed as if normal adjustments might be enough had passed. Buchanan closed with “a counsel of despair” that troubled him. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” 90

The paragraph stood out because it seemed totally at odds with what I knew of Buchanan’s work. (See note below on my Buchanan, GMU, and Koch connections.)

Let us compare this paragraph by MacLean and the quoted material from Buchanan’s book The Limits of Liberty, which MacLean’s footnote 90 links to. The links embedded in the quotes below connect to the online Buchanan book.

Generalized rewriting of the social contract

[MacLean] But if not by willing consent, then how could the cause stop citizens from turning to government? Buchanan wanted to see, somehow, a “generalized rewriting of the social contract.”

The phrase “generalized rewriting of the social contract” appears in the forward to the book in which Buchanan is describing the overall issue the book addresses:

[Buchanan] Institutions evolve, but those that survive and prosper need not be those which are “best,” as evaluated by the men who live under them. Institutional evolution may place men increasingly in situations described by the dilemma made familiar in modern game theory. General escape may be possible only through genuine revolution in constitutional structure, through generalized rewriting of social contract. To expect such a revolution to take place may seem visionary, and in this respect the book may be considered quasi-utopian. Rethinking must precede action, however, and if this book causes social philosophers to think more about “getting to” the better society and less about describing their own versions of paradise once gained, my purpose will have been fulfilled.

Buchanan observes evolved institutions, “as evaluated by the men who live under them,” need not be best, and revolutionary steps may be needed to move the status quo. He wants the book to inspire social philosophers to think about how to get to a better society and not just think about what that better society may entail.

A new structure of checks and balances

[MacLean] American needed “a new structure of checks and balances,” well beyond that provided for in its founding Constitution, itself already a very pro-property-rights rulebook, as he well knew.

The quote is from the last paragraph of Ch. 9 in Buchanan, here is that paragraph and a portion of the previous one:

[Buchanan] If our Leviathan is to be controlled, politicians and judges must come to have respect for limits. … If judges lose respect for law, why must citizens respect judges? If personal rights are subjected to arbitrary confiscation at the hands of the state, why must individuals refrain from questioning the legitimacy of government?

Leviathan may maintain itself by force the Hobbesian sovereign may be the only future. But alternative futures may be described and dreamed, and government may not yet be wholly out of hand. From current disillusionment can come constructive consensus on a new structure of checks and balances.

Buchanan’s “new structure” is presented as the possible result of “constructive consensus” on how to avoid an all-powerful state.

Sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label revolutionary

[MacLean] He advised “changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label ‘revolutionary.’” The time when it seemed as if normal adjustments might be enough had passed.

In Ch. 10, Buchanan is discussing the seemingly paradoxical term “constitutional revolution,” which he has mentioned earlier in the book and makes a focus of the chapter.

[Buchanan] The problem worthy of attention is [, given] an existing constitutional-legal order, as it is actually enforced and respected, how can changes be made so as to improve the positions of all or substantially all members of the social group? History produces an evolving status quo, and predictions can be made about alternative futures. If we do not like the particular set of alternatives that seem promised by nonrevolutionary situational response, we are obliged to examine basic structural improvements.

This is the definitional basis for the term “constitutional revolution,” which may appear to be internally contradictory. I refer to basic, nonincremental changes in the structural order of the community, changes in the complex set of rules that enable men to live with one another, changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label “revolutionary.” At the same time, however, it is useful to restrict discussion to “constitutional” limits, by which I mean that structural changes should be those upon which all members in the community might conceptually agree. Little, if any, improvement in the lot of modern man is promised by imposition of new rules by some men on other men. Nonconstitutional revolution invites counterrevolution in a continuing zero- or negative-sum power sequence.

Notice what MacLean avoids quoting: “how can changes be made so as to improve the positions of all or substantially all members of the social group,” changes “upon which all members in the community might conceptually agree.” Note especially Buchanan’s explicit statement: “Little, if any, improvement in the lot of modern man is promised by imposition of new rules by some men on other men. Nonconstitutional revolution invites counterrevolution in a continuing zero- or negative-sum power sequence.”

Can you read that sentence and conclude that Buchanan advocated imposing despotism via revolution?

A counsel of despair

[MacLean] Buchanan closed with “a counsel of despair” that troubled him. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

[Buchanan] In this respect at least, the modern radical revolutionaries may be correct improvement may well require changes in the system, not in the personnel that man it and not through peripheral adjustments. But if both markets and governments fail, what is the organizational alternative? … Regardless of the organizing principle, the larger the proportion of “good” men in the community, the “better” should be the community, provided the terms are defined in accordance with individualistic precepts. But it is folly to expect all men to be behaviorally transformed. Yet this becomes the minimal requirement for an acceptably orderly society without organization.

Social order may be imposed by a despotic regime, through either an individual ruler or through an elite ruling group. Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe. In which case, those who claim no special rights to rule had best judge existing institutions in a different light. This would amount to a counsel of despair, however, and there may be alternatives worthy of consideration.

The Contractarian Revival

It is in this respect that the modern contractarian revival, stimulated largely by the publication of John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice (1971), is highly encouraging….

Buchanan continues for fifteen more paragraphs until coming to a conclusion in which he advocates developing an alternative to both laissez-faire, which he said is too connected to “rights of property in the historical status quo” and socialism, which he describes as the “throughway to Leviathan.”

Read the original and you will note [as Art Carden commented on Facebook] Buchanan is not closing with “a counsel of despair,” nor is Buchanan actually presenting the “despotism may be the only … alternative” claim as his own view. He explicitly raises the claim to reject it in favor of contractarian analysis. He simply raises the idea as a way to transition the reader to what comes next: a discussion of contractarianism. [For more of Carden’s views, read “Democracy in Chains” Is The Perfect Book for the Age of Trump. The Reasons Why Will Surprise You.]

Conclusion

The constantly odd thing about MacLean’s book–as I have gathered from her interviews, her critics, and the bits of it I’ve read–is her presentation of James Buchanan as some sort of shadowy, behind-the-scenes, master political strategist trying to make the world safe for ultra-rich white people. Much of his work, and much of public choice theory, is aimed at explaining how wealthy and well-connected individuals and groups can use politics to exploit ordinary workers and consumers.

