The main page of the Environmental Protection Agency’s website offers a mapping feature called MyEnvironment (scroll down just a bit and you’ll find it on the left hand side), which allows you to learn quickly a whole range of environmental facts about virtually any location nationwide. Just enter a zip code, an address, a city or county name – say, for example 67060 – and you’ll find a wealth of environmental information, ranging from today’s air quality index, ozone forecast, particulate matter forecast, and ultraviolet index, to superfund and brownfields links, maps of industrial site reporting to the EPA, low birth weight statistics and cancer risk estimates for aerial toxics, streamflow level data, local water conditions, and much more. Here’s a page that explains in detail what’s available and how you can put it to use.
Slate Magazine offers a very illuminating county-level nationwide interactive map which shows cumulative job losses (or gains) from January 2006 through February 2009, using the Department of Labor’s Local Area Unemployment Statistics (which lists Kansas with a 6.1% unemployment rate as of March 2009).
Sedgwick County, despite adversity, appears as a relative oasis on the map, with job gains of 8,894 jobs from January 2006 to January 2007, job gains of 3,039 jobs from January 2007 to January 2008, job gains of 1,468 from January 2008 to January 2009, and even a net gain of 296 jobs from February 2008 to February 2009. In sharp contrast, the nation as a whole shows net losses of 4,197,371 jobs during that last period alone.
Today is the 187th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant, victorious commanding general in the American Civil War and eighteenth president of the United States.
As a postscript to our review of Albert Castel’s Civil War Kansas, here’s another brief excerpt from the book on . . .
Kansas Troops in the Civil War
“What part Kansas troops would play in Northern military operations was for some time indeterminate. Kansans were inclined to feel that they should be employed in or near their own state, yet some of the Kansas regiments saw most of their service in Tennessee and Georgia. During the winter and spring of 1861-1862, Kansas troops, principally Lane’s Brigade, were in such poor condition that Halleck contemptuously dismissed them all with the word ‘humbug.’ Plans to use them to reinforce the Union army in Arkansas failed to materialize, and a proposed expedition from Fort Riley to New Mexico was abandoned when Halleck, early in May, requested that the regiments intended for it be sent to bolster Grant’s army in Mississippi.
“Not until June, 1862, did an operation of any consequence involving Kansas units get under way. This was an expedition under Colonel Weer into the Indian Territory. Weer’s force consisted of the Second, Sixth, and Ninth Kansas cavalry regiments, the Tenth Kansas Infantry, the Ninth Wisconsin Infantry, the Second Ohio Cavalry, the First and Second Indiana batteries, and two Indian regiments, numbering in all 6,000 effectives. The purpose of the campaign was to reassert Federal authority over the Indian Territory, to protect the southern borders of Kansas and Missouri from Confederate Indian troops in the area, and to restore Unionist Indian refugees to their homes. By the summer of 1862 thousands of these refugees had congregated in the southern part of the state, where they presented a serious problem both to the settlers and to the Government, which had to feed and take care of them. What little money Congress appropriated for their relief had been quickly squandered, and many had died of exposure, hunger and disease. The Indians were desperately anxious to return to their homes and joined with alacrity the two regiments into which they were formed.
“Confederate troops in the Indian Territory were unable to offer any resistance to Weer’s column, which had little difficulty in occupying Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Weer planned next to Capture Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River, but before he could undertake this operation, his army mutinied and Colonel Frederick Salomon of the Ninth Wisconsin usurped command. Saloman and the other officers accused Weer of gross incompetency, drunkenness, insanity, and of exposing the army to destruction. Although there was no danger from the Confederates, Salomon promptly marched back towards Fort Scott with all the white units, leaving behind only the Indian regiments. Blunt first learned of the mutiny in a letter of explanation from Salomon. Flabbergasted, but relieved that the Indian Territory had not been totally evacuated, he ordered Salomon to halt and send back two of the Kansas regiments in order to reinforce the Indian units. When Blunt arrived at Fort Scott on the way to take personal command of the expedition, he found Salomon and all the white troops there already, even though his order had reached them at Baxter Springs. He thereupon sent back the reinforcements himself and convened a general court-martial to investigate the mutiny. Nothing came of the court-martial, however, for too many officers were involved and there were insufficient time and means to deal with them. Yet, in spite of Salomon’s mutiny and retreat, Weer’s expedition resulted in the permanent occupation of the upper portion of the Indian Territory by Federal forces.
