The Worst Dickinsonians?

james buchanan, dickinson magazine

U.S. President James Buchanan, class of 1809.

The range and tone of letters we’ve received about Dickinsonians Roger Taney, class of 1795, and James Buchanan, class of 1809, over this past year have inspired us at Dickinson Magazine to explore their legacies further. Below is the debate-via-epistle that was launched by a letter to the editor in the fall 2014 issue, penned by Michael A. Della Vecchia ’68, along with links to resources recommended by Associate Director for Information Literacy and Research Services Christine Bombaro '93. 

Fall 2014

Michael A. Della Vecchia ’68:

I read with interest the summer [2014] issue and was particularly drawn to the story “Deep Roots.” Our daughter, Margaret, was a legacy, graduating in 2010. The article states that one of the first legacies to graduate was Robert Cooper Grier, in 1812. His father, Isaac Grier, was a member of the second graduating class at Dickinson, in 1788. Readers might be interested to know that Robert Cooper Grier was a judge of the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The county seat of Allegheny County is Pittsburgh. I am a member of that court, as well as various other Dickinsonians.

Grier went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, when he was appointed to that position by then President James Polk in 1846. Grier retired from the Supreme Court in 1870, and it was believed at the time that he served under more presidents than any other sitting justice of the court.

It is interesting to me that this small college of ours has produced at least two members of the U.S. Supreme Court: Grier and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, class of 1795. People of my era will remember Dickinson President Howard Rubendall’s oft-spoken declaration that when Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office, “to his left stood a Dickinsonian and to his right stood a Dickinsonian”: James Buchanan, class of 1809, was the outgoing president, and Taney, who swore in President Lincoln.

I also take particular pride in the fact that this college of ours produced two members of the Supreme Court and one president. It is my belief that these accomplishments outrank the accomplishments of probably 95 percent of the law schools in this country.

Winter 2015

Robert D. Kaplan '58:

I must issue a strong dissent to the letter (opinion) of Michael A. Della Vecchia '68 published in the fall issue, in which he brags about two Dickinson graduates: Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, class of 1795, and President James Buchanan, class of 1809. I feel nothing but chagrin that I share a Dickinson degree with these two personages. Taney, who was chief justice from 1835 until his death in 1861, was the author of the horrific Dred Scott decision, which upheld slavery in the most strident terms, stating for example that slaves were not citizens of the United States. Buchanan, a single-term president (1857-61) is almost uniformly thought to have been the worst U.S. president: Nate Silver recently stated that Buchanan was the "43rd best President." There are many Dickinson graduates of whom we can be very proud, but certainly not Taney and Buchanan. Let's keep their affiliation to ourselves.

Spring 2015

Anne E. Pinkerton '63:

I wanted to join Robert Kaplan '58 in his letter of dissent (winter 2015) to Michael Della Vecchia '68's letter (fall 2014) about Chief Justice Roger Taney, class of 1795, and President James Buchanan, class of 1809. I had just Googled Roger Taney and was dismayed to learn this Dickinson graduate had issued the notorious Dred Scott decision. I also share the belief that Buchanan was at least one of the worst presidents we've ever had. At the same time, I was proud and impressed when I read that Judge John E. Jones III '77, P'11 had graduated from Dickinson. I am sure there are many others with whom I can be proud to share a Dickinson degree, but I do not wish to be tainted with Taney's and Buchanan's brush.

Summer 2015

John P. “Pete” Mazza ’63:

I would like to join and reinforce the comments of Robert Kaplan ’58 and Anne Pinkerton ’63 regarding Dickinson alumni Chief Justice Roger Taney, class of 1795, and President James Buchanan, class of 1809. retirement I am now teaching U.S. and world history courses at a number of retirement communities in the Seattle area.

I believe it is essential to provide an objective analysis of those whose efforts and decisions were instrumental or detrimental to the integrity of both our judicial and political structures. Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case reduced the status of the slave population to the same level as a farm animal. President Buchanan did everything but lead, and he became known as a “doughface” for his lack of decisiveness, the only standout effort being a letter to Taney in a brazen attempt to influence the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Scott case.

Bill Heck ’58:

This letter is in rebuttal to Robert Kaplan ’58 and Anne Pinkerton ’63’s dissenting views on Michael Della Vecchia ’68’s praise of Taney and Buchanan. After reviewing their accomplishments I feel that they should be honored as distinguished members of our college family.

Taney graduated with honors and served his state, Maryland, as legislator, senator and attorney general. He supported Andrew Jackson for president and served his administration as attorney general and secretary of the treasury. He was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, serving from 1836 to 1864. Many modern legal scholars feel that “despite the [Dred Scott v. Sandford] decision … he was both an outstanding jurist and competent judicial administrator.” The case was decided by a 7-2 vote and reflected the thinking of many people in the mid-19th century. Obviously, times have changed, and our state and federal legislatures and courts have responded accordingly.

Buchanan also graduated with honors, settling in Lancaster and establishing a successful law practice. His political career included two terms as a Pennsylvania state assemblyman, five terms as a U.S. congressman, 10 years as a U.S. senator, several years as secretary of state under President James K. Polk and minister to both Russia and Great Britain.

He declined an offer to become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His term as the 15th president of the U.S. was during a period of great turmoil in our country, and as a student of the Constitution he tried to maintain a balance in his appointments.