Does Buchanan actually think that despotism may be the only way he can get his system in place? MacLean wants her readers to believe that claim. Again, judge for yourself.

Above I try to provide context enough for the reader to make a fair judgment.

NOTES:

As an undergraduate economics student in west Texas, my public finance text was written by Buchanan and Marilyn Flowers. I became interested in attending graduate school at George Mason University because that was where Buchanan was. Eventually I earned my PhD in Economics GMU. I had a class with Buchanan and classes with Buchanan-students-turned-colleagues Robert Tollison and Richard Wagner. Without claiming to be an expert, I have some familiarity with Buchanan’s work.

Are you Koch-curious? If yes, you should read up on the ad hominen fallacy or take a look as this simple explanation by Art Carden: ‘Hocus Pocus Charles Kochus’ is not an argument.

For the curious, I have worked with and participated in events hosted by groups that have taken money from the Kochs. I’m a libertarian-leaning academic, which makes the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundations a bit harder to tap. At the same time, the vast majority of my current income comes the state of Texas. I have received much more money working for the federal government than I have received directly from any Koch-connected organization. [Upon reflection, “much more” is probably not true and “more” may not be true. I worked two years for the now-defunct Citizens for a Sound Economy, a group that Charles Koch supported, and three years for Argonne National Laboratory, but the Argonne work was under a variety of short-term, modestly paid positions. -MG]

Ideologically, I was a Milton-Friedman-reading free market Republican well before hearing of the Kochs, much less took any money from any organization somehow connected to the Kochs or their charitable or political activities.

I first learned of David Koch during the 1980 presidential campaign, and started leaning libertarian in 1980 after candidate Ronald Reagan went to Detroit to promise to protect American autoworkers from the Japanese.

Many links to criticisms of MacLean’s book are collected here by Jonathan Adler: Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ paint an accurate picture of James Buchanan? [with updates].


So, uh… James Buchanan? (Part I)

Imagine someone wants to hand you a bag of animal-generated fertilizing agent. For some reason you agree to this. They set the bag on fire and throw it at you. Then they’re disappointed with your response. Also, they wonder if you’re gay.

You begin to understand the plight of James Buchanan. Our bachelor buddy sits atop the scrap heap, decreed by legions of historians to be the worst president ever. He’s last in most surveys of presidential awesomeness and next-to-last in the rest. As far as your public school education is concerned, he’s the man who sat on his hands as states peeled away from the Union a Pennsylvanian who tolerated slavery the yin that makes Lincoln into such a huge yang.

Which isn’t such a bad thing for Wheatland, Buchanan’s Lancaster estate. “It helps us market this place,” says Patrick Clarke, the home’s director, with a chuckle. But the home looks like a setting from a success story: the ceilings are high, the furniture is elegant and the colors are bright. There’s an atmosphere of wealth and dignity. Seeing Buchanan’s writing desk in a beam of sunlight, the mansion seems livable and warm, not like the bizarro Fortress of Solitude where he scribbled memoirs no one wanted to read. In a nation divided, it was agreed that no one liked James Buchanan. Could he really be that bad?

Let’s see. He was born in 1791 to Irish immigrants, the second of 11 middle-class siblings. You’d probably want to hang out with him—he chomped cigars, drank the best whiskey, loved to gossip and was briefly kicked out of college for the 19th-century equivalent of partying. He was arrogant and occasionally whiny, but he had a sharp mind. Clarke calls him “a very efficient man—very detail oriented.” Those qualities made him a great lawyer, and being a great lawyer made into Rich Uncle Pennybags. He was able to send 22 nieces and nephews through school, buy some very nice houses and keep them stocked with high-end booze.

Politics was more of a passion than an income. Starting in 1821 he was a Representative, a Senator, a diplomat to Russia and England, and secretary of State—maybe the most impressive governmental resume of any president. Buchanan seldom astonished, but his connections and his ability to carefully assemble rock-solid logical arguments—lawyering—made him a useful Democratic mule for 35 years. He was the reliable nerd that jocks like Jackson and Polk would keep around to help with homework. Then, after decades of sacrifice and competent public service, when he finally achieved the office he had hoped for in 1844, 1848 and 1852, he apparently became a national disgrace.

So think about the context. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that about slavery in 1782, seven years before the Constitution and 79 years before God woke up on Buchanan’s watch. The architects built the system knowing that slavery could one day make it fail.

That day was approaching by the 1850s. Millard Fillmore (37th in C-SPAN’s rankings) and Franklin Pierce (40th) had pretty much crapped the bed, contributing nothing to a long-term solution. Slavery was expanding with the country, and people on both sides of the crusade were getting increasingly pissed armed conflict and grisly murders in Kansas hinted at things to come. The dispute tore apart the Democratic Party and gave birth to the Republican Party, so Congress was a mess. “Buchanan had a rough hand to deal with” in 1857, Clarke says, which is like saying Lincoln had a slight head wound problem in 1865.

To be fair, he didn’t play his hand well. With the country fissured on a moral line, the cautious Buchanan figured that the situation called for… lawyering. Needing an ace, he threw down “Rules of Draw and Stud Poker.” James put his energy into negotiating rational resolutions under the law—amending the Constitution, or reinforcing Southern property rights, or legally forcing Northerners and Southerners to hug and be friends. His hope was to brace the country with a legal frame, everyone grudgingly respecting the rules until slavery was gradually wiped out by public outrage and economic realities (plantations ain’t cheap). “Instead of being commander-in-chief, he’s a commanding diplomat,” Clarke says. But the passions were already Middle-East hot. If you run into the middle of a knife fight shouting “let’s be reasonable,” you’re going to get stabbed. Front and back.

But what could he have done, exactly? If you think a war might destroy the greatest experiment in democracy, how could you start it? How do you cure a disease that had been festering for years? He was Irish, not a magical leprechaun.

