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.


Big Mo said...

I made a doozy of a mistake that I'll have to update: Buchanan DID have the authority to call out and nationalize the militia. It was authority that went back to President Washington in 1794.

Peter L said...

While you're at it, you may want to check the typos (several). Otherwise, a good summary.

Big Mo said...

Peter - thanks. I was a little rushed to get this out and put up an unproofed version.

Loring Wirbel said...

Nice analysis, but in the end, I have to agree with Jean Baker's conclusion, that Buchanan supported Lecompte and did nothing regarding Fort Sumter, not because he was ineffectual or indecisive, but because he fully supported the South. As she says, that made him a de facto traitor. He certainly belongs below the likes of Pierce, Tyler, Fillmore. Too early to say how Bush ranks.

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