He believed in compromise and diplomacy, which unfortunately was not possible in the political atmosphere of the late 1850s. He maintained that secession by the Southern states was not constitutional, but he also felt going to war was illegal. His motto was “I acknowledge no master but the law,” and his administration was scandal free. While he is indeed ranked near the bottom of U.S. presidents, those rankings are subjective. John F. Kennedy, when asked about this subject, said, “No one has a right to grade a president — even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair first.”

Alan P. Bruce ’68:

I write to enter the Red Devil dust-up that seems to have been generated by Judge Michael Della Vecchia ’68’s letter in the fall 2014 issue and to respond to Robert Kaplan ’58’s and Anne E. Pinkerton ’63’s critiques. I suggest that Mr. Kaplan and Ms..Pinkerton, with understandable visceral disdain for Taney based upon his opinion in the Dred Scott case, and for President Buchanan for his singularly undistinguished career as president, have misunderstood the point of Della Vecchia’s letter. It was not to pass out collegiate laurels; it was to remind Dickinsonians that included among the long line of graduates who have proceeded up the steps at Old West were two Supreme Court justices (one of them chief justice) and a U.S. president.

Notwithstanding the moral void of the Dred Scott decision, a more balanced and nuanced view of Taney may be in order. And certainly we can be assured that his presence on the roll of Dickinson alumni does not dull the luster of the diploma its many graduates have received, devalue their excellent educations nor diminish their pride in the institution.

Michael A. Della Vecchia ’68:

Regarding the letters of criticism published in the last two issues, I respectfully submit that both critics have misunderstood the intent and content of my initial letter, in which I pointed out that when you take so small a school as Dickinson and note that among its alumni are two U.S. Supreme Court justices and a U.S..president, that should be a point of pride.

I’m reminded of a similar incident many years ago, when the entertainer and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell mentioned in a nationally televised interview that she had gone to Dickinson and thought it was a wonderful place, but that she had “flunked out.” In a subsequent issue of the magazine, the calendar of events included O’Donnell’s birthday. This drew harsh letters from people who disagreed with O’Donnell’s humor and social philosophy. I would not criticize same, but would simply accept the fact that she was kind enough to say something complimentary about the college in a very public setting.

The purpose of a liberal-arts education is to broaden one’s perspective. Buchanan, Grier, Taney, O’Donnell and innumerable other controversial individuals populate the ranks of any long-standing institution. That one or more of our graduates may have left behind a legacy of disappointment casts no pall on this institution or others who have gone here.

Bob Mordeczko ’88:

I am responding to Anne Pinkerton ’63’s letter in the spring issue. I disagree with her opinion of Taney and Buchanan. In my view, it is best not to base a conclusion on one sample of a person’s life. I first became aware that Taney and Buchanan were Dickinson graduates when I was one of Professor of Political Science Harold Pohlman’s Dana research interns working on his book Political Thought and the American Judiciary (1993), while I was a student at Dickinson.

It is regrettable that Taney wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, and there is an analysis of the case in Pohlman’s book. However, in my opinion, and to give justice to the totality of Taney’s life, he did reach the highest level in the federal judiciary and served 1836-64, a substantial period of time. Moreover, in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837), Taney handed down a landmark opinion that anticipated the federal antitrust policies of the early-20th century and, for the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court placed public interest above private property rights.

In my continued reading after college on the United States’ political history, I came to the conclusion that no president immediately before or after Abraham Lincoln could have been considered successful, because of purely political reasons. Thus, Buchanan and President Andrew Johnson consistently appear at the bottom of various rankings of U.S. presidents over the years.

Buchanan served not only in the highest office of the land, but also as secretary of state, in both houses of Congress and as minister to Great Britain and to Russia. Both Taney and Buchanan lived lives of purpose, consequence and substance, and when looking at the totality of their lives, both are worthy of respect. Going forward, let all Dickinsonians focus on these three words: purpose, consequence and substance. And in the very least, Taney and Buchanan embody all three in the totality of their lives.

Christine Bombaro ’93:

As one of Dickinson’s librarians, my office is situated next to a larger-than-life portrait of Buchanan that hangs in the stairwell on the Spahr side of the Waidner-Spahr Library. From my vantage point, I frequently hear a decades-old joke about Buchanan to the effect that he was “arguably Dickinson’s worst student ever, who went on to become arguably the worst president of the United States.”

The decisions that Buchanan made, along with those of fellow alumnus Taney, certainly exacerbated conditions that led to the American Civil War and contributed to the oppression of thousands of African Americans. But when, I wonder, will that joke about Buchanan be tempered with historical context, and when will it be followed by stories of Civil War-era alumni of whom we can be proud? No one standing beneath that portrait uses the opportunity to tell the stories of the soldiers, the abolitionists and the politicians who fought to preserve the Union and put it back together after its fracture.

Have you ever heard the story of Moncure Conway, class of 1849? How about James McKim, class of 1828? Horatio Collins King, class of 1858? Or John McClintock, class of 1858? John A.J. Creswell, also class of 1848? If these names are unfamiliar to you, I encourage you to use Dickinson’s free online resources such as House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, the James Buchanan Resource Center and other Civil War resources created by Dickinson professors, archivists, librarians, students and information-technology professionals. Rather than disavowing a part of our history, let’s talk about how events inspired those we should celebrate.

Learn more


Published July 28, 2015