Sunday, August 19, 2007

Number 15: James Buchanan

Years in office: 1857-1861
Pre-service occupations: state representative (Pennsylvania), U.S. representative, U.S. senator, secretary of state, foreign minister (England)
Key events during his administration: Dred Scott decision (1857); continuing Kansas troubles (1857-58); Panic of 1857; John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859); Mormon War (1859); South Carolina secedes (1860); Fort Sumter crisis (1861, beginning); states admitted to the Union: Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859) and Kansas (1861)
Presidential rating: Failed (with some caveats) and largely unpopular


Mention the name President James Buchanan and you’re likely to invoke a near-universal appraisal: failure. The judgment is usually rendered with scorn and sometimes with pity—but often without understanding.

James Buchanan is one of the presidents I most wanted to investigate when I dreamed up this series. Before researching Buchanan, my mental image of him was that he was the man who punted the secession crisis to his successor and couldn’t get out of town fast enough.

Is that what happened? Did he really punt? Or was he helpless to stop it? What actions did Buchanan take to try to mend the country? Or did he even want to mend it? Was he merely minding time in the White House? Was he bitter? Did he believe he could have saved the Union? I had many questions about ol’ Buck, and fortunately, I now have those answers—and my prior image of him was wrong.

James Buchanan was certainly no incompetent slouch: a state party-builder, a representative, a senator, a secretary of state and a foreign minister, he had a resume that most modern seekers of the White House would envy. He was elected precisely because he was seen as the “safe” man to hold the nation together and beat back the extremists. But instead, his term ended with the dissolution of the Union. As biographer Elbert Smith writes at the end of his study, The Presidency of James Buchanan, “No president had better intentions than James Buchanan. Few have done more to frustrate their own objectives.” (Smith, p. 198)

What happened? And more importantly, why? Let’s find out.

Note: keep in mind that while some predicted a dissolution of the Union—even Buchanan was saying during the debates over the Compromise of 1850 that there would soon be two nations—no one could truly foresee the tremendous bloodshed that was about to follow secession. As with Buchanan’s predecessors, I will look at the 15th president as he saw events unfold, and not through the jaded eyes of people quick to condemn him.

The bachelor and the uncle and political career
When he was a young lad in Pennsylvania, Buchanan fell in love. But his intended died, and Buchanan, out of respect for her, never married. He remained a bachelor his whole life; cartoonists sometimes poked fun at Buchanan’s confirmed bachelor status. In the meantime, Buchanan loved to surround himself with his many nieces and nephews. When he was in the White House, his niece Harriet Lane, whom he had adopted, served as hostess. He wrote many letters to most of them, and often felt parental responsibilities for some of them, including providing financial support.

Contemporary speculations about Buchanan’s relations with his long-time roommate, Rufus King (Pierce’s literally short-lived vice-president) are beyond the scope of this study, and besides, regardless of the veracity, appear to have had no bearing on his presidency.

When Buchanan entered politics, he was already a committed Federalist. He believed the War of 1812 was thoroughly unconstitutional, although that didn’t prevent him from volunteering for service during the defense of Baltimore in 1814. He rose to prominence in Pennsylvania politics and eventually went to the U.S. House. In the ‘30s, he joined the new Democratic Party when he was elected to the Senate. He then served as Polk’s highly effective secretary of state (that was quite a stormy relationship). He returned to Lancaster to serve on a college board, but returned to politics in 1856 when he tried to get the Democratic nomination only to lose to Franklin Pierce. His fellow Democrat appointed him minister to London, where his most notable act was to co-author the Ostend Manifesto calling for the purchase or seizure by force of Cuba. He would continue his dreams for Cuba during his presidency.

Election of 1856: Why Buchanan?
Serving as Polk’s secretary of state and Pierce’s minister to London (the most important diplomatic post) raised Buchanan’s profile considerably. He had wanted to succeed Polk, but the mutual distaste and distrust between the two men made that impossible. And, of course, he lost the nomination to Pierce in 1852. But now he believed the time was right, and he had the credentials, the standing and the right mentality to get that nomination and the presidency. (Note: The entry on Buchanan on Wikipedia claims Buchanan did not want to run, but that’s incorrect. Take all political information on Wikipedia with a grain of salt.)

He had many friends in the South both because of his views (see the next section) and genuine friendships formed during his years in government. He was known as a skilled politician, canny, able, well prepared, well versed—but that didn’t stop even his friendly contemporaries from giving him the unflattering nickname “The Old Public Functionary.” Still, Buchanan had one huge advantage over other nomination rivals, especially Stephen A. Douglas: He was utterly untainted by the Kansas-Nebraska mess because he had been in London the entire time.

Buchanan emerged as the “safe” choice as opposed to Douglas, and in the wider election, as definitely safer than the Republican candidate, John C. Fremont. Buchanan ran on an ambiguous platform that appeared to endorse both Southern and Northern interpretations of the popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska imbroglio, where slavery’ status could be decided all the way up to statehood. As long as he remained ambiguous, Buchanan was fine. It was only after he won that Buchanan abandoned the vagueness that served him well during the campaign, and subsequently got in serious trouble.

Fremont, of course, was totally unacceptable to the South, because they believed—rather incorrectly—that a Republican victory would mean the end of slavery and the South (more on that below). The third candidate, former president Fillmore, was not seen by most voters as the Union alternative to both the Republicans and Democrats, despite Fillmore’s best efforts.

Fillmore had done OK—better than any other third-party candidate in American history—but he took more from Fremont than Buchanan, because the Democrat was ultimately seen as the man to preserve the Union. Buchanan’s platform was essentially the same as Pierce’s, appealing to national unity and the Constitution, with the addition of the implication that slavery should be decided only when statehood was at hand. While Buchanan himself was uninspiring, he seemed safe and able to hold the Union together.

See the adjoining map: Buchanan swept the South, lower Midwest, California and all the border states except Maryland, which went to Fillmore, while Fremont took the upper Midwest and New England. With 45% of the popular vote to Fremont’s 33% and Fillmore’s strong 22%, Buchanan won the electoral college with 59% to Fremont’s 38% and Fillmore’s 3%.

Before we get into the Buchanan presidency, however, we must first understand Buchanan’s mind.

Pro-Southern or pragmatic politician?
Historians don’t agree on James Buchanan’s leanings. Was he pro-Southern? Was he pro-slavery? Was he anti-antislavery? Was he a strong believer in the Constitution above all else? In other words, why did he, like his immediate predecessor, always take the Southern point of view at seemingly face value, and refuse to even countenance the Northern perspective?

In the introduction to James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s, a book Michael J. Birkner put together from a symposium on James Buchanan held in 1991, Birkner writes:

“Assessments of Buchanan as politician vary. His sympathetic biographer, Philip S. Klein, highlights Buchanan’s pragmatism within the context of consistent commitment to basic Democratic (party) values, such as strict construction of the Constitution and recognition of the rights of the slaveholding South. By contrast, scholars like Elbert B. Smith (and others) have detected a pro-Southern orientation to his politics. In a variation on this theme, Don Fehrenbacher portrays the Pennsylvanian less as pro-Southern than anti-antislavery in his political slant. Buchanan’s severest critics, including such prominent historians as David Donald (Big Mo note: author of the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lincoln) and Roy F. Nichols, would probably accept that assessment, but they depict him primarily as a wire-puller and self-promoter. … The disagreement is, at bottom, not resolvable, nor is it critical to resolve it. Buchanan was what he was, a canny wheeler-dealer with a certain demagogic appeal for foreign policy issues. Until the end of his career, it worked for him.” (Birkner, p.24-25)
However Buchanan is defined by historians, his outlook and policies made him appear pro-Southern. As usually happens, perception is more powerful than reality, but Buchanan didn’t help himself through actions that guaranteed that Northerners would view him as nothing more than a tool for the slave power, instead of someone to hold the nation together. Right from the start, Buchanan messed up badly.

Meddling with the Dred Scott decision
Before Buchanan took office, the Supreme Court was nearing a decision on a decade-long case sent its way precisely because a definitive ruling was sought. Without getting into the details of how the Dred Scott case came before the high court, in sum the court was to decide whether a slave could sue for freedom.

While struggling to compose a soothing inaugural address, Buchanan learned of the impending decision. He hoped it would come out in concurrence with his taking office; more importantly, he hoped for a ruling from the high court that would place slavery beyond the reach of politics. He improperly communicated with two of the justices, in fact urging one of them to join with the majority. At Buchanan’s urging, a pliable justice from Pennsylvania did just that.

The ruling, which came shortly after Buchanan’s inaugural, was stunning: No African, slave or free, could be considered a citizen of the United States, and Congress lacked any authority to prohibit slavery in the territories, thus legally erasing the Missouri Compromise. The ruling itself is filled with amazingly racist language. Some of the sentiments may have been felt both North and South, but the ruling itself was received quite differently.

The new president was happy, naively thinking slavery was now politically untouchable and the sectional conflict would cool down. But if Buchanan had surrounded himself with better advisors, or had let himself realize that the Southern viewpoint was not the only viewpoint and that the support for Republicanism in the North was a lot stronger than he thought, maybe he would not have been so happy.