Buchanan’s crime, the offense that made him the “worst president ever,” was his failure to be the best president ever. Like every man before him, he couldn’t untie the Gordian knot. Lincoln, on the other hand, began with a great gift: South Carolina graciously popped off and started the war for him, giving him the moral authority to pick up a sword and start hacking.

Let’s tally it up. James Buchanan was tentative and uncreative. His strengths were nullified by circumstance, and so he was not great at his job. But he tried his best against impossible odds. He also had a very nice home, and a fine eye for decorating. Call him bad if you want, but he’s not the worst.

Which means someone else goes under the bus. Asked for a replacement, Clarke laughs. “I always have a hard time judging these guys because I see so many sides of them,” he says. Pressed by an annoyingly persistent questioner, he plays along. “You know, Tyler didn’t do such a hot job.”


More About James Buchanan

Nobel Prize in Economic Science, 1986, for work in Public Choice Theory.

Some of the books most relevant to the Nobel Award: The Calculus of Consent, with G. Tullock (1962) The Limits of Liberty (1975) Freedom in Constitutional Contract (1978) The Power to Tax, with G. Brennan (1980) Liberty, Market, and State (1985).

Other books: Cost and Choice (1969) Democracy in Deficit, with R. Wagner (1977) Explorations into Constitutional Economics (1989) Essays on the Political Economy (1989) Better than Plowing and Other Personal Essays (1992) The Return to Increasing Returns, with Yong J. Yoon (1994).

Currently, Advisory General Director, Center for Study of Public Choice, and Harris University Professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

Has also previously taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (1969-1983), University of California, Los Angeles (1968-1969) and University of Virginia (1956-1968).

Received bachelor's degree from Middle Tennessee State College in 1940, master's from the University of Tennessee in 1941 and doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1948.


James Buchanan: He "Uneducated" the Economists

The New York Times has a long and interesting obituary for Nobel-winning economist James M. Buchanan, whom Brian Doherty wrote about this morning.

Some snippets from the Times' send-off:

Over the years since Dr. Buchanan won the Nobel [in 1986], much of what he predicted has played out. Government is bigger than ever. Tax revenue has fallen far short of public programs' needs. Public and private borrowing has become a way of life. Politicians still act in their own interests while espousing the public good, and national deficits have soared into the trillions.

Dr. Buchanan partly blamed Keynesian economics for what he considered a decline in America's fiscal discipline. John Maynard Keynes argued that budget deficits were not only unavoidable but in fiscal emergencies were even desirable as a means to increase spending, create jobs and cut unemployment. But that reasoning allowed politicians to rationalize deficits under many circumstances and over long periods, Dr. Buchanan contended.

Boy, did he ever call that one. In explaining the essence of his life's work, Buchanan had this to say:

Dr. Buchanan said the prize highlighted his long struggle for a concept. "I have faced a sometimes lonely and mostly losing battle of ideas for some 30 years now in efforts to bring academic economists' opinions into line with those of the man on the street," he said. "My task has been to 'uneducate' the economists."

I especially recommend folks interested in this titan of modern politicial economy to read Deirdre McCloskey's wonderful review of Buchanan's own great memoir, Better Than Plowing. McCloskey praises Buchanan for quoting Nietzche and for being "educated" rather than "smart." By which she means that Buchanan engaged the world in very real and visceral ways like very few of his peers or students, he read widely too, in all sorts of fields. He worked hard at figuring out the world's secrets and tried and tried again when stuff didn't come naturally to him. He was like the Batman of great economists—he wasn't born with superpowers, he acquired his insights through hard work and dogged determination.

Buchanan was also a classic insider-outsider: He hailed from Tennessee, far outside the part of the country where people were taken seriously during his youth (he was born in 1919). He describes movingly his anger at being taken for a yokel because of his origins, his generally unpolished academic pedigree (a B.A. from Middle Tennesse State Teachers College and an M.A. from University of Tennessee before ending up at Chicago), and his faculty affiliation with what passed for sketchy places back in the day (Univ. of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason).

In Better than Plowing, he memorably recalls how during World War II, the military brought in an actual Rockefeller heir to run his training platoon, on the assumption that non-Ivy Leaguers were too stupid for the job. "From that day forward," he wrote, "I have shared in the emotional damage imposed by discrimination, in any form, and 'fairness' assumed for me a central normative position decades before I came to discuss principles of justice professionally and philosophically."

Like many people born in his time and place, he remembered true scarcity and the toll it took on people barely eking out a living—and how power differentials ultimately corrupted a newly flush public sector that wasn't going to be held in check by the dog-eat-dog competition at work in the market economy. Companies, after all, could eventually be held in check by other companies, while government bureaucrats could swath themselves in fanciful rhetoric about the public interest and the common good. In his determination to cut through the bogus and self-serving language that attends to so many attempts to arrogate power to the state, Buchanan has always reminded me of another great, old, and recently departed libertarian giant, Thomas Szasz.

Our heroes have to die sometime, I suppose, and lord knows folks such as Buchanan contributed far more to the world than they ever took out, but it's always a dark day when they breathe their last.


Just How Much Did Nancy MacLean Get Wrong?

Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, an error-filled screed against Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan, is one of five finalists for a National Book Award.

Is that honor deserved? It is worth considering, as the award's nominators did not, that nearly every reviewer with actual independent knowledge about her book's topics has pointed out a startling range of errors of citation, interpretation, narrative, and fact. (This includes my own review in the October Reason, in which I demonstrate that a central element of her historical narrative—that in the 1990s Buchanan's ideas became the secret influence behind the political machine run by billionaire Charles Koch—is based on an absurd and unsupportable reading of the only textual evidence she offers.) MacLean still refuses to engage any of her critics on points of substance.

Economic historian Phil Magness, currently teaching at Berry College, has been one of MacLean's most diligent critics. In his review of her book for Modern Age, Magness explains that MacLean

unambiguously presents the servicing of segregationist politicians as the raison d'être for the TJC's [Thomas Jefferson Center, which Buchanan ran] activities at the University of Virginia. She depicts Buchanan as having "taken his cues from [Virginia senator and leading segregationist] Harry Byrd and Jack Kilpatrick," the segregationist editor of the Richmond News-Leader.