“On September 24 Kansas again became part of the Department of the Missouri under the command of Major General Samuel R. Curtis, victor of the Battle of Pea Ridge. Blunt remained in charge of the now District of Kansas, but instead of staying at Fort Leavenworth he took the field at the head of the ‘Army of the Frontier,’ as the troops of his district were designated. On October 1 his army joined the forces of Schofield in southwestern Missouri in a campaign to forestall a Confederate invasion from Arkansas. Marching in advance of the rest of Schofield’s army, Blunt pushed into northwestern Arkansas and the adjoining Indian country. On October 22, he fought a successful engagement at Old Fort Wayne, and on November 28 he once more forced the small Confederate army facing him to fall back in a battle at Cane Hill.
“Blunt was unable to follow up this victory, however, for a superior Confederate army under Major General T. C. Hindman was now advancing toward him. Hindman had hastily formed this army in a desperate effort to save Arkansas from being overrun by the Union forces and was hoping to deliver a quick, crushing blow at either Blunt or Brigadier General Francis J. Herron, commander of the other wing of Schofield’s army. Instead of withdrawing northward to gain Herron’s support, as he should have, Blunt remained at Cane Hill and awaited Herron to join him there, in expectation that Hindman would attack him first. But Hindman forced his way through a mountain pass which Blunt had failed to protect adequately and moved around Blunt’s left flank to strike Herron. Blunt, who had been completely fooled by Hindman’s maneuver, was ‘sound asleep or sitting up with some female hangers-on,’ when he first heard the sound of firing off to the northeast. ‘What was that?’ he cried, and then blurted out, ‘My God, they’re in my rear!’ Yet Blunt did not lose control of himself or of the situation, but set his army in a pell-mell rush toward ‘the sound of the guns’ to aid the embattled Herron, he himself bounding along on horseback far ahead of his army. Herron, with a superiority of artillery fire power that compensated for his inferiority in numbers, was holding Hindman at Prairie Grove when Blunt’s men streamed on the field. The Kansas troops aided materially in beating back Hindman’s frantic thrusts, but it is debatable whether they ‘saved the day’ as Blunt later claimed. Frenzied and bloody fighting continued until after dark, with neither side gaining a clear-cut advantage. In the morning, under the cover of a truce, Hindman retreated with his badly battered army, much to the relief of Herron and Blunt.
“Nearly three weeks elapsed before Blunt and Herron pursued Hindman, who had retired to Van Buren. They made a rapid march to that town and drove a rear guard of Texas cavalry to the other side of the Arkansas River, where Hindman’s main force stood. The two armies waged an artillery duel across the river, but Blunt and Herron did not attempt to follow the Confederates when they resumed their retreat. The next day, after a night of drunken plundering and burning, the Union army marched back to Cane Hill, from where it dispersed into winter quarters. For the time being Confederate power north of the Arkansas was destroyed.
The Kansas press, at least the pro-Lane portion thereof, hailed Blunt as a great general and hero. He, too, thought very highly of his performance and began to plume himself as a military leader, especially of cavalry. In truth he had displayed many of the attributes of a successful commander – courage, aggressiveness, promptness, confidence, and, above all, luck. Nevertheless he probably owed his victories more to the weakness of the Confederates than to his own strength. Most of the commanders he opposed were either drunk or incompetent or both, and the troops they led were miserably equipped and poor in morale – at Prairie Grove entire regiments of Arkansas conscripts surrendered en masse. Furthermore, there is some reason to doubt whether he deserved full credit even for what he apparently did well. Many years after the war his chief of staff, Thomas Moonlight, a former soldier in the regular army, asserted that had it not been for his advice ‘Blunt would not stand in history with the same military victories attached to him,’ in particular Old Fort Wayne, Cane Hill, Prairie Grove, and Van Buren. Yet at the time Blunt was well regarded by his soldiers, the general public and Congress, which in May promoted him to major general.”