The North was mad. Explains Smith, “To Northerners it was a crushing violation of the democratic principle by the Slave Power with the open support and connivance by the president. … It was hardly an auspicious beginning for a president whose stated goal was to quiet the Northern fanaticism against slavery.” (Smith, p.28-29) Northerners were also quite upset that the high court had proclaimed on slavery in a manner that seemed to have said they, the people, could have no more say on it.

How much did Buchanan’s meddling affect the decision? Chief Justice Taney was going to make a statement no matter what, and it’s possible that the court was originally going to affirm the lower court’s decision without making a sweeping ruling. But Taney and other justices apparently agreed with Buchanan and his allies that it was time for the high court to say something definitive on the slavery issue. His meddling may not have been decisive in changing the direction of the court, but it certainly played a part.

A cabinet from yesteryear
President Buchanan also didn’t help himself when he selected his cabinet. Douglas Democrats were personas non-gratis for Buchanan, which was unfortunate and not a good way to lead a party. But because of his enmity toward the Little Giant, Buchanan chose many Southerners and a handful of Northerners of varying ability. None truly served Buchanan well because they were a throwback to an earlier era. All of them either were from another era—old, fat Lewis Cass as secretary of state—or were from rural sections that were more Jacksonian in outlook than modern. The fault was of course Buchanan’s, for having been out of the political scene for eight years, he still retained the Jacksonian mindset.

What this means is that he and his cabinet viewed matters from the standpoint of a much more rural, and much less engaged, America. But American had changed, especially over the last decade. America was much more connected socially and commercially than it was during the heyday of the Jacksonians when the new Democrats and Whigs were at their best. People in all sections were demanding solutions to problems—especially the most vexing one of them all—instead of lofty Jeffersonian principles.

Thus, Buchanan actually handicapped himself. His secretary of state was all but a non-entity; Cass had just lost his Senate seat and was given the office as a sop to an old Democratic warrior. Buchanan would perform those duties himself with the help of the assistant secretary. Worse, his secretary of war, John B. Floyd, was utterly incompetent. Some historians say he was the most incompetent cabinet officer ever.

They would often seem like “yes” men to Buchanan, but only because they agreed with the president, and the president agreed with him.

Kansas revisited and the Lecompton constitution
Buchanan’s third early big mistake came in Kansas. When he took office, Kansas has two governments: a proslavery government formally recognized by the Pierce administration but not by most Kansans, and a free-state government ordered disbanded by the Pierce administration that was nevertheless recognized by most Kansans.

Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Mississippi the new territorial governor. Walker determined that Kansas would end up being a free state. He also decided there should be a statewide census and referendum on a new constitution rather than let two competing governments continue. The issue is more complicated than I have space to explain here, but essentially, the numerically superior free-state supporters would easily defeat a proslavery constitution.

However, several things happened. Kansas was not canvassed properly, which discounted large numbers of free-staters automatically. The free-state legislature, distrusting Walker, failed to support his initiative. And an arbitrary cut-off date meant that emigrating free-staters were ineligible for the referendum.

In the end, a small minority elected a proslavery government, with a constitution that forbade any referendum on slavery until 1864. Most of Kansas was furious, as were Northerners and Douglas Democrats, who felt betrayed. Despite evidence of massive fraud and many irregularities—and the advice of the new governor of Kansas (Walker was gone)—Buchanan submitted the constitution to Congress. The president believed the immediate admission of Kansas as a slave state would weaken the Republicans and strengthen the Democrats in the election in two years.

But he miscalculated again through a sheer misunderstanding if the situation. By supporting an unpopular state constitution, the president was enabling the Republicans, not thwarting them. He angered Northern Democrats in what seemed like an attempt to hand Kansas to the dread Slave Power of the South. Buchanan had started his administration with lofty hopes of holing off the extremists, but he was the on who seemed to be ready to countenance violence, fraud and questionable court decisions to let the Slave Power have its way.

By seeking to weaken the Republicans, Buchanan actually strengthened them and made them appear to be the “defenders of the most sacred democratic precepts,” to use Elbert Smith’s phrase.

Strong foreign policy
Despite the negative image that most Americans have of Buchanan, if we could take the secession crisis out of the picture, we could be left with a more favorable image of the 15th president—or, at least, one not so negative. At the 1991 Buchanan symposium, historian Robert E. May looked upon Buchanan as a “foreign policy” president, a moniker usually reserved for 20th century presidents. It certainly fits Buchanan, because for four years, he pursued a strong foreign policy, one that could easily be called the most imperialistic ever. (If liberals think that George W. Bush’ foreign policy is imperialistic, then they clearly don’t know American history.)

While Buchanan was Jacksonian in his domestic policies, he was positively Polk-ish in his foreign policies. In no uncertain terms President Buchanan made it known that the United States would seek to dominate Central and South America in terms of trade and influence during his administration so as to ward off further European (e.g., British) encroachments. Buchanan took every opportunity to attempt to annex, dominate, influence or otherwise control other areas in the hemisphere, and his biographers say we may take him at his word that he was sincere in his desires. Four events stand out in the Buchanan foreign policy that merit mention:

First, Buchanan opposed any “filibustering” attempts to seize foreign lands, that is, American adventurers who set up their own fiefdoms in Central America (especially Nicaragua and Costa Rica) and the Caribbean and tried to take over the country, and wanted things done legally. He wanted to purchase Cuba outright from Spain, continuing his efforts begun while he was minister to London, but Congress ignored him each time he pleaded for it. Northerners strongly opposed it, believing his desire to have Cuba as nothing more than a defense of slavery. He tried as late as December 1860 to get funds to purchase Cuba, but to no avail, of course.

Second, Buchanan actually sent a fleet of 19 Navy ships to intimidate Paraguay after an America had been murdered there. The expedition secured a treaty, apology and $10,000 for the dead man’s family, but the costs apparently outweighed the benefits of this strange episode.

Third, Buchanan, more than any other president, cracked down on the slave trade, but rarely if ever got credit for it. He even bullied England to the point of war when British ships started searching any and all American-flagged ships they suspected of trafficking in slaves in the Caribbean. But England was uninterested in a flight and backed down.

Fourth, Buchanan proposed the most fantastic scheme of any 19th century president. Mexico was close to collapse thanks to an unstable series of governments and a resulting civil war. Correctly fearing European interference—the French would arrive during Lincoln’s administration—and to protect American interests (and self-proclaimed rights to Mexican commerce), Buchanan told Congress in December 1858 that the United States should assume a temporary “protectorate” over Northern Mexico.

Amazingly, a senate committee approved it, but then it failed before the whole body. Buchanan then sent an agent to Mexico to negotiate a treaty with the government of the one stable region (Juarez). Mexico City was in the hands of a general and therefore inaccessible, and Buchanan believed that Mexico had to redress the violations of treaties and acts against U.S. citizens. In December 1859 Buchanan asked Congress for authority to invade Mexico and establish a military presence!

No one listened, and it’s understandable, considering the crisis at home was far more pressing that the crisis in Mexico. However, the United States would be dealing with Mexico’s problems within a few years.

Some historians have speculated that Buchanan was, to use a modern expression, employing a “wag the dog” approach to foreign policy by trying to manufacture a war with England or even Mexico. Such a war could unite the squabbling sections toward a common goal. But I don’t give it much credence, because Buchanan missed opportunities to make that happen, and his foreign policy was design to add influence and prestige to America, not start a war. He was ready to fight if it became necessary—there’s no doubt about that—but this most aggressive president on the foreign scene doesn’t seem like he would create a crisis just to divert attention.

It’s not that Buchanan wasn’t devious, because he was a very skilled politician. He just wasn’t stupid.

When Joseph Smith started his Mormon religion and the Mormons began their long trek westward in the 1820s and ‘30s, they were persecuted every step of the way. Bringham Young settled them in the Utah territory, based in Salt Lake City. Young, a superb organizer, had applied for statehood. But Congress and the Pierce administration ignored Mormon petitions.

When the Mormons drove out federal agents, attacked anyone that came near them and even incited Indian tribes against other settlers (some of the stories were sensationalized), President Buchanan acted. He sent in a column of 2,500 U.S. soldiers to deal with the situation. The subsequent story itself is amazing—including the scorched earth campaign of the Mormons—but there’s no room here. Eventually, a peace was worked out.

The point for this study is this: why did Buchanan send soldiers into action against the Mormons, but apparently took no action against the secessionists? Clearly, he wasn’t a weak man and was fully capable of taking decisive action, as Utah and his foreign policy ventures illustrate.

When it came to the South and secession, though, James Buchanan thought entirely differently. Let’s see just what he did and why—and why he left office believing he had done a good job.

The divide: In short
Simply put (grossly so), most of the North wanted slavery contained, while most of the South wanted the North to butt out. The North believed that the “slave power” had gotten its way for far too long through bullying, questionable tactics and Southern-sympathizing presidents, courts and Congresses. The South believed that everyone in the North was an abolitionist, saw no difference between abolitionists, Free-Soilers and Republicans, and believed that the North would free slaves only to make Southern whites slaves. The North believed slavery was wrong (whether morally or politically wrong) while the South believed it was right, both morally and politically.

The final rub, said Abraham Lincoln in 1860, came down to this: the only thing that would ever mollify the South was total and complete Northern acceptance of slavery. And that could never happen.