In that review and in a series of highly detailed posts on his blog, Magness has delved deeply into that portion of MacLean's book, and especially into her attempts to link the segregationist cause to the work Buchanan and collaborator G. Warren Nutter did pushing for school vouchers in post-Brown Virginia. As Magness notes, MacLean has a pattern of suggesting things she knows she can't prove:

MacLean generally stops short of linking Buchanan and Byrd outright, and does so by necessity. There is no evidence the two ever crossed paths in any substantive way. So instead of calling Buchanan a segregationist, she simply contends that he utilized the opportunity of segregation to advance a libertarian school voucher agenda at the expense of black students. To get to Byrd, she advances historically unsupported claims of a connection between Buchanan and Byrd-allied newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick. But even more so, she relies on Buchanan's own presumed silence on segregation to "read between the lines" of his voucher advocacy and discern a motive that is not evident from any straightforward reading.

While taking MacLean's arguments apart, Magness turned up a good deal of evidence that she either missed or ignored:

• As early as 1948, Buchanan was writing (as an economic analyst, not as a full-throated moralist) that racial segregation is an "inefficient" system that requires "improvement." As Magness summarized, Buchanan's analysis held that "forcing states with segregation to bear the costs of this inefficiency themselves could become an effective fiscal mechanism to incentivize integration."

• The TJC hosted in 1958, and published in 1960, an explicitly anti-segregation talk by one of Buchanan's mentors, Frank Knight. (Among other things, Knight said that "Equality before the law means that there is equal opportunity for everyone to find or make his own place in society. This ideal was dishonored in the breach rather than honored in the observance for some time into the age of liberalism, notably by this country in the matter of racial discrimination.") As Magness explains, "Buchanan hosted Knight for these explicitly anti-segregationist remarks in the spring of 1958, which was also the high water mark of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Sr.'s 'massive resistance' fight against Brown v. Board. If…Buchanan, Nutter, and the TJC were trying to service the segregationist political establishment of Virginia, as has been charged, then playing host to Knight's anti-discriminatory lecture and later publishing it makes for a very odd strategy of communication."

• Despite MacLean's insinuation that Buchanan's pro-voucher position was objectively pro-segregation, more than a few Virginia segregationists passionately believed the exact opposite and argued as much the same year that Buchanan and Nutter wrote their paper.

• Archival evidence shows that Kilpatrick was not aware in advance of the Buchanan/Nutter paper there is no sign that he was working with them in any way. Buchanan and Nutter published the newspaper version of their article not in Kilpatrick's militantly segregationist Richmond News-Leader but in the rival Richmond Times-Dispatch, whose editor had in Magness' words "adopted a moderate stance on school desegregation that favored limited and gradual introduction of black students into white-majority schools."

• While MacLean's narrative suggests that Buchanan's advocacy of vouchers bears some moral blame for Prince Edward County's decision to essentially close its public school system for five years to avoid desegregation, Magness explains that for "most of the period of the Prince Edward school closure, students in the county were not actually using the state tuition grant program." Indeed, "From August 1961 until the reopening of the Prince Edward schools by Supreme Court ruling in 1964, Prince Edward County…had no access to the tuition grant program. Combined with the first year being funded through private contributions, the tuition grant program was only operational in Prince Edward County for one school year out of the five year closure period."

• In the mid-'60s, Buchanan's center brought in the anti-apartheid South African economist W.H. Hutt as a visiting professor. Hutt's presence on campus made the TJC "an active sponsor of scholarly work that sought to unite antiracist principles with the emerging field of public choice theory." As Magness explains, Hutt argued that "nondiscrimination was a necessary logical extension of Buchanan and [co-author Gordon] Tullock's argument. If the objective of a constitutional rule was to minimize the ability of a group to externalize the costs of its desired policy, it followed that the rule's primary function was to afford protection to political minorities and persons excluded from political participation."

• Perhaps most significantly, while some Virginians did indeed use the state's voucher-like tuition grants to go to private "segregation academies," there was also a substantial number of families who used them to move to integrated schools. The state's leading teachers union, the Virginia Education Association, reacted to this by reaching out to segregationists as allies against the grants. "[P]arents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools," the union complained, "which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid." Meanwhile, a 1964 report from Buchanan's center on the grants did not at any point suggest that they should be used for segregation—and while generally using value-neutral statistical language, as was appropriate for the document's purpose, it implicitly critiqued those who insisted they not be used to attend integrated institutions.

If you're wondering how MacLean managed to put Buchanan in cahoots with Kilpatrick when it was Kilpatrick's competitor who published Buchanan's arguments, Magness has an amusing but credible theory: It may have stemmed from a typo. A 1998 essay by James Hershman (published in a collection called The Moderates' Dilemma) mistakenly states that the newspaper version of Buchanan and Nutter's paper appeared in Kilpatrick's paper. Hershman elsewhere and MacLean in her actual footnote do get the attribution correct. But Hershman's 1998 essay is, by MacLean's account, where she learned of the existence of James Buchanan for the very first time, and was essential in forming her views on him. Magness suggests that it shaped MacLean's whole project:

MacLean took the implications of that error and ran with them to fantastical lengths, writing Kilpatrick into the story as a crucial link between Buchanan and the segregationist Byrd machine. She devotes substantial attention to Kilpatrick in her text, making sure to highlight his pro-segregation writing and his interests in the political theories of John C. Calhoun. [MacLean's book dedicates its entire first chapter to linking Buchanan to Calhoun, even though Buchanan appears never to have written about Calhoun or to have cited him as an influence.] She also wildly speculates that Nutter and Buchanan were coordinating their paper's release behind the scenes with Kilpatrick and attempts to divine commonalities between it and editorials that Kilpatrick wrote for the News-Leader.

There's one more twist though. At some point while writing her book, MacLean apparently realized that the Nutter-Buchanan article actually appeared in the Times-Dispatch and properly cited it to the correct newspaper. Despite catching this citation error though, she retained the purported link between Buchanan and Kilpatrick anyway. She wrote her entire chapter as if the Hershman error from 1998 was accurate and presented Buchanan as an ally of the "massive resisters" even though she had no evidence for that claim.