A Brief Review of Albert Castel’s
Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind
“If the crows could not fly over the valleys of the Shenandoah without carrying rations, the buzzards of the prairies had no need of haversacks.”
– Confederate Major John N. Edwards of General Sterling Price’s passage through southern Kansas
Originally written more than fifty years ago as a doctoral dissertation, and then republished in 1997 by the University of Kansas Press, Albert Castel’s Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind remains a vital and engaging text on an aspect of America’s great internecine conflict most often passed over in silence. Such disparate outstanding experts on the Civil War as Allan Nevins, James McPherson and David Herbert Donald have offered substantive praise for the work, and with good reason. Nevins once characterized it as “the best book we have on the Civil War in Kansas,” while McPherson described it as “a classic in the genre.” And more than many books of its vintage, it has aged remarkably well. It is, of course, more of a traditionally political and military history than contemporary conventions might mandate of academia, but then of course the compelling events of the time were largely military and political. Nor does Castel wholly ignore the economic and social aspects of the conflict. Despite the intervening years since it initial release, Castel’s Civil War Kansas continues to reward the interested reader.
Two brief excerpts:
The People of Civil War Kansas
“The circumstances accompanying the settlement of Kansas during the 11850s had given its population a reputation for violence and lawlessness and had created the still-persistent myth that they were stern New England puritans who had gone to Kansas to preserve it from slavery. The truth of the matter was that the ‘troubles’ in Kansas had been greatly exaggerated, mainly by young Eastern newspaper correspondents engaged in the manufacture of Republican political propaganda and of their own careers. And as for Kansans being of New England origin, census figures were available for anyone to see that most of them came, not from that section, but from Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, and Iowa, in that order. Obviously, if the reigning spirit of Kansas was puritan, it was puritanism which came by way of the Great Lakes, not direct from Massachusetts Bay.
“Nor did the settlers of Kansas go there simply to wage a holy war against slavery. ‘We came to Kansas,’ said one of them afterwards, ‘to better our conditions, incidentally expecting to make it a free state.’ But even this confession of motivation probably holds true only for the more idealistic upper stratum of the immigrants. The bulk of the thousands who poured into Kansas between 1854 and 1860 were driven by sheer land hunger and little or nothing else. Yet in actuality there was little or no difference between coming to Kansas in quest of free land and coming to make it a land of the free. The average settler, whether Northern or Southern, regarded slavery as an economic curse to the small white farmer and believed that only by making Kansas a Free State could he protect and improve his socioeconomic status.
“Another facet of the reputation of Kansans, closely linked to that of their supposed puritan New England origin, was that they were a Bible-toting, hymn-singing lot, deeply steeped in the somber hues of evangelistic Calvinism. This too, however, seems to be largely a myth, deriving mainly from the political propagandists who constantly contrasted the pious Free State Kansans to the whisky-swilling, tobacco-spitting ‘Border Ruffians’ of Missouri.”
“One of the by-products of the propaganda that accompanied the Kansas territorial struggle was the myth that the typical Kansan of the period was a zealous abolitionist. Northern orators such as Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips and radical journalists such as William Phillips, Richard Josiah Hinton, and William P. Tomlinson portrayed the Free State settlers as embattled crusaders fighting to prevent the ‘conquest of Kansas’ by the wicked and repulsive myrmidons of the ‘Slave Power.’ Southern spokesmen, on the other hand, fulminated about ‘abolitionist hordes’ pouring into Kansas to deprive slaveholders of their rights and to secure a base for further onslaughts on the institutions of the South. The putative exploits of John Brown in Kansas, and especially his Harper’s Ferry raid, fired the public imagination and caused people, when they thought of Kansas, to think of ‘Pottawatomie’ Brown, and vice versa. In fact, even to this day Brown is popularly identified with Kansas, as is so magnificently demonstrated by John Steuart Curry’s famous mural in the capitol at Topeka.