The divide: Heated rhetoric
Throughout the late 1850s, the war of words between North and South had become quite fierce—even irrational, especially on the Southern side. Books written by Northerners arguing that slavery was dragging everyone down—including the planter class—were answered by books claiming that Northern society was destroying its underclass through lousy working conditions, poverty, etc. It was an impasse that neither side could breach.

Rhetoric from newspapers and politicians was more heated than ever. The biggest problem in the sectional quarrel was one of good, open and honest communication; meaning, there really wasn’t any. Despite the fact that almost every president since Washington had been a Southerner, often a slave-owner and usually favorable to the South, Southerners believed that the Northern half of the country was out to destroy them politically, economically and socially. This paranoid belief defied facts and logic. For example, the last president who was largely sympathetic to northern views was John Quincy Adams—back in the 1820s. Every man since then had harbored real or perceived Southern leanings to some extent, save Fillmore. And President Buchanan fully supported Southern aims, as illustrated by his foreign policy goals, Kansas policy and meddling in the Dred Scott decision.

Republicans, except for the hardest extremists, honestly only sought to limit slavery’s extension more for political and economic reasons—and not for moral reasons. Abolitionism was still a minority movement, and as Elbert Smith explains, a man could easily be a racist on the one hand but be against slavery and slavery’s expansion on the other.

It’s easy to look back and place the blame solely on the South because of the modern abhorrence of slavery, so we must be cautious against doing so. It was quite a complicated situation, and the vitriolic accusations and pontificating on both sides obscured the simple fact that the large majority of Americans were very wary of creating a race war should slavery end. To President James Buchanan, like his immediate predecessor, abolitionists and Republicans were the extremists that threatened the Union, because Buchanan knew that certain hard-core planters and Southern politicians (the so-called “fire-eaters”) would lead a secession movement should Republicans succeed in gaining the presidency when he left office (Buchanan had already determined to serve only one term). Buchanan’s election in 1856 probably prevented a secession crisis that year, so certain were fire-eaters that Republicans’ sole aim was to destroy them.

Buchanan, like many of his fellow Democrats, believed that Northerners were at fault for the sectional conflict. It was their agitation against slavery—more specifically, their failure to stop abolitionists and Free-Soilers from meddling in Southern state affairs—that caused the troubles. They viewed John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry as the fruits of that failure. Slavery was a constitutionally protected institution and the Northern states had no business interfering with it. However, Buchanan, like Pierce before him, failed to realize that Southerners were equally at fault with their own agitation.

Buchanan was also blinded to the “dangers” of Republicanism by his mutual hatred for fellow Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and instead of laboring for a united party that could keep the new party from gaining the White House, Buchanan seemed oblivious to the fact that ruining Douglas and his Democratic wing would do just that. When the country was entertained by the Senate campaign debates between Douglas and former Whig-turned-Republican Abraham Lincoln during the fall of 1858. Buchanan, however, committed what could be called a grave error: He labored to undermine his fellow Democrat’s campaign. Where Douglas could have handily beaten Lincoln, he instead merely defeated Lincoln in a close contest; the Illinois lawyer and former Whig Congressman gained further prominence in the Republican Party, and two years later was tapped to lead that party to victory—over Buchanan’s and Douglas’ divided Democrats. Now, I’m not blaming Lincoln’s election entirely on Buchanan, but consider: would Lincoln have been tapped in 1860 had Douglas buried him in 1858?

Douglas won re-election to his Senate seat, but he destroyed any remaining support he had in the South by essentially declaring that the Supreme Court’s Dred Scot decision did not mean that states had to enforce property rights, which wasn’t true. (Lincoln has masterfully maneuvered Douglas into declaring this bit of “heresy.”) At the same time, Buchanan’s Democrats were hit hard in the 1858 elections thanks to Buchanan’s policies and the Panic of the previous year, with Republicans gaining seats all across the North and strong numbers in Congress. Gridlock would soon occur, and not much else substantive would get done. Event simple bills not related to slavery or sectionalism would get bogged down.

Crisis of fear
As you can see, the situation was not pleasant, and it’s probably safe to say that not many men could have performed well as president during those years. The conflict over slavery was becoming intense.

There was some good news. By 1859, the economy was recovering from the Panic. The country was focused on the Mormon War, Kansas had settled down and things appeared to be going a little better there. Buchanan had some high hopes for his foreign policy ventures, but they went nowhere. There was still time to unite around a good candidate the following year and ward off a Republican victory.

But then came Harper’s Ferry, and all good sense and calm deliberation seem to abandon the entire nation.

The fanatical and probably insane John Brown, his sons and followers raided Harper’s Ferry, Va. (now in West Virginia) in hopes of starting a massive slave revolt. They failed. Virginia Gov. Wise apparently decided to boost his firebrand credentials by putting Brown on trial for inciting a slave rebellion and murder and then executing him.

Letters had come in from several quarters attesting that Brown was insane and should be committed, but Wise decided that execution would serve the South better. He could not have been more wrong. Instead of creating an example, the South created a martyr. The fanatical Brown appeared calm and collected during the trial, even though he lied about everything he was planning to do (he claimed he wasn’t meaning to start a rebellion). He serenely went to his death in December. Enlightenment poets and writers compared him to Jesus Christ. Abolitionists sang about the martyr with the song lyrics “John Brown’s body lies a’ moldin’ in the grave! His soul goes marching on!” (The song later became the tune for the Battle Hymn of the Republic.) Brown became the hero of the North: the man who dared to take on slavery. The odd thing is, if he had actually succeeded, he would have sparked the very race war that most Northerners feared!

Outraged and frightened Southerners used John Brown’s raid as the proof of what they had been saying all along, that abolitionists and Republicans were going to invade the South, destroy slavery and enslave all whites. Fear and panic of slave revolts gripped the south because of the raid (more so in the deep South than in the border states) and lasted until secession the following winter.

For many Southerners, John Brown’s raid and the Northern reaction to Brown’s execution meant only one thing: if a Republican was elected in 1860, the Union was finished.

Unfortunately for James Buchanan, he totally misunderstood the significance of the event. Perhaps, in hindsight, the president might have done something different, even turned the trial into a federal trial instead of a state trial. After all, Brown had attacked a federal arsenal. But that’s neither here nor there. Looking at the aftermath in 20/20 hindsight, if Buchanan was indeed looking at foreign affairs as a common rallying cry for the disenchanted Americans, he missed the huge golden opportunity of John Brown’s raid and trial.

Instead, Buchanan saw the raid as Southerners did: evidence of the perfidy of abolitionists and other Republican fanatics. They were the real danger, and for the peace of the nation, they had to be defeated.

In 1860, James Buchanan had two final chances to hold the country together. The first concerned his successor. Who would he support on the Democratic ticket? The second was what his response would be if and when a state or states seceded if the Republicans actually won in the fall.

On both fronts, he failed, but it was not through incompetence, a lack of trying or playing the part of patsy to the South. His failure came from a thorough misunderstanding of the situation and a failure to see anything from the Northern point of view. Buchanan rightly recognized that the election of the Republican candidate (Abraham Lincoln easily won the nomination) would lead to secession. But his designs on thwarting secession didn’t work. Make no mistake—he did try to stop secession, but just not in the manner that Jackson, Taylor and Fillmore before him had done.

When the Democrats met in convention in Charleston, S.C.—the worst possible place for their convention, considering the state was the home for the greatest secessionist sentiments—Buchanan and his allies tried to form a coalition, but the secessionists were already determined to provoke a fight. They bolted from the convention and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge. The convention reconvened in Cincinnati—without the deep South delegates—and nominated Stephen Douglas. The two wings represented factions that simply could not be reconciled, and the party fractured permanently. Buchanan’s feud with Douglas should have been buried before the convention—even before Douglas ran for re-election—for only a united party would have had the strength to thwart a pending Republican victory.

In short, Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge on a platform of leaving slavery alone and non-interference by either Congress or the states. The Douglas Democrats nominated Douglas on a platform of attacking secession. The Republicans nominated Lincoln on a platform of containing slavery, non-interference where slavery already existed and supporting of property rights. Another party, the Constitution Party, nominated old Whig John Bell as a place for those who cared for neither Republicans nor Democrats, and adhering to the Constitution. Buchanan hoped that no one would gain a majority, thereby throwing the election to the House, where there were still enough friendly Democrats and sane people to elect a Democrat president.

It didn’t happen. Lincoln won easily. Even though he got 39.9% of the vote, he won the electoral college. See the adjoining map for the breakdown. South Carolina immediately went into secession mode.

People who think Buchanan merely twiddled his thumbs during the secession crisis are utterly wrong. He wasn’t a traitor, his cabinet officers weren’t traitors, and he didn’t merely let it happen.

First, why did South Carolina secede, followed by six other deep South states? The Southern states did not secede for economic purposes. They didn’t secede merely for their “rights.” They seceded to protect all aspects of slavery. If you don’t agree, re-read what I’ve written about presidents Polk, Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce. The states seceded because they wanted to secede, not because they were actually threatened by the North. Because, in truth, they really weren’t threatened so much in fact as in feeling.

