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OpenLearn Live: 11th November 2016

Updated Friday, 11th November 2016

The worst president of all time plus Nasa on small satellites. Then more learning and research across the day.

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OpenLearnLive dips a small bucket into the well of online learning and research. This page will be updated across the day.

Yesterday, we found out what happens in the brain when people don't like cheese, and why brand names can be improved with a little linguistic forethought

On this day last year, we found a use for fish poo, asked where leaves actually come from, and explored the history of Armistice Day

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

Something small in a big universe

This from NASA's Tumblr:

Space science at The Open University

BBC Radio 4, 4pm today: More Or Less

There were a lot of numbers thrown around during the US election. And even more since. If you want a handle on making sense of some of them, the OU/BBC co-production that thrives on statistics is the place to turn - there's a More Or Less election special at 4pm today, and - thereafter - on iPlayer.

Listen to More or Less online

Read more about this episode of More Or Less

Dying to the last

Today, the 11th of the 11th, is the day when we remember those who gave their lives in war.

The time and date of this act of Rememberance is an echo of the point when the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War.

Up until that moment - even after the end of the war had been agreed - fighting continued, and people continued to die. How did this come happen?

That's a question Michael Palin investigated for Timewatch. Watch him telling the story of those last hours.

Bad Presidents: James Buchanan

This week, with the question 'just how bad can an American President be' hanging in the air, we've been looking at those on the bottom of the pile. For our measure of the worst of the worst, we've been using a Wikipedia table which aggregated a number of 'best of' rankings, and then looked at the very bottom of the list. Since we started, Donald Trump's name has appeared as the final entry but - in fairness - this is because he's not actually been a president yet, and so he floats about without any data to give him a position on the list.

And, obviously, 'worst' is an opinion rather than a fact - even if you combine a lot of subjective opinions, it's still a starting point for debate rather than immutably so. For example, on this reckoning, George W Bush is considered to have been a worse President than Richard Nixon. Whatever you think about the younger Bush, it seems a bit much to be considered worse than a man who resigned in disgrace.

If you've missed any of our not very good Commanders In Chief, here's the week so far, in descending order:

If you have been following us day-by-day, you'll not be surprised by the worst of the worst, though, as we said we'd be back to consider him on Friday. It's James Buchanan. Here's the high spot of his Presidency, where he was being sworn in. 

James Buchanan inauguration 1857 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain

And as high spots go, even this one isn't that high - Buchanan had picked up an illness while visiting Washington as President elect, so even the crowning moment of his political career was a bit bittersweet,

We've been fair to Donald Trump and George W Bush so far in this piece, so lets set out by cutting Buchanan a little bit of slack. He became President after the slightly-less rubbish Franklin Pierce, into a country that was dripping dispute over the issue of slavery. He wanted to bring together the North and the South, but his bid to bring about compromise just made both sides turn on him. It's possible he was set an impossible task, and that sooner or later the country was going to have to fight itself into some sort of resolution.

And if you're looking for something positive to say about him - well, historian John Howard offers strong reason to believe that Buchanan was America's first queer President:

Describing his deteriorating social life after his great love, William Rufus King, senator from Alabama, had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote:

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. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.

Okay, it's hard to warm to a man who, having been knocked back on whatever the 19th century equivalent of Tinder was, concludes 'well, I better find a woman who isn't that fussy otherwise I might have to make my own supper'. 

During his time in the White House, Buchanan did have a first lady, but as a single man, the role was taken by his neice Harriet Lane. Uncle James cheerily warned Harriet off "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions" - maybe he was worried some man might want to marry her solely so that he had a nurse to hand for when he was ill.

It was his politics rather than his domestic arrangements which have condemned Buchanan to the bottom of the pile. He felt slavery an evil - but placed the constitution ahead of such concerns of "little practical importance". Like his predecessors he happily threw his weight behind compromises to hold the United States together.

Eventually, this stack of fudge was going to crumble, and Buchanan was the man in charge when fudge gave way.

Buchanan's fate was to be followed by a man who could steer the US through a schism and even reunite it, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had such skills he could pick up the leadership of a nation that had fractured, and still come out as the best President on the list that Buchanan is on the bottom of. To add insult to that injury, it was Lincoln's election that kicked off Buchanan's final disaster.

Lincoln was elected in November 1860 but wouldn't be taking up office until the following March. Facing a President elect pledged to prevent the spread of slavery, the Southern states became agitated. South Carolina senator James Chesnut resigned, quickly followed by the other South Carolina senators. This was starting to look like a secession crisis, something that a weary President, hoping to just run down the clock, really wasn't in a great place to cope with.

Buchanan told Congress that he believed secession was illegal but, erm, that there wasn't really anything that he could do to stop them:

“All for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil


It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.”

By the time Buchanan handed over to Lincoln, seven states had seceeded. Riding with his replacmement to the the inauguration, Buchanan observed:

"If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man."

So, perhaps, Buchanan wouldn't be that upset at being thought the worst occupant of the White House. He was just happy to be out of the place.

More from OpenLearn on the American Civil War

Transfer of power 2016: Donald Trump, President Elect

Study history with The Open University





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