MacLean never even bothered to investigate the article's actual route to publication through [Virginius] Dabney [editor of the Times-Dispatch]. But Dabney, who won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for editorializing against poll taxes and bus segregation in Richmond, does not allow the same salacious charges and insinuations that MacLean extracts from Kilpatrick. MacLean therefore retained an erroneous historical interpretation premised on Hershman's switching of the papers, even though she had sufficient information to correct that error.

MacLean, her publisher, and the National Book Award committee should all pay heed to the above. So far, they have not.


So, uh… James Buchanan? (Part II)

Faithful readers of this column will recall that the current president is black. It’s a great and happy breakthrough, and it liberates the nation to look to more executive firsts. Women! Hispanics! Robots!

But gays? Mention it, and inevitably someone will tell you it’s been done. In 1856, they’ll say, when rainbows were just refracted light and Stonewall was a guy from Virginia, a gay guy was elected by popular vote. There are no James Buchanan balloons at your local pride parade—but he was a bad president, and your local moustache festival is probably light on Hitler memorabilia, too. A gay 19th-century president defies reason—but rumors have survived two centuries. As recently as the 1990s, people cared enough to spray paint his lonely bachelor tombstone with slurs, because progress isn’t always forward.

Is there something to this? Does James Buchanan belong on a $3 bill?

A little exploring will give you the answer. Pack a sandwich and your modern stereotypes and get to his Pennsylvania home! Wheatland is a beautifully decorated mansion, with more panache and color than you’d expect for the 1860s. Head down to Washington and Meridian Hill Park—home of the 1980s crack epidemic and the James Buchanan memorial! It was paid for by his niece, since no one liked James Buchanan, but it’s a statue nonetheless. Stare into his eyes! Activate your historical gaydar! Listen for the pings!

Then, when you’re done grasping at offensive straws, you can do a little reading. Piece together the allegations, cross-reference a few footnotes, and skim some GLBT theory. You’ll notice two things. First, if you’re using a cookie-enabled web browser, a lot of your Facebook ads will now be for gay cruises. Second, every “accuser” is drawing from the same shallow well. Generations of speculation are based on the following:

1. Buchanan was a bachelor.

2. He lived with another bachelor. Sen. William Rufus King of Alabama shared quarters in Washington with Buchanan. The arrangement lasted for years.

3. King and Buchanan were tight. Advocates of a gay Buchanan usually go to personal letters for two particular passages of hot, burgeoning lust. King to Buchanan, on departing for France for a few years: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” Buchanan to a friend, after King’s departure: “I am now ‘solitary and alone’, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” Scorching stuff.

4. Most of their other letters were destroyed. King died in 1853, Buchanan in 1868. By agreement, their nieces burned much of their personal correspondence… because it dripped with the love that dare not speak its name! Allegedly.

5. People called them names. Andrew Jackson referred to King as “Miss Nancy.” Others from the Tennessee delegation called him “Aunt Fancy” or “Mrs. Buchanan.” Together they were sometimes mocked as “The Siamese Twins.”

… and that’s it. There’s no steamy letter. No saucy lithograph. No heart-shaped pendant slipped into a casket. There is only circumstantial evidence, diluted by circumstantial alibis:

1. He wasn’t single from a total lack of effort. JB was engaged to the daughter of the richest dude in Pennsylvania. But she broke off the engagement in a jealous fit, then died of “female hysteria”—1820s doctor talk for either “suicide” or “Whoops! Wrong pill!”—before they could reconcile. Buchanan claimed to be all torn up inside, though he flirted with other ladies throughout his life.

2. Before air conditioning facilitated year-round legislating, Washington was a boarding city. Lots of Congressmen cut living expenses by being roommates for part of the year, and why wouldn’t two older single guys live together? Do you want to be the only single guy hanging out with married dudes?

3. An open bromance wasn’t uncommon in the less sexualized 1840s. People talked funny eight score and six years ago, and those quotes could easily be as innocent as you missing Billy the summer he went to Space Camp.

4. Letters were destroyed all the time. Buchanan “had a tendency to gossip,” says Patrick Clarke, the director of Wheatland. Famous people had an expectation that their letters would be published, so it was polite to torch anything that might embarrass anyone. The wisdom of this will become apparent the first time someone’s Facebook status updates from their 20s are used against them in a presidential campaign.

5. If you took a class picture of the presidents, Andrew Jackson would be the guy in the letter jacket. And if jocks calling nerds gay counts as evidence, then Thanksgiving dinner is going to be particularly awkward this year.

All that’s left are more offensive stereotypes: Buchanan was fussy and neat. He loved to gossip. He once had a dispute with his nephew that involved a moustache (really). Clarke notes that, at a broad-shouldered 6 feet, “on the fire department, he was the guy they called out to run with the ladder.” That’s either super hetero or exceedingly gay, depending on who you ask. But there is no proof.

So let’s shave this down with Occam’s razor. Would an ambitious, cautious man like Buchanan risk a 40-year public career on a gay relationship, or the appearance of one? “Not only would he have been committing political suicide,” Clarke notes, “he would have been committing himself to jail.” Remember, it was the 1800s.

Could a man in his position keep such a relationship secret? Buchanan had detractors, including Jackson, the most powerful and surly Democrat in the universe. If they had a smudge of dirt, throwing it would have been the norm: years before Buchanan took charge, Jefferson had been publicly diagnosed with jungle fever, Jackson was accused of being a party to bigamy, and Jackson in turn accused John Quincy Adams of being a pimp. (Seriously. It’s a long story.) You don’t get to be president by sheer force of will—power brokers have to sign off on your ascent. Serious suspicion would have kept JB from the top of the mountain, but there’s no record of Buchanan being upset by the snickering. Because there was no secret to keep.

James Buchanan was not gay. Not as we understand it today, and not as they understood it then.

And there are other ways to explain his bachelorhood. Maybe he was married to his job. He didn’t need a wife, since his siblings helped out by having children, dying, and leaving the kids to Uncle Jim. He got to be a father without marriage. Maybe he was asexual. There are theories about low testosterone levels (Buchanan apparently never had to shave). Maybe he just wasn’t sexy enough, as scientifically determined a few columns ago.