“Actuality, however, differed considerably from myth. As mentioned previously, very few of those who settled in Kansas during the fifties did so for idealistic antislavery reasons. Even Brown probably came to Kansas originally for no higher purpose than acquiring some land. The Free State men, wrote one of them, were ‘not against slavery in the abstract,’ and hundreds of them had a ‘deadly terror of being termed “abolitionist”’ and were ‘frightened by the mere mention of that mysterious specter, “negro equality.”’ In general, Kansans at the time of the Civil War were as much anti-Negro as they were antislavery, and they were probably in large measure antislavery because they were anti-Negro; that is, they feared the social and economic consequences of the introduction of Negro slave labor into the state.
“In one important respect, however, Kansas deserved its reputation for extremism on the slavery question. Without exception its major political and governmental leaders were abolitionists.”
Today, April 24th, is National Arbor Day, and also Kansas Arbor Day. (Not every state – or country — celebrates Arbor Day on the same date. To find out when other states celebrate, see the National Arbor Day Foundation’s map of Arbor Day Dates.) Even though it’s a bit past the optimum time, it’s an excellent day to plant a tree. Better yet, plant a dozen.
For more ideas on how to celebrate National Arbor Day, see NADF’s How to Celebrate Arbor Day.
Here are the national and state winning posters from National Arbor Day Foundation’s annual poster contest:
A Review of Jean H. Baker’s James Buchanan
Today is the 218th anniversary of the birth of James Buchanan, almost unanimously – and justifiably — accounted the worst among all American presidents.
Jean H. Baker’s biography of James Buchanan, another in the Henry Holt and Company series on The American Presidents (see previous reviews of volumes in the series on Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Thomas Jefferson), is an extended exploration of the reasons for Buchanan’s ignominious and utter failure. As she explains, “there are important reasons to reexamine Buchanan. First, only in the literal sense did the Civil War begin on April 12, 1861, when the confederates fired on Fort Sumter. It began in Buchanan’s administration. His policies after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 were a critical factor in the coming of the war, and he pursued them vigorously. To study Buchanan is to consider why the American Civil War, unthinkable a decade before, became inevitable; why northern Democrats behaved the way they did during the war; and why secessionist southerners, at first a minority in the Confederacy, carried the day. Recent research suggests how contested secession was in the South and indicates how firm policies, such as trying to isolate the secessionists in South Carolina, could have tempered the drive to disunion in other states. But Lincoln has so dominated the story that what happened in Buchanan’s administration has obscured the sad, but historically significant, tale of his predecessor.
“As Americans try to fathom presidential accomplishment, they need to probe the dismal lessons to be learned from failed administrations” – such as that of the dismal James Buchanan.
Following three earlier efforts to secure the Democratic nomination (1844, 1848 and 1852), on November 4th 1856 James Buchanan was elected the fifteenth President of the United States. He was unquestionably one of the most highly qualified men ever to have sought that office, having previously served in the Pennsylvania legislature, as a US Representative and US Senator, as Minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and as Secretary of State. No subsequent president has entered office with a more impressive resume.
Yet, “four years later Buchanan left the presidency in disgrace, condemned by Republicans, vilified by northern Democrats, and dismissed even by the southerners whom he had tried so hard to please and whose personal affection he craved. The president, for all his prospects in 1856, had been unable, as he had pledged in his oath of office, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. Despite his promises to resolve the recurring differences over slavery, he had failed. He had divided his party, thereby ensuring the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And that election led to the secession of South Carolina, followed by six other states in the lower South. A month before Buchanan left office, these seven southern states formed a separate nation, proclaiming themselves the Confederate States of America. On March 4, 1861, when this discredited president traveled home to his estate outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not only had the United States been destroyed; it stood on the brink of a civil war.
“Today we see that war as a means to the worthy end of emancipating four million slaves; we view it also as a cathartic final struggle over the meaning of the Union. But such benefits are understood only in retrospect. In 1856 few Americans imagined these contingent, beneficent prospects that might be used to justify Buchanan’s presidential performance. Only if one imagines that the success of the confederate states of America would have long-term benefits for the United States can Buchanan’s administration be considered a success.