Anyone who claims that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War is either arguing from a position of ignorance or falsehood. Starting with the Polk administration and continuing right through the secession crisis, slavery dominated almost every political fight: economics, foreign policy, internal improvements, elections, political parties, territories, new states, railroads, tariffs, the mail, major legislation and so on. Without slavery, there would have been no secession, no disunion, and no war. Likewise, anyone who thinks that slavery would have died out on its own from economics or was already on the way out in 1860 is also deluding himself. The South was so heavily invested in slavery socially, politically, economically and morally that secession could not and would not have taken place if the system were “dying out.”

For decades, Southern leaders of all types believed that the North was set to destroy them, and the fiction was more powerful than the truth. The hyperventilating imaginings of northern invasions to liberate slaves, rape women, destroy property and make slaves of whites was a very real and definite fear, and Northern rhetoric—more specifically, the “failure” to stop abolitionist and Free-Soil rhetoric—was proof that this nightmare would eventually come true. Even though the 1860 Republican platform and constant protestations from Lincoln and Republicans that they had no intention of destroying slavery, only limiting its extension, fell on deaf ears, because all Southerners heard was the North holding slavery, and by extension, them, in contempt.

This is why Buchanan (and Pierce before him) placed blame on Northern agitators and Republicans for sectional troubles, and was sympathetic to the South. But his failure to see things from both sides is only partially to blame for his poor response to secession.

During the secession crisis, from the time South Carolina formally seceded on Dec. 20 until the end of his term, the president was actively engaged. He believed two things:

One. Secession was illegal but that Congress, not the president, had the legal authority to stop it and that Congress had to increase his authority before he could act. His interpretation of the Constitution was quite different from Lincoln’s—and Jackson and Fillmore’s, for that matter. In his defense, though, Congress was in session during the secession crisis, but was out of session when the Fort Sumter crisis came to a head for Lincoln; meaning, when Congress is away, the president can actually do more and seek permission later. (For example, presidents often make appointments when Congress is recessed for people they know won’t get Senate approval.) Jackson faced down the Nullifiers in 1831-32 while Congress was mostly in session and had Congressional authority for his actions.

Buchanan’s understanding of the Constitution, while technically correct, was almost quaint, because by 1860 Americans expected far more from the president than they did in Jefferson’s time or even Jackson’s time. The office of the president was evolving into that of the leader of the country, instead of Congress, and people looked to the president for answers and action. Buchanan provided neither. That seems like more of a modern view of the presidency, but if you consider how much the nation had grown since the Revolutionary days, 1860 has a lot more in common with 2007 than 1776.

Two. Buchanan was fully interested in compromise, and believed a gentle approach would let the deep South states eventually come back into the fold.

A bipartisan bill was crafted by Kentucky’s Crittenden that included the re-instatement of the Missouri compromise, and Buchanan even tried to enlist Lincoln’s help for a national convention, but it was too late. A “peace convention” was held in Virginia, presided over by former president John Tyler, to consider the Crittenden proposals. It was the closest thing to a national convention, but it went nowhere.

The president’s biggest moment to avert secession came when he delivered his final annual report to Congress in December 1860—actually given before South Carolina formally seceded—and here he displayed both brilliance and obtuseness. Here he declared that secession was not legal, but that the federal government had no legal means to prevent it. He also said that he agreed with the South’s stated reasons for secession—Northern insults, John Brown, etc.—but also declared that the South had nothing to fear from the incoming Lincoln administration, and should wait for an “overt or dangerous act” before courting secession. Save for the now-dead Missouri Compromise, there had never been any Congressional or presidential limits placed on slavery.

He made brilliant points, and the bone thrown to his successor could have been something said more frequently, but the bouncing back and fourth between no legal right for secession and sympathy for the South caused Buchanan’s final message to Congress to fall flat.

It’s very interesting to note that Buchanan’s policy regarding secession differed little from Lincoln’s: Secession was illegal, the Republican president and party posed no threat to slavery where it existed, and the issue of war was in the hands of the secessionists, not the federal government. Strange, though, that Lincoln gets credit for his magnanimity in his inaugural address but Buchanan gets damned for having essentially the same stance.

The final crisis
The hotbed of secession was South Carolina, and the crisis centered on the federal forts in Charleston harbor. It was here that Buchanan finally made a stand. The situation was complicated, but essentially, Buchanan ordered Major John Anderson to hold the forts in Charleston. South Carolina demanded that they be turned over but Buchanan refused, saying that they were rightfully federal property. Anderson, acting on Buchanan’s orders, prudently abandoned all but Fort Sumter, in the middle of Charleston Harbor.

Buchanan received criticism from all sides, as newspapers demanded he send reinforcements, that he storm Charleston and retake the other forts, that he put down the traitors, etc. But part of the reality was that he had an army of only 16,000 men, most of who were on the frontier fighting Indians and occasional Mexicans. Any reinforcements would be taken as a provocative act. This wasn’t the same situation as 1831, or the same situation Fillmore faced, when he could quietly shift soldiers around in response to rumors, or send troops to New Mexico to counter Texans. Every action Buchanan took was magnified greatly and had consequences.

Finally, in January, Buchanan and General-in-Chief Scott sent reinforcements on an unarmed vessel, guarded by a navy ship. However, batteries in Charleston turned back the Star of the West, and Buchanan made no more attempt to reinforce Anderson. The major, however, repeatedly told Buchanan that he was fine and didn’t need any.

Buchanan was roundly criticized for the failure, and General Scott later lied about who did what (or conveniently lost his memory about the whole incident). But the president told Anderson to hold fast.

In the meantime, Buchanan had shook up his cabinet, with most of the Southerners leaving, being replaced by several northerners. Among the new members was John Dix, a post-war transcontinental railroad president, and Edwin M. Stanton, whom we’ll meet again in Lincoln’s cabinet. While this should have been done some time ago, it did give him a much-needed perspective that had been sorely lacking.

The president approached Congress during these months to expand his authority (authority that Elbert Smith argues Buchanan really didn’t want) to raise militia and expand the army, but he was repeatedly denied. Also, his longtime Southern friends turned on him, calling him a traitor, which hurt him badly. Northerners called him a traitor for not acting strongly to put down the secession.

He felt as if he were thwarted at every turn.

Buchanan did one final thing before leaving office: he made sure Anderson stayed where he was. One way to look at it is that he merely passed the crisis to Lincoln like a coward. But I, and some other historians, look at it differently. By leaving the situation as it was for Lincoln to deal with, he wasn’t handing a war to Lincoln. He was giving him a crisis—a crisis precipitated in part by Lincoln’s election. Lincoln could make peace, let the South go, or lead the nation to war. Buchanan, with mere weeks left in his administration, was not going to make the choice for the next president. By handing him Fort Sumter still intact, he left Lincoln with a huge ace to play—and play it he did.

Ol’ Buck during and after the War
History slams Buchanan as one who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, but literally during his last 24 hours, he received a message from Major Anderson saying he could hold with 20,000 reinforcements. Rather than just leave the message on Lincoln’s desk, he met with his cabinet one last time to leave good information for Lincoln to use.

Yes, he was happy to leave; who wouldn’t be? But considering the last four months, he left believing he had done his best. In all honesty, it’s hard to disagree.

James Buchanan retired to Pennsylvania where he enjoyed a brief respite from the public eye. But careless words from Lincoln and flat-out lies from General Scott, Thurlow Weed and others turned him into a pariah. He, along with his secretary of war, John Floyd, was falsely accused of arming the South, freely turning forts over to the rebels and failing to reinforce certain forts that actually remained in federal hands thanks to Buchanan. He was accused falsely of being a traitor and having aided secession. The charges grew more heated as the war got bloodier.

Buchanan made every effort to clear his name, and publicly supported both Lincoln and the war effort, except for the Emancipation Proclamation. He finally succeeded in 1866 with the release of his memoirs, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. He died in 1869.

Final Assessment

Could any man have done a better job than James Buchanan when faced with the immanent rending of the Union? Historians seem to think so, because by consistently placing him at or next to the bottom of their presidential rankings, they seem to be shouting “yes!”

But I wonder about two things.

First: Up until the Civil War, the office of the president was actually constitutionally weak, or, at least, viewed as such. The president could not legally do what we think, today, that he should have done. He did not have the troops to invade the deep South, much less South Carolina or even Charleston, without massive recalls across the nation and/or a huge increase in the size of the army—the latter of which Congress was not willing to do. And besides, secession had triggered a wave of resignations from the professional officer corps as many Southern officers went South, cutting into the army’s strength.

In addition, although the president could call out the militia into federal service, he wasn’t facing the same situation as Fillmore, who could slyly move troops in place under the guise of his authority as commander in chief when no actual crisis had been declared. He didn’t have nearly the entire nation at his back, as did Jackson when Old Hickory beat down the Nullification crisis. Just what exactly was he supposed to do? Should he have called out the militia and marched into the South to put down secession? Before you answer "yes!", think what the response would have been in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, which had yet to join the Confederacy, and in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, the border slave states that Buchanan's successor labored quit hard to keep in the Union. Do you think those eight states would have meekly allowed federalized Northern militia to march through their states to subjugate the South without strong protest, even armed protest?

Second: Suppose Buchanan did react forcefully to secession and succeeded in some manner of beating it back before Lincoln took office. Suppose he did attack Charleston and retook the forts in a limited show of force. Or suppose he and his successor worked out a new compromise that mirrored the Crittenden proposals. Crisis averted! For the moment, anyway.

