"Basically, people blame him for the Civil War and for not doing something significant to stop it," said Karl Reisner. Reisner, a history teacher at Mercersburg Academy, has given lectures about Buchanan and spoke about him on a C-SPAN show in the late 1990s.
Buchanan's rep: He didn't prevent the Civil War
During Buchanan's tenure as president, 1857-61, seven states seceded from the United States. Buchanan denied the legal right of states to secede, but didn't think the federal government could prevent them, according to his biography at www.whitehouse.gov.
There's an assumption that something else could have been done other than war, Lum said. "I don't think that's true. War was inevitable."
Buchanan is an easy target, according to Reisner and Lum.
"(There's) a lot to be said for Buchanan being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Lum said. Buchanan was trying to do what he thought was right at the time, Lum said, but doing nothing as states seceded was an indictment on Buchanan. It was at the end of Buchanan's term - after Abraham Lincoln's election, but before his inauguration - that the seven states seceded.
"I'm not saying that he's the best president either. He is the local boy, I guess, and you want to support him. It's kind of like blaming (President Herbert) Hoover for the entire Great Depression," Lum said.
He definitely wasn't the best or even a good president, Lum said, but he wasn't the worst.
"Events make the man and how the presidents deal with those events make a strong president," Lum said. That's why Lincoln (No. 1) and George Washington (No. 2) tend to fare well in such surveys, he said.
C-SPAN asked 147 historians and other professional observers of the presidency to rate each of the former 42 presidents on a scale of 1 to 10 in 10 categories.
Buchanan ranked last in seven categories: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times. The other three categories were relations with Congress (Buchanan ranked 41st), international relations (40th) and administrative skills (38th).
Survey participant David Greenberg said he doesn't claim to be an expert on 19th-century presidents. He has focused on 20th-century politics; he wrote books on Richard Nixon and Calvin Coolidge.
Presidential ratings like C-SPAN's are "kind of silly," Greenberg said. "They're not that historically illuminating. You don't put a number on someone's performance as president," he said.
The fact that C-SPAN's survey includes rankings in 10 categories, makes it worse for Greenberg because it provides a false sense of scientific precision. The survey is not science, he said, but judgments being made.
So what's the judgment?
The C-SPAN survey, found online at www.c-span.org/PresidentialSurvey, doesn't include comments from the historians. For that, you'd have to contact them or Google around a bit.
Ken Ackerman, a lawyer and author, wrote about his participation in the survey in his blog, "Guerilla History: A Forum on History, Politics, and the World." In the bottom three spots, Ackerman listed George W. Bush (raw score of 40 out of 100), Buchanan (40) and Andrew Johnson (36).
Walter Berns, a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, was a survey participant. He judged Buchanan harshly in a February lecture.
The lecture was about Abraham Lincoln. Berns mentioned Lincoln's decision to go to war to save the Union after seven Southern states had seceded.
"His predecessor, the incompetent fool James Buchanan, believed that the states had no right to secede from the Union but that there was nothing he could do about it if they did," said Berns, according to a transcript of the lecture.
Asked about the presidential survey during a recent phone interview, Berns said, "As I recall, I rated (Buchanan) last," adding there was "no contest."
"If you happen to be president at the time when nothing is going on, it doesn't really matter if you're incompetent. Unfortunately, he was president of the United States at a very significant time, and he failed miserably," Berns said.
In Buchanan's defense, Mercersburg teacher Reisner said Buchanan was extremely popular and gifted at dealing with foreign countries. Reisner said Buchanan's ratings for international relations and moral authority deserve to be better.
Buchanan spent 40 years in public service to his country, Reisner said. He was a congressman, senator, ambassador and secretary of state.
"That's what I do. I defend him. But I don't try to argue that he's the greatest president. I argue that he's misunderstood," Reisner said.