“. . . By every measure except his own – whether that of his contemporaries or later historians – Buchanan was an abysmal failure as chief executive.” Why this should have been so is the fundamental question posed, and quite effectively answered, by Baker’s biography.
The answer is not, as Baker conclusively demonstrates, that Buchanan was a “do nothing” president. Indeed, he was, if anything, abnormally activist for a nineteenth century president. Rather, it was that he actively, albeit stubbornly and obtusely, pursued policies which wrought enormous damage.
Baker’s assessment of Buchanan’s Kansas policy is that it was “one of the greatest of presidential blunders in American history,” a charge amply documented in her biography (as exemplified by the two excerpts we have previously posted on Buchanan and Bloody Kansas and Buchanan and Bloody Kansas, Part Two.) But even more damning for Buchanan is his almost treasonous conduct during the last several months of his tenure.
Some contemporary readers may also wish to note that Baker addresses the long-rumored question of Buchanan’s alleged homosexuality with precisely as much attention as it merits, neither ignoring nor exaggerating its import, and judiciously observing that the evidence is insufficient to conclusively prove the claim.
Baker’s James Buchanan comprises but 152 pages, yet more than adequately surveys its chosen ground. I heartily recommend this work for any who wish to learn more – to their considerable profit – about the man who remains in truth “America’s worst president.”
Herewith an array of brief excerpts:
As Secession Looms
“Even in his final annual message to Congress in December 1860, as the cotton states of the South prepared to secede, a stubborn president asked that body to appropriate $30 million for the purchase of Cuba, although it had never been clear that Spain was willing to sell the island. And in this same message, Buchanan repeated his call for funds for an expeditionary force to be sent into Mexico. But Congress continued to be deaf to the chief executive’s plans.”
Vetoing the Homestead Act and Land Grant Colleges
“During this trying period of his presidency, Buchanan further soured his relations with Congress, from whom he sought appropriations and agreement for his overseas policies, by vetoing several prize pieces of Republican legislation including the Homestead Act. A popular policy in the Northwest, the Homestead Act gave 160 acres of public land free to each settler after five years. Buchanan, on the wrong side of this scintillating expression of American democracy, argued in his veto message that it was not fair to previous settlers to give away free land, that the federal government had no constitutional power to do so, and that the bill was especially unfair to the older states of the Union – a group that included many southern states. Earlier he had vetoed a bill to use public lands to establish land-grant colleges.”
“As early as October the president heard from his wary General-in-Chief of the Army, Winfield Scott, who advised that several states would secede if Lincoln was elected. Accordingly Scott, amid other less practical ideas, called for the immediate garrisoning of the federal forts in the South with sufficient troops as to prevent a surprise attack. Showing the flag in any way during this uncertain period was good counsel, though it came with the advisory that only five regiments were available, Of course there were units that could quickly be recalled from western outposts, where many of the sixteen thousand army troops were stationed. But Buchanan disliked both Scott and his advice, and so did nothing. Perhaps to expect that he would do anything before secession is unreasonable, although he was responsive and activist in his foreign policy. One wonders if Stephen Douglas had been president whether he would have been so complacent. Certainly Buchanan’s activity, like much of his performance in the 120 days left in his administration, reflected his consistent prosouthernism. For it was indubitably to the advantage of the future Confederacy first to have as many states as possible secede, and then to have time to organize a government and prepare an army without challenges from the federal government.”
“When Mississippi chose Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson of Mississippi as its agent to discuss secession with North Carolina officials, Buchanan approved Thompson’s trip from Washington to Raleigh. The government even paid the secretary’s expenses in a mission undertaken to discuss the destruction of that government.”
“As it was, secessionists throughout the South found encouragement in Buchanan’s policies – the best president they would ever have, many believed. In assessing the Buchanan presidency, one should note how long it took the president to resist the southerners and even mount a defensive claim on Sumter, how important several cabinet officers were in this decision, and how much Buchanan’s delay, grounded in his sectional prejudice, cost the nation. Buchanan was significant