The result would have been a mere postponement of the inevitable: a repeat of 1860 with another secession crisis leading to yet another compromise or war.

So, it is really difficult, in hindsight, to fault Buchanan for what was going to happen anyway, especially considering the limited tools he had to work with. The real fault of President James Buchanan was not how he handled the crisis of 1860-61, which really was decent, but rather how he helped create the conditions that lead to the crisis. Buchanan repeatedly tripped himself up by meddling in the Dred Scott decision, needlessly pushing the Lecompton constitution in Kansas, trying to ruin Douglas, having a cabinet with no disagreements (and a few incompetents) and failing to recognize, until the end, that the North had a point, too. All of his actions ultimately strengthened the Republicans and divided his own party, in turn giving more strength to the fire-eaters of the South.

His election in 1856 may have averted a secession crisis that year, and if he had governed differently, he might have helped prevent one in 1860. That’s not to say one would not have occurred in 1864. Therefore, it’s hard to see anything that could have stopped the coming war except total separation. But if that had happened, slavery would still have existed by the time Frederick Douglass was an old man in the 1890s.

In sum, James Buchanan is reviled today because he tried, but failed, to hold the Union together. Philip Klein explains:

The man who elects to play the role of peacemaker may, if he succeeds, be soon burried in historical oblivion, for it is the perverse tendency of mankind to glorify war but forget those who surmount crises by thought rather than threat. A peacemaker who fails, on the other hand, is likely to receive for his efforts only resounding curses from both warring camps. Such was the fate of James Buchanan. (Klein, p.xii.)
James Buchanan was by no means incompetent. But considering the reason why he became president in the first place, he failed miserably.

Final assessment: Failed (with some caveats) and largely unpopular


Amazingly, for such a critical president, there are only four biographies written about James Buchanan that cover his entire presidency and life. One was written about 20 years after his death. The next two are listed below. The fourth is part of Schlesinger’s American Presidents series (although I did not use Jean Baker’s 2004 volume for this study).

The able Elbert Smith, author of The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, does the same excellent treatment for James Buchanan in The Presidency of James Buchanan, 1975.

The Philip Klein’s hefty and full biography, President James Buchanan: A Biography (1962), is the most sympathetic of the biographies, and is frequently cited by other authors.

Also highly useful was James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s, edited by Michael J. Birkner (1996). The book arose from a symposium on James Buchanan held in 1991, and contains a panel discussion featuring many respected historians on Buchanan and the 1850s, as well as essays on various aspects of Buchanan’s presidency.


All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Official White House portrait (White House Historical Association)

2. A serviceable garment—or reverie of a bachelor. The Library of Congress description for this image says: Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan is depicted as a poor bachelor in his squalid quarters. Though indeed a confirmed bachelor, Buchanan in reality was hardly needy. After serving as American minister to Great Britain, he was nominated on June 2 at his party’s Cincinnati convention. Here he sits in a small, dimly lit chamber, on a rickety chair near a small cot. A cracked mirror hangs on the wall in the background, and his foot rests upon a stool with a spool and scissors. A needle and thread in his hand, Buchanan examines a ragged coat on which he has evidently just sewn a patch marked “Cuba.” This is probably a reference to his authorship of the Ostend Manifesto of 1854, which proposed that the United States annex or seize Cuba. Buchanan says, “My Old coat was a very fashionable Federal coat when it was new, but by patching and turning I have made it quite a Democratic Garment. That Cuba patch to be sure is rather unsightly but it suits Southern fashions at this season, and then. (If I am elected,) let me see, $25,000 pr. annum, and no rent to pay, and no Women and Babies about, I guess I can afford a new outfit.” Buchanan’s words here suggest that the desire to extend American slave territory motivated his Ostend designs on Cuba. His mention of converting a “Federal coat” to a Democratic one refers to his 1828 conversion from Federal party man to Jacksonian Democrat.

3. James Buchanan, Democratic Candidate for President of the United States. Proof for a large woodcut campaign poster or banner for Democratic presidential nominee James Buchanan.

4. Map of the Presidential Election of 1856. (Department of the Interior)

5. This is the first photograph of an inauguration. Note that the Capitol was undergoing construction during Buchanan’s March 1857 inauguration.

6. President Buchanan poses with his cabinet, probably in 1859. From left, Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black.

7. Daguerreotype of President James Buchanan taken by Matthew Brady.

8. A full-length portrait of James Buchanan.

9. The great match at Baltimore, between the “Illinois Bantam” and the “Old Cock” of the White House. This cartoon from the 1860 election perfectly illustrates the effects of Buchanan’s feud with Stephen A. Douglas, where the rivalry is satirized as a cockfight. The Library of Congress description says: Douglas stands, the victorious cock, atop his badly beaten rival, incumbent president James C. Buchanan. Feathers still fill the air from the fray. Douglas crows “Cock a doodle doo!! / I've got the best of you. / And I can beat the Lincoln Cock; / And Old Kentucky too!" Buchanan moans, “Oh dear! Oh dear! this is my last kick, I’m a used up old rooster.” On the right an unidentified man sets a new cock into the ring, Kentucky senator John C. Breckinridge. The man warns Douglas, “Don’t crow too loud my fine fellow, here’s a Kentucky chicken that will worry you a little.” The Breckinridge cock says anxiously, “I suppose now I’m in the pit that I must tackle the bantam, but I don’t much like the job.” A simian Irishman wearing a stovepipe hat watches from ringside left, probably representing the old-line Tammany Democrats of New York. He reflects, “He [Buchanan] wos a werry game old bird, but that ere bantam, was a leetle too much for him!”

10. Storming the castle. “Old Abe” on guard. This Currier & Ives image depicts “watchman” Abraham Lincoln, left, foiling the attempts of John Bell, Stephen Douglas (center) and John C. Breckenridge from entering the White House. President James Buchanan attempts to pull Breckinridge through a window. Buchanan says: “I'll do what I can to help you Breck, but my strength is failing and I’m afraid you’ll pull me out before I can pull you in, while Breckinridge says, “. . . I’m too weak to get up—and we shall be compelled to dissolve the Union.” Bell tells Douglas, who is trying to unlock the door, “Hurry up Douglas! and get the door open, so that I can get in, for the watchman is coming.” Douglas complains that none of the three keys he holds (labeled “Regular Nomination,” “Non Intervention” and “Nebraska Bill”) will open the door, “... so I'd better be off, for old Abe is after me with a sharp stick.”

11. Map of the Presidential Election of 1860. (Department of the Interior)

12. This is the famous broadsheet of the Charleston Mercury announcing South Carolina’s ordinance of secession.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Number 14: Franklin Pierce

Years in office: 1853-1857
Pre-service occupations: lawyer, general, U.S. Congressman, U.S. Senator
Key events during his administration: Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), “Bleeding” Kansas (mid 1850s), Gasden Purchase (1853)

Presidential rating: Failed and unpopular


A basic necessity of presidential campaigns in mid-1800s was the campaign biography. These books told the tales of the exalted candidates in glowing terms, and highlighted their virtues, offices, accomplishments, beliefs, positions and family life. (These self-serving bios are still done today, but the all-encompassing web site is starting to take over.) Most were fair-to-poorly written and quickly forgotten, but some were actually quite good. You can still find some in better university or large-city public libraries.

Franklin Pierce was fortunate: one of his campaign bios was written by his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. While his life of Pierce doesn’t match The Scarlet Letter or House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne contributed an admirable book to the campaign of the everyman candidate, the promising Young Democrat from New Hampshire. Hawthorne said of his friend after the election of 1852 that “I have come seriously to the conclusion that he has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler…He is deep, deep, deep.”

For 150 years, history has disagreed.

When I told a friend I was reading a biography of President Franklin Pierce, his response was “Who?” He was serious. Franklin Pierce is probably the most forgotten of all the forgotten presidents. He’s not very well known, he has no policies or doctrines named after him, he set no precedents, and he left no enduring legacy that anyone today can remember.

He was chosen as a unity candidate and nothing more. Yet he was president during a time of tremendous upheaval, presaged only by the bloody decade about to follow. Franklin Pierce, the mild man from New Hampshire, surrounded by personal tragedy, at first was the toast of his party and the country, passed into political obscurity and alcoholism, unlamented by the Democratic Party.

What happened? Is his reputation really deserved? (One latter-day biographer says no.) And what lessons of leadership can we learn from the politician-lawyer-general?

Every man’s friend
Franklin Pierce was not a primary mover and shaker.

He was likable and charming, and he was devilishly handsome. His charm was partly built on an unfortunate tendency to agree with the last person he spoke to. As a young lawyer, he proved able in the courts and could turn a jury with his charm. In New Hampshire, Pierce mastered state politics, helping to turn his state into a Democratic Party stronghold.

But he wasn’t known so much as a leader than as a party man. Instead of becomi
ng a well-known orator or statesman, he did yeoman’s tasks and built a reputation as a reliable vote. He built a network of friends and contacts by working more behind the scenes. Pierce became known as a Democratic party hatchet-man: a disciplinarian called upon to keep straying members in line.

From the late ’20s to early ’40s, Pierce served in various state offices and then in Congress. But he declined the nomination of governor of New Hampshire, and then, curiously, to become attorney general under President Polk. (That had more to do with personal problems, which lead him to leave Washington for a while. See below.)