But you know what? If you want him to be gay—if it makes you smile to think of the man as a closeted pioneer of equal rights—go for it. The rumors will certainly never die. If Tom Cruise, with two smoking-hot wives and numerous babies, is as gay as the day on Teegeeack is long, why not James Buchanan? You can argue that he’s latently homosexual, filled with urges and repression, and there’s no evidence to prove you wrong.

Just save some respect for our actual first gay president, and our first woman president. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt.


Who Freed the Slaves?

Two years of fighting changed what the war was about. Beginning in 1863, the North no longer fought only to save the United States but also to end slavery. Ending slavery was the only way to win the war and not have to fight again.

Generations of Americans hailed Abraham Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator." In recent decades some historians have minimized Lincoln's role and argued that the enslaved freed themselves. Enslaved people did take the initiative to escape, but reaching Washington, D.C., or the Ohio River was as impractical as ever. It was the presence of United States lines in Virginia—of Lincoln’s armies—that made successful escape more probable. After January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation inspired a dramatic increase in the number of escape attempts.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lack of military successes, growing pressure from radical elements of his party, and fears that France or Great Britain might recognize the Confederacy plagued Abraham Lincoln during the summer of 1862. On September 22, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves in areas not returned to U.S. control by January 1, 1863, "then, thenceforward, and forever free." The proclamation exempted the loyal slave states, areas then occupied by United States forces, and the forty-eight counties of Virginia in the process of forming West Virginia. The transformation of war aims to include ending slavery elicited contempt among Confederates as well as some resistance within the U.S. Army. The proclamation turned foreign opinion against the Confederacy and encouraged more slaves to escape to United States lines and enlist in the U.S. Army.

Lincoln worried that freeing the enslaved might aggravate northerners who had tired of the human and material costs of the war he hoped it would inspire many of them. Given a noble cause, they might regain a resolve that would match that of their enemy. Many in fact applauded him. This laudatory commentary was drawn by a Pittsburgh artist.

  • As Lincoln writes, his hand is placed on a Bible that rests on a copy of the U.S. Constitution—the sources of his inspiration.
  • The scales of justice hang badly out of balance. Also on the wall hangs a key—perhaps to open locks and free the enslaved. A copy of the presidential oath reminds Lincoln of his pledge to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
  • A bust of Lincoln’s ineffective predecessor, James Buchanan, who allowed the southern states to secede, hangs by its neck.
  • A bust of Andrew Jackson—a strong unionist—holds down a paper with his words: “The Union must and shall be preserved.”
  • A map of the rebellious states is held in place by Lincoln’s heavy railsplitter’s maul—to suggest that Lincoln will hold the southern states in the United States.
  • A map of Europe, with the sword of isolationist president George Washington hanging over it, reminds viewers that foreign intervention is never wanted and that the nation is vulnerable when divided.

A Southern View

Southern and border state unionists, loyal slaveholders, and Democrats denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as "revolutionizing the war." This virulent commentary was drawn by Baltimore artist and Confederate sympathizer Adalbert Volck, whose images were not published until after the war.

  • A portrait of John Brown with a halo, labeled St. Ossawatomie, refers to Osawatomie, Kansas, where Brown helped prevent the territory from becoming a slave state. Like Brown, Lincoln opposed expansion of slavery into the territories.
  • An image on the wall depicts the massacre of whites by rebelling enslaved people on the island of Sainte Domingue (Haiti) in the Caribbean. It suggests that Lincoln would tolerate a similar event in the South.
  • The devil holds Lincoln’s inkwell for writing the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Lincoln tramples the Constitution underfoot.
  • A liquor container is meant to suggest that Lincoln drinks excessively.
  • Lincoln was criticized by opponents for “secretly” arriving in Washington, D.C., on February 23, 1861, to avoid a rumored assassination attempt. A myth arose that he was disguised in a long cloak and “scotch cap” [Scottish hat] which here covers the eyes of a statue of Justice.

A War to End Slavery

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed enslaved people in areas in rebellion against the United States. He had reinvented his "war to save the Union" as "a war to end slavery." Following that theme, this painting was sold in Philadelphia in 1864 to raise money for wounded troops. Their costly sacrifice could be justified by the nobility of a cause to end such atrocities as slave hunts.

Some fugitive enslaved people hid in Virginia’s famed Dismal Swamp during the Civil War. For decades they had hidden there. In 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp," and in 1856, when Harriet Beecher Stowe produced a sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she called it Dred: A Tale of the Dismal Swamp.

Become a member! Enjoy exciting benefits and explore new exhibitions year-round.


All the Presidents’ Pets

After four long years, we finally have a new president and, more importantly, new presidential pets. Usually the thrill of pets arriving at the White House is tempered by the sting of old presidential pets leaving the White House, but this year is different: Donald Trump is the first president in more than 100 years not to have a pet of any kind, so we can say goodbye to his rotten administration without stray sympathy for any blameless dogs, cats, or possums getting evicted alongside their captors.

This also means that the incoming presidential pets—the Bidens have two German shepherds and a cat, the former two of which arrived to the White House this week to great fanfare—won’t be able to rely on the outgoing presidential pets for advice or support during the transfer of power. So to help the new national mascots find their footing, Slate has decided to break what many regard as the most important commandment in journalism (“all presidential pets are equally good and any journalist who says otherwise should be summarily killed”) and firmly grip Washington’s most dangerous third rail, ranking the presidents’ pets from worst to best. As you’ll see, some of them were terrible. Except in cases where particular pets were double acts (e.g., Benjamin Harrison’s possums, Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity), we’re only ranking one pet per administration, with preference given to animals that made enough of an impression that there are contemporary accounts of their exploits.