During this period, Pierce built upon his belief in Union, handed down by hi
s Patriot father, a soldier under Washington. Equally important, as a New Hampshire politician, Pierce developed a strong opposition to agitators and reformers of all kinds. Crusaders, regardless of the cause—slavery, alcohol, Catholics, immigrants—were troublemakers to Pierce because they threatened the Union. They threatened, to his Jacksonian understanding, the founders’ intent that state matters, including slavery, would and should be handled by the states, and agitators were the real internal threat to the nation.

Union and opposition to agitators/reformers is critical to understanding Pierce the president, because the attitudes he fostered in New Hampshire would guide him in the White House. His most recent biographer, Peter Wallner, explains the critical importance of this understanding:

“While his charm and kindness were so sincere as to be unquestioned by his friends, his political principles were equally sincere and ready to be applied to whatever crisis he would face as the nation’s chief executive. His experience battling reformers of all types—temperance crusaders, anti-Catholics, nativists, and antislavery proponents—had convinced him of the intolerance, selfish motives, and divisiveness of their causes. To Pierce, single-issue politicians who inflamed the emotions of voters could only lead to disorder and, ultimately, disunion. Pierce stood for tolerance and acceptance of the common man of whatever ethnic or religious background. He believed in Christian ecumenicalism against Protestant evangelicalism. He stood for law and order against chaos and lawlessness. To him, the Constitution was supreme, and there could be no higher law in a civil society. The Democratic Party was the only national institution
standing between civil peace and civil war.

“Pierce believed these things so deeply he was willing to sacrifice his own popularity to the benefit of his party… In all of his thinking the moral issue of slavery played no part, as antislavery agitation was associated in his mind with personal attacks, local church schisms, and the intolerance of people who looked down on the common man while claiming moral superiority. It was this dogmatic absolutism, he thought, that led to defiance of the law and order, threatened destruction of the Union, and the abandonment of the manifest destiny of the nation that Pierce accepted unconditionally. In Pierce’s mind, slavery was the price, a regrettable one to be sure, that people must pay for their safety, their prosperity, and their freedom.” (Wallner, P. 257)

While searching for the “why?” of the Pierce presidency, I think I finally understood, thanks to Wallner. If you keep “Union and tolerance” in mind, the Pierce presidency makes a lot more sense.

The unity candidate
In 1852 the Democrats were in as bad a condition as the Whigs. The two parties were coming apart over slavery politics. For the Whigs, the only man who could have saved the party fortunes
that year wasn’t seriously running. President Fillmore, who could have held the party together, had decided enough was enough, and wasn’t truly seeking re-election. The Whigs would settle on nominating General Winfield Scott, which did nothing for the party’s unity and actually fractured it even more. (The only Whig presidential successes had been through popular generals, but Scott was nowhere near as popular as Harrison and Taylor had been.)

Meanwhile the Democrats, hungry to regain the White House, searched for a man who could unite the numerous factions of an obviously splintered party. There were those flirting with the Free-Soil party, which stood opposed to slavery’s expansion. There were “Hard shell” Democrats who adhered to Jacksonian principles above all else. There were two Pennsylvania factions, one under James Cameron, the other under James Buchanan. There were the Young Americans, led by Stephen A. Douglas, who felt it was time to push the old party leaders out the door and seek a more aggressive expansion of American interests in the West and around the world. And that was just in the North.

In the South, there were of course hard-core states rights men who abhorred any compromise with the North, whom they viewed as all abolitionists. And there were more moderate Southerners who favored compromise. And there were some who looked to the West but without slavery.

Each faction had a favorite candidate, but none of them could deliver the presidency; each was more likely to alienate a crucial block elsewhere, especially in the South, where, thanks to the 3/5s rule in the Constitution, no president could be elected without Southern support.

That’s where Franklin Pierce emerged as the unity candidate. Pierce’s ability to seemingly satisfy all people made him the perfect choice to run as the Democratic standard-bearer in 1852. With a unity candidate to rally around, the Democratic machine first created by Martin Van Buren cranked up again. Pierce was quite appealing, and he had a war record, too. It was no match for Scott’s, of course. But it does merit some mention.

During the Mexican War, Pierce volunteered for service as a private. Elevated to colonel, he held the rank of brigadier on Scott’s Mexico City campaign. His service was not so distinguished,
however, due to an unfortunate series of accidents. On one occasion, his horse bolted and threw him, and he fainted from the pain. Pierce returned to duty for the final assaults on Mexico City, but while leading his men through a swamp, he twisted his ankle—and fainted again. Naturally, the Whigs hooted in delight over the fainting general.

Lest you think his service amounted to nothing, Pierce did lead a 2,500-man colum
n from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, during which he fought off six attacks from Mexican forces. But General Pierce wasn’t a “War Hero”—nothing like the caliber of Generals Taylor or Scott.

However, the Whigs never warmed to General Scott as a candidate, and many stayed home rather than vote for him. Whether or not that made a crucial difference is debatable. The campaign itself was rather lackluster, as both sides agreed on the issues: support the Compromise of 1850 and leave slavery to the states. Much of the campaign press, therefore, involved mudslinging.

In the end, the popular vote was close, but Pierce won an electoral blowout by winning all but four states. Finding a unity candidate worked quite well for winning the White House.

But governing from the White House? That was something quite different.

Tragedy and alcoholism
Franklin Pierce’s personal life played a role in his presidency. For one, Pierce had troubles with alcohol. One of the reasons why he at first resisted the call to higher office, and e
ventually fled Washington, was his weakness for drink. Politics then was often conducted in conjunction with the fruit of the vine, and Pierce, knowing his problem, eventually left the Senate rather than be continually put in situations where his vice would harm him.

His wife, Jane, was deeply spiritual and a temperate, which didn’t help him much either. She also didn’t approve of her husband’s political ambitions. Jane was often ill from tuberculosis and wasn’t happy in the White House. Although he adored his wife and she loved him, their marriage was strained. Their happiness, it seemed, was wrapped in young Benjamin, their only child of three that had lived.

But two months after the election of 1852, the Pierces lost Benjamin. They were on a homebound train when the train wrecked shortly before their station. Before his parents’ eyes, 11-year-old Benjamin was crushed to death under a passenger car.

Jane Pierce never truly recovered. Pierce’s inaugural was a somber occasion, with most of the formal celebratory activities being cancelled. You can even detect Pierce’s pain in his inaugural address.

(The Pierce administration began seemingly surrounded by death: outgoing President Fillmore lost his wife weeks after leaving the White House, and Vice President William King died in April. He was not replaced.)

While I’m no psychoanalyst, the death of his only remaining child shortly before he assumed office had to have weighed heavily on Pierce. How much of a factor Benjamin’s death played during the Pierce years is a matter of debate, but it’s possible that the event may have sapped some of the enthusiasm from the president.

A stumble over a strong cabinet
President Pierce assembled a cabinet that was designed to please all factions of the party, instead of one that resembled his own views. Pierce chose men from North, South and the old West. But his choices were curious, odd and ultimately failed to satisfy the tenuous party unity.

Each faction believed that they were the one that got Pierce elected, so they were the ones that deserved the lion’s share of appointments. Naturally, they were disappointed. Right away, Pierce was in trouble, and he lacked the commanding personality to make headstrong would-be kingmakers agree to his decisions.

It wasn’t a good start, and it shook faith in the new administration.

However, his cabinet functioned remarkably well, and combined was a far stronger cabinet than any of the previous several cabinets. In fact, as of this writing, the Pierce cabinet remains the only cabinet to stay intact throughout an entire administration. The cabinet sometimes fought fiercely with each other, but it served Pierce and the country well. It’s odd that Pierce receives no credit for it.

Each cabinet officer was a strong leader of his department, and worked hard to deal with problems against an obstinate Congress. For example, Postmaster General James Campbell fought a long, but ultimately losing, battle with Congress to streamline postal services, eliminate its $2 million deficit and get rid of Congressional privileges. Treasury Secretary James Guthrie yanked federal funds away from private banks and placed them in the federal treasury per law. And Secretary of the Navy James Dobbin tried to get Congress to authorize a further modernization of the fleet by switching over to steam, stepping up training and increasing the ranks of young officers. Congress balked, but finally added new sloops at the end of Pierce’s term.

The most notable cabinet members were Jefferson Davis, the firebrand from Mississippi, as secretary of war and William Marcy as secretary of state, a skilled politician who had last served as Polk’s able secretary of war.

Davis was a pigheaded man who would see only one point of view—his—and no other, and that view was the Southern view. He did moderate his speech somewhat, but he saw everything through a Southern lens. He was especially keen to have the transcontinental railroad have a specifically southern route. However, he was an able secretary of war, and w
ith Pierce’s support, expanded the Army by four regiments among other improvements. Davis’ tenure is also notable for his interesting experiment to use camels as pack animals in the southwest. The “camel corps” was ridiculed, especially by those who favored mules and horses, but the camels worked well and Confederates actually used some in New Mexico during the war.

Davis also served as the one cabinet officer on who Pierce most relied; the president would sometimes meet with Davis late at night on the sly, so it wouldn’t seem to prying eyes that he overly favored the South.

Pierce could have easily recovered politically from the initial cabinet stumble. But two events, one foreign and one domestic, turned Northern Democrats and much of the rest of the North against him, and left many Southern Democrats alienated as well. Midway through his term, the president was in serious trouble.

The domestic event is complicated, so I’ll deal with the foreign event first.

Democrat expansionism
The Pierce record of foreign policy was actually respectable except for one thing. Pierce continued the policies and sentiments of his predecessors by continuing to explore opportunities for expanding American influence and trade in Central and South America and across the Pacific. He had two notable successes in this regard.

First, Pierce’s ministers succeeded in purchasing a section of land from Mexico called the Gasden Purchase, as part of Secretary Davis’ designs for a southern railroad route to California. This section of land, which forms all of present-day southern Arizona and the panhandle of New Mexico, was actually a disappointing purchase for the president. He had wanted something much larger, including large portions of northern Mexico, including the state of Chihuahua and Baja California. Mexico at first was open to the idea, because post-war Mexico was near economic collapse. But the antics of an American “filibuster” (the term for an adventurer and would-be conqueror) named William Walker helped poison the deal when he tried to set up his own empire in Baja.

The treaty finally went through as we know it today. Pierce was disappointed with the final result, and his critics were unhappy that it ever even happened. Free-Soilers and abolitionists charged that it was just more territory to satiate the slave power’s expansion plans. Regardless, the Gasden Purchase marked the final expansion of the contiguous United States. A transcontinental railroad would be built through there, but not for another two decades.

Pierce also had a minor foreign policy success in the acquisition of several small Pacific islands, including the Christmas Islands and Midway. The reason? Guano. Incalculable tons of the stuff was white “gold” as fertilizer, and Pierce ordered the raising of the Stars and Stripes on any island where there was no claim.

There was also Secretary of State Marcy’s “dress circular” to all foreign offices, stating that American ministers could wear anything they wanted to, i.e., dress like an American, not as a foppish foreigner. Some ministers were aghast, but James Buchanan, appointed minister to the Court of St. James, approved. And so did many of Pierce’s normal critics.

If we could leave the Pierce foreign policy at that—even including the troubles with Great Britain in Central America—we could declare it a modest, if not spectacular, success. But we can’t. There is Cuba and the Ostend Manifesto. For decades, the plantation class looked southward to expand slavery: Central and South America and especially Cuba. The huge island 90 miles off the American shore just had to become a Unites States possession, some believed. Many Northerners wanted nothing to do with Cuba, fearing that seizing Cuba would expand slavery—regardless of what was happening on the island itself (Cuba was in the midst of throwing off slavery).

The Pierce administration heeded the counsel of southerners, especially Davis, that Spain could be persuaded to let go of Cuba. The U.S. minister to Spain, a hapless and tactless Young America and slavery proponent named Soule, made no secret of his desire to acquire Cuba. In 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska act was starting to shred America, Soule, James Buchanan and another diplomat composed the Ostend Manifesto while in Europe that ostensibly said that the United States should buy Cuba from Spain, or failing that, take it, as it rightfully belonged under American control. The three diplomats sent the document back to the secretary of state, but the contents were soon made public.

Outrage ensured. Northern politicians of various factions—even some Democrats—newspapers and general public, already unhappy over Kansas, believed this was further proof that Pierce was a pro-Southern stooge. The administration had blundered badly, and it wasn’t even an official document (it had only been signed by three diplomats and not actually been presented to the Spanish government). Nevertheless, Spain, France and Great Britain registered their displeasure, and both president Pierce and Secretary Marcy had to disavow the document and any further attempt to get Cuba.

It was a major embarrassment Pierce didn’t need. At about the same time the Cuba plans fell apart, President Pierce was attaching his administration to a dangerous idea that wound up destroying his presidency—and wounding the country.

Stephen A. Douglas wrecks the Compromise “peace”
Nothing showed the weakness of President Pierce more than the imbroglio over Nebraska and Kansas. To his credit, Franklin Pierce did have peace on his mind. Like his predecessors, Pierce looked to compromise to hold the Union together. But conditions were changing, making a compromise like 1850 unworkable, and the very nature of the next big argument over slavery expansion/containment required strong leadership, not just compromise. If Pierce had been president in an earlier era, his approach might have worked.

Unfortunately, Pierce’s approach was too one-sided, and he placed all of the blame on on
e side.

What made this whole mess worse was that it didn’t have to be done. The Compromise of 1850 was necessary because it dealt mainly with the fallout from the Mexican War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, was more of a battle of choice instead of absolute necessity.

Stephen A. Douglas, the leader of the Young Americans, put fourth a bill for organizing the Nebraska territory by dividing it into two states. Douglas, like many politicians of the time, sought to have the lands settled for building the transcontinental railroad. So far, so good. But then Douglas and his allies, including Missouri’s Sen. Atchison, threw in a boner: settlers would be left to decide whether slavery was allowed.

As you can imagine, this “popular sovereignty” doctrine caused a firestorm. While not exactly repealing the Missouri Compromise, which forbade slavery west of the Mississippi and north of Missouri’s southern border (except for Missouri itself), it effectively rendered the 1820 compromise “null and void.” Pro-slavery forces, at first wary of popular sovereignty, then cheered—as did anyone else who believed the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. But Free-Soilers, abolitionists and Northern Whigs damned the bill, saying it was yet another sop to the slave power.

Pierce may have dismissed abolitionists as a dangerous crusading fringe group that threatened the country’s peace—and in truth, abolitionists were a fringe group, right up until emancipation in 1863—but he failed to grasp that the dynamics of slave politics had changed drastically in a short time. Abolitionists attacked the immorality of slavery, which in turn caused an automatic defensive reaction among the planter class. But the Free Soilers, who were not fringe crusaders, opposed the expansion of slavery because they didn’t want the competition with slave labor in the territories nor did they appreciate the negation of the Missouri Compromise.

President Pierce, despite his belief that the Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, had to be persuaded to support the bill by Secretary Davis and other Southerners. Eventually he came around. The president expended a lot of political capital working to get Kansas-Nebraska passed into law. He wasn’t the lead, however; Douglass was. Pierce and Marcy used every bit of cajoling and promising they could to get Democrats to agree to the bill. In the end, they won, and it was a significant legislative victory.

But the cost of that victory was enormous.

“Bleeding” Kansas
Democrats took hits throughout the North in the elections of 1854 due to the unpopularity of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Law and a rising discontent with a president who seemed to side with the slave power on every issue.
Pierce didn’t help himself when he appeared ready to give money to railr
oads and land to veterans but vetoed in 1854 a very popular and bipartisan bill in support of Dorthea Dix’s hospitals for the indigent insane. The president used his veto on constitutional grounds, but his lack of consistency made even his supporters start to back away.

Then the troubles started in Kansas. Because popular sovereignty operated on the principle of majority rule, whoever arrived in Kansas in sufficient numbers first would organize the state. Pro-slavery settlers from Missouri poured over the border while Free-Soilers and abolitionist settlers were just getting underway.

It would be an incorrect impression to say that Bleeding Kansas was nothing but a massive, bloody battle between slave and free, because the majority of people really wanted nothing to do with either side and just wanted the land. (A lot the land itself was not yet in government hands, e.g., “secured” from Indians!)

In short, pro-slavery settlers succeeded in organizing elections first, and, illegally aided by Missourians crossing the border, created a pro-slavery government. Slavery was permitted and no one was allowed to say otherwise. Anti-slavery forces cried foul and tried to set up their own government. The question of the legitimacy of the pro-slavery government did not trouble President Pierce, who recognized their government and appointed a pro-Southern man as territorial governor.

Violence began in 1855. Most incidents were isolated until May 1856 when Border Ruffians (pro-slavers) “sacked” Lawrence by attacking and burning a couple of Free Soil businesses and homes. One day later, a South Carolina Congressman named Preston Brooks viciously attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane on the Senate floor over a harsh speech Sumner had given that insulted Brooks’ cousin. In response, John Brown and his sons murdered five pro-slavery settlers at Osawatomie, Kan. Sporadic violence continued until 1859, then renewed in 1861 when the big war began.

President Pierce refused to recognize the free state shadow government and repeatedly blamed them and Eastern Free-Soilers and abolitionists—and only them—for the violence. He even sent in federal soldiers to block the shadow government. Both of Pierce’s territorial governors were committed pro-southerners who sided with the pro-slave Kansas government on every decision. Only his third governor, appointed far too late to do Pierce or Kansas any good, was largely fair to both sides.

Pierce’s one-sided approach to the troubles in Kansas hurt his already damaged reputation. It was the ultimate proof that the president was completely pro-southern and played into the hands of the slave power. That’s not how the president viewed himself, of course. He saw himself as maintaining law and order—though I wonder if his ministrations in Kansas would have been different had a free-soil government organized first, one that outlawed slavery.

Pierce’s refusal to disavow the pro-slavery Kansas government, even after a congressional committee declared the initial election illegitimate, was yet another serious misstep. Through Bleeding Kansas, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its unnecessary popular sovereignty and equally unnecessary repeal of the long-settled Missouri Compromise, Franklin Pierce destroyed his presidency.

He believed he was standing on principle, but it was principle, I believe, that was founded in quite a remarkably skewed view of “tolerance.” By believing that the pro-slavery forces were the ones who stood for law and order and only the Free Soilers and abolitionists were the lawbreakers, Pierce set himself up to fail in Kansas.