John Quincy Adams didn’t seem to have any pets in the White House—unless you believe the probably apocryphal story that he briefly kept a pair of alligators in the East Room—but his wife kept silkworms. According to one of Adams’ diary entries, she had several hundred that she raised herself for their silk. Silk is nice, but let’s face it: Silkworms make terrible, terrible pets. They are, after all, worms. Worms! WORMS! (Technically, they’re caterpillars. Caterpillars! CATERPILLARS!) These are the worst presidential pets in the history of the United States of America.

James K. Polk didn’t have any pets, which kind of sucks, but at least he didn’t bring a bunch of goddamned worms with him.

Donald Trump had no time for anyone but Donald Trump, but if he had a dog, that dog would rank very highly on this list simply because of the sympathy vote. Trump’s tweets are no longer with us, but when he was still on Twitter, he was always tweeting things like this:

Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again—just watch. He can do much better!

Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog. Now he calls me racist—but I am least racist person there is.

Ted Cruz lifts the Bible high into the air and then lies like a dog—over and over again! The Evangelicals in S.C. figured him out & said no!

Wow, great news! I hear @EWErickson of Red State was fired like a dog. If you read his tweets, you’ll understand why. Just doesn’t have IT!

Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!

Lyin’ Brian Williams of MSDNC, a Concast Scam Company, wouldn’t know the truth if it was nailed to his wooden forehead. Remember when he lied about his bravery in a helicopter? Totally made up story. He’s a true dummy who was thrown off Network News like a dog. Stay tuned!

Dogs, according to the former president, are known for cheating, choking, and lying, which is why they deserve to be fired, dumped, and even thrown off network news. If Trump’s dog actually existed, it would doubtless deserve our sympathy and probably an anonymous call to the ASPCA. But since it’s only a metaphor, 42 nd place.

William Henry Harrison only lasted a month in office before dying, which didn’t leave a lot of time for his pets to make an impression. But where presidents fail, apocryphal storytellers succeed, and over the years, two pets have become associated with Harrison: a goat named either Old Whiskers or His Whiskers, and a Durham cow named Sukey. William Henry Harrison may have had a pet goat, but if so, I couldn’t find it in contemporary sources, and it’s well documented that his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who was also a president, had a pet goat named Old Whiskers. As for “Sukey,” she appears in print for the first time in the Washington Evening Star on March 4, 1889, nearly 50 years after Harrison’s death, in a story credited to “a native and old resident of Washington.” The story is not really about the cow it’s about Harrison buying a cow from a Maryland drover who was unaware he was talking to the president. So how did this sketchily sourced cow outrank Louisa Adams’ silkworms, who have the advantage of definitely existing, and James K. Polk’s absence of pets or Donald Trump’s metaphorical dog, who have the advantage of definitely not existing? Simple: Although William Henry Harrison, the president of the United States, has no verifiable connection to any pet cows, a different William Henry Harrison, an unrelated British author, published a satirical poem in 1831 entitled “The Cow Doctor,” which included this engraving of a sick cow.

That is a very silly engraving that would never have resurfaced in 2021 without Harrison’s apocryphal cow, and it’s inspiring to see two William Henry Harrisons working together. That’s enough to move Sukey up to 41 st place.

Like presidents themselves, presidential pets have had some of their rough edges sanded off in the interests of national mythmaking, and no pet benefited more from this than Loretta, William McKinley’s parrot. Modern accounts say that McKinley’s bird, a Mexican double yellow-headed parrot, was named “Washington Post,” could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and had a habit of saying “Look at all the pretty girls!” when women neared his cage. Catcalling aside, this “Washington Post” seems like a reasonably charming parrot who deserves to be at least a footnote in American history.

Looking back at contemporary references to McKinley’s parrot, however, reveals no signs of a bird named “Washington Post,” and several accounts of a different Mexican double yellow-headed parrot named Loretta, who lived at the White House during the McKinley administration. This bird could also reportedly whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but her signature trick was much less charming, per a 1904 report from the Boston Globe:

Whenever any of the colored help came into the room, the parrot would sing out, “All C‑‑ns Look Alike to Me,” and this tickled Mr. McKinley immensely.

It would be quite a coincidence if McKinley had two Mexican double yellow-headed parrots, both of whom could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” only one of whom was a virulent racist. Occam’s razor says that Loretta and Washington Post were the same bird, which would mean that subsequent efforts to transform Loretta from a minstrelsy enthusiast into a lovable pet—going so far as to change her name!—are part of a cynical public relations maneuver known as the “Reverse Milkshake Parrot.”

George Washington had several dogs with memorable names—Sweetlips, Drunkard, Tippler, and Tipsy, to name a few—but only one dog who stole an entire ham, making Vulcan the obvious leader of the pack. An account of Vulcan’s heist is found in the memoirs of George Washington’s son George Washington Parke Custis.

It happened that upon a large company sitting down to dinner at Mount Vernon one day, the lady of the mansion (my grandmother) discovered that the ham, the pride of every Virginia housewife’s table, was missing from its accustomed post of honor. Upon questioning Frank, the butler, this portly, and at the same time most polite and accomplished of all butlers, observed that a ham, yes, a very fine ham, had been prepared agreeably to the Madam’s orders, but lo and behold! who should come into the kitchen, while the savory ham was smoking in its dish, but old Vulcan, the hound, and without more ado fastened his fangs into it and although they of the kitchen had stood to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, yet Vulcan had finally triumphed, and bore off the prize, ay, “cleanly, under the keeper’s nose.” The lady by no means relished the loss of a dish which formed the pride of her table, and uttered some remarks by no means favorable to old Vulcan, or indeed to dogs in general, while the chief, having heard the story, communicated it to his guests, and, with them, laughed heartily at the exploit of the stag-hound.

So why is Vulcan, by all accounts an excellent ham thief, in the cellars of the presidential pet rankings? First, technically Vulcan did not steal this ham while George Washington was president. More importantly, Washington himself was a real bastard about other people’s dogs, writing in a 1792 letter to his overseer at Mount Vernon that “if any negro presumes under any pretence whatsoever to preserve, or bring one into the family, that he shall be severely punished, and the dog hanged,” then going on to opine that “it is not for any good purpose Negroes raise, or keep dogs but to aid them in their night robberies.” It’s not fair to punish Vulcan in the official presidential pet rankings because of Washington’s bigotry, but it also isn’t fair to hang a dog because it belongs to a person you have enslaved. So shed no tears for Vulcan, who at least got to eat an entire ham.