Larry Gara writes:

“Nearing the end of his term, the lame-duck president took a more even-handed approach that helped calm the storm, but it was too late to rehabilitate Pierce’s personal reputation. “Bleeding Kansas” came to symbolize the failures of the administration. The majority of Americans saw the president as, at best, incompetent. Some, including old friends, judged him more harshly. B.B. French, his former secretary, commented in July 1856 that Pierce was “in rather bad odor, and will stink worse yet before the 4th of next March.” At that point the president could no longer please anybody. Even a wise and highly skilled leader would have had great difficulty. Pierce was neither. He failed to understand the forces at work in the country, and tried to perpetuate the policies of the past rather than confronting the problems of his own time. Jacksonian democracy had run its course. The fundamental changes at work in all aspects of American life required a degree of political adjustment that the president from New Hampshire could neither understand nor implement.” (Gara, p. 126)

1856 and decent
The presidential election of 1856 was one of the most critical elections in America’s history. “Most critical election ever” seems to be tossed about freely every four years, but in this case, it was true.

The political scene was shattered in 1856. The Whigs no longer existed as a national force, and barely registered anywhere. The American Party, which had won seats in some state houses and in Congress, would enjoy a brief moment this year with former President Fillmore as its standard-bearer before quickly fading forever. And there was a new party in town: the Republicans, made up of former Whigs, Free Soilers, abolitionists, less stringent Know-Nothings and ex-Democrats. Already holding seats in Congress, the new party was organized for one primary purpose: stop the expansion of the slave power. It was a purely sectional party—Northern and upper Western—and its strength was a major threat to the South. Its official platform, though not taken totally at face value by most Republicans, was an all-out attack on the Pierce administration, and included a promise to deal harshly with Pierce and his allies if the Republicans were elected.

The attacks were rarely repeated by Republicans but became a major pa
rt of the Democratic campaign as evidence of the extremism of the new party; either way, they stung Pierce badly. His final message to Congress was in part a rebuttal to the Republican platform, and, as usual, blames sectionalists and other extremists for all of the problems.

By then, however, Democrats had turned their backs on the president: Although he made a strong showing at the convention, President Pierce was rejected for a second term by the Democratic party. Instead, they chose Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, a former senator, secretary of state and Pierce’s minister to England. Buchanan, of course, won that November.

Following his enforced retirement, Pierce became bitter and would often turn to drink. When the war began, Pierce refused to support the North or the Lincoln administration. He called the war unnecessary and an assault on property and people. He was referred to as a traitor, and when his correspondence with his old friend and now Confederate president Jefferson Davis was revealed in 1863 during the Vicksburg campaign (after Davis’ Mississippi plantation was captured), Pierce’s personal reputation was destroyed.

He died in 1869 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Final assessment

Franklin Pierce was a good man who probably should not have been president—or, at least, not president during a time of tremendous upheaval. It’s possible that I may revise what I’ve written here after reading the second volume of Wallner’s book (see Resources), but I doubt it. History seems to have gotten Pierce right—but maybe not for quite the right reasons, though.

Larry Gara, in his 1991 volume for the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series, advances what is the standard accepted belief on Pierce, and it is a powerful argument. In attempting to reach a new agreement that totally negated what had come before—the Missouri Compromise of 1820—Pierce and Douglas thoroughly and completely misunderstood—or missed entirely—the growing anger in the North over catering to every whim of the slave power. In attempting to appease the South and holding to a rigid standard that slavers were following the law in Kansas and Free-Soliers and abolitionists were in the wrong, Pierce alienated much of the North.
Pierce left the White House in March 1857 convinced he had done all th
at he could, and it’s possible he was right. His final message to Congress, though, underscores his inability to see just what was going on in the country. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—grasp that many Northerners were now opposed to slavery either from a moral standpoint (the minority view), or for political reasons or personal reasons.

Eminent historians of the antebellum era, most notably David M. Potter (The Impending Crisis) and William R. Freehling (The Road To Disunion), remain unimpressed with President Pierce’s performance, and it is hard to disagree. (Freehling barely mentions Pierce as a factor in the Kansas-Nebraska Act in volume 1, except as someone easily rolled, though he used different words.)

But Peter Wallner wonders if there was something else at work that made the situation simply impossible for Pierce: The collapse of the second party system (the disintegration of the Whigs and the building divisions between Northern and Southern Democrats), the increasing sectional hostility—turning into hate—were factors that worked against Pierce. Wallner argues that Pierce was a strong Unionist who saw all forms of agitators and reformers as the real enemies, not the slaveholders of the South. The Union could be held together through strength of unity, not division.

So why did the “law and order” and “Union-above-all” approach work for Taylor and Fillmore but not for Pierce? The former two were compromising from a position of strength and, more importantly, neutrality. They had the reputations and political strength to see the compromise through, and were working to solve a sticky problem stemming from the fallout of the Mexican War. And the Compromise of 1850 only built on established precedence. Even the Fugitive Slave Law did that, but it fueled unintended fires. Pierce, on the other hand, sought to thoroughly undo established precedent and create an entirely new template by repealing the Missouri Compromise and embracing Douglas’ notions of popular sovereignty.

Instead of removing the slave question from the purview of Congress and putting it back to the states, the Kansas-Nebraska act wrecked the Pierce presidency, destroyed what was left of the Whigs, divided the Democrats, gave birth to the Republican party and inflamed the agitation over slavery worse than the Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

And I’m not even sure it was a bold gamble on Pierce’s part, because he wasn’t the lead: Stephen A. Douglas was, along with a couple other senators and congressmen. President Pierce was a supporter—the best man, if you will, not the groomsman. So I can’t even give him credit for boldness that failed.

In the end, Franklin Pierce was a man promoted beyond his station. A brilliant lawyer, an excellent New Hampshire party operative and a good Democratic party soldier, he should never have become president.

Final assessment: Failed and unpopular

My first primary resource was Larry Gara’s The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (1991), part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series. (As noted in the previous entry on Millard Fillmore, Gara is yet another historian who believes there was a complete split between the Taylor and Fillmore presidencies over the Compromise of 1850, even though Elbert Smith, writing about both men in the same series a few years earlier, proved otherwise!)

My other resource was Peter A. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son (2004), part one of a planned two-part biography. The first volume takes Pierce up to the first day of his presidency. It remains to be seen whether Wallner will be as favorable toward his subject as he was in volume one, but so far I remain unconvinced that history has gotten Pierce that wrong.

Note: It’s a small world: The Bush family originally hails from New Hampshire. Barbara Pierce Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush, is a direct descendant, great-great-granddaughter of James Pierce Jr., who was a fourth cousin of Franklin Pierce. George H.W. Bush himself was a great-great-grandson of Pierce’s fifth cousin on Pierce’s mother's side.


All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Franklin Pierce in a daguerreotype taken by Matthew Brady

2. Gen. Franklin Pierce, designed and engraved on steel by W.L. Ormsby, N.Y.

3. A less “glorious” and more typical photograph of Pierce in his officer’s uniform

4. Jane Pierce.

5. Social qualities of our candidate. The Librrary of Congress description for this lithograph states: “Reports of his alcoholism haunted Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce during the 1852 campaign. The matter is taken up here with mocking reference to the Maine Liquor Law of 1851, a landmark prohibition measure first passed in Maine and subsequently adopted in several other states. An obviously inebriated Pierce leans against a large tree at right, holding a bottle out toward a man who passes on horseback. The man holds a document “Maine Liquor Law” and carries a barrel of “Hard Cider” on his saddle. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and a drab outfit, indicating that he is a Quaker, among the chief supporters of the temperance movement. Quaker: “Friend that tree looks as if it was old enough to stand alone—Thee need n’t hold it up any longer.” Pierce: “You have the advantage of me, stranger.—My name is Frank Pierce & I’ll stand as long as this tree will stand by me! I’m granite all over! give us your hand--Will you take a horn? I’ll give you a toast—Here’s confusion to all Maine Liquor Laws. An owl perched on a branch of the tree hoots twice. The Quaker’s barrel of “Hard Cider” has a double meaning: it alludes to an earlier (and successful) Whig presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, and casts doubt on the Quaker’s temperance commitment.”

6. A somewhat fancy hand-colored lithograph of the 14th President of the United States.

7. A portrait of Pierce produced for the 1852 campaign.

8. Official White House portrait (White House Historical Association)

9. Stephen A. Douglas, “Young American”

10. John Brown

11. John L. Magee created the rather romantic lithograph Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club in 1856, depicting Rep. Preston Brooks' attack on Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.

12. Forcing slavery down the throat of a freesoiler. The Library of Congress description of this 1856 editorial cartoon says: “The artist lays on the Democrats the major blame for violence perpetrated against antislavery settlers in Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Here a bearded “freesoiler” has been bound to the “Democratic Platform” and is restrained by two Lilliputian figures, presidential nominee James Buchanan and Democratic senator Lewis Cass. Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, also shown as tiny figures, force a black man into the giant's gaping mouth. The freesoiler’s head rests on a platform marked “Kansas,” “Cuba” and “Central America,” probably referring to Democratic ambitions for the extension of slavery. In the background left is a scene of burning and pillage; on the right a dead man hangs from a tree.

13. President Pierce sometime during his term