Andrew Johnson did not arrive at the White House with any pets, nor did he officially acquire any while he stayed there. However, his private secretary, W. G. Moore, kept a diary in which he recorded a petlike incident: One weekend afternoon during Johnson’s impeachment, he found the president marveling over a basket of flour he’d shipped from a mill his family owned. Moore observed that some of the mice infesting the White House at that time had gotten into the flour Johnson told him that he was planning to leave flour and water out for them going forward. Johnson scholars will not be surprised to hear that these were white mice.

Rex, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel belonging to Ronald Reagan, was famously badly behaved, constantly barking and pulling Nancy Reagan all over the White House lawn. You can see him in action at 6:10 in this video—and you can also see why people joked that the Reagans preferred not to train Rex, because he was always dragging them away from reporters before they could face any questions.

Rex apparently ended up at the White House because Nancy Reagan liked William F. Buckley’s dog and Ronald tracked down one of its siblings and gave it to her as a present. Rex lived in a custom-built doghouse designed by Theo Hayes—the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes’ great-great-grandson—which was decked out with parquet floors, curtains, and a framed photograph of the Reagans on the wall. Perfectly ghastly.

Chester A. Arthur is rumored to have had a pet rabbit, but I couldn’t find a source for this story and suspect it’s yet another example of pro-rabbit disinformation from Big Rabbit. 36 th place.

Millard Fillmore reportedly had two ponies named Mason and Dixon. Unfortunately, those two ponies appear to have vanished from history without leaving much of an impression, except for their names. A clever name will only get you so far, and this is exactly how far a clever name will get two ponies in a ranking of the presidents’ pets: 35 th place.

A clever name will only get you so far, but if you combine that clever name with being a dang possum, you can get a little further. In 1892, Benjamin Harrison expressed a desire for some “possums as soon as frost sets in,” and soon thereafter, a box was delivered to the White House containing two live possums, with a note reading: “To the president. Two citizens of Maryland—Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity—with the compliments of John R. [Howlett], 1411 N Street, Northwest.” Sending someone a box containing two live possums is not necessarily a friendly gesture, but Protection and Reciprocity were campaign slogans of the Harrison-Reid ticket, so Howlett probably meant well.

Although they show up on most lists of presidential pets, occasionally accompanied by a story about Harrison giving them to his grandkids, Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity probably didn’t fare very well at the White House: One story about their arrival was headlined “’Possums for Harrison’s Sunday Dinner.” As the Library of Congress has noted, a newspaper in Kentucky wrote an “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs”–type article arguing that Harrison was pandering to Black voters—possum was then a staple in Black southern cuisine—writing that “when the president orders ’possum and sweet potatoes, every negro voter is expected to forget all grounds of disaffection and come cheerfully to the support of the ticket.” Even so, while Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity most likely received neither protection nor reciprocity from Harrison, they had very clever names plus, they were possums. Eat their dust, Mason and Dixon!

The teacup dogs belonging to Franklin Pierce are a real cursed frogurt-type situation. Brought to the United States from Japan by the Perry Expedition, they were probably Japanese Chins. There’s a detailed account of one of them, named Bonin, who was “a little creature with a head like a bird with a blunt beak, eyes large and popped, and a body like a new-born puppy of the smallest kind … prettily marked with a band of white about his otherwise jet-black body.” (That’s good!) The description was written by Jefferson Davis’ second wife, Varina Pierce gave the dog to his friend, the future president of the Confederacy, as a gift. (That’s bad!) Bonin became, in Varina’s words, “the scourge of the servants and of the family” for being always underfoot. (That’s good!) Over the years, however, he reportedly became less annoying. (That’s bad!) In 1861, Davis left the dog in Washington in order to found a new nation built on slavery (that’s really bad, but maybe OK for the dog), and sometime shortly thereafter, he was “fed … with so many dainties that he died of indigestion.” (Can I go now?) It’s unclear what became of the other dogs, but if the most notable thing any of them achieved was “being given as a gift to Jefferson Fucking Davis,” how great could they have been, really?


Hands-On Activities for James Buchanan Unit Study

Now that you’ve learned the main President James Buchanan facts, try out some of these ideas, which we’ve organized by grade level, to enhance your unit study of the 15th president of the United States.

Elementary James Buchanan Activities

Buchanan served as an ambassador for the U.S. to both Russia and Great Britain. Have your elementary student research a little bit about what the job of a U.S. Ambassador is. Have them imagine that they could be an ambassador to any country they wanted. What country would it be and what would they want to accomplish in their time as ambassador there?

Cuba is a country that Buchanan tried repeatedly to obtain from Spain. It is located only 103 miles from the tip of Florida. It is fascinating to think about what might have happened if it had become a U.S. territory. Instead, it has had a tumultuous history of its own. Have your elementary student research Cuba and create an illustrated timeline of some of the key points in Cuban history.

Middle School James Buchanan Activities

Slavery is a key theme of the political career of James Buchanan. Do you have an educational field trip destination within driving distance that highlights the plight of slaves? If so, take a trip there and use it as a discussion starter about the events leading up to the Civil War. Don’t have a field trip opportunity nearby? You can view a documentary of slave narratives on YouTube instead.

Does your middle schooler have a bent for the theatrical? Have him/her act out the conversation between Lincoln and Buchanan following the inauguration. Buchanan was truly passing over a country in crisis. What might they have said to one another on that ride?

High School James Buchanan Activities

The issue of “states rights” is just as relevant today as it was in Buchanan’s political era. Ask your high schooler to consider some of the current events with ongoing debates between state and federal jurisdiction such as gun control, minimum wage systems, unionization, and school choice. Have them choose one of those issues to write a persuasive essay about, by choosing whether they feel that federal or states rights should have preeminence on the matter.

Using the tools on the free website Measuring Worth, have your high schooler compare the wealth of 30-year-old James Buchanan in the year 1819, ($250,000) to see what his estate would be worth in today’s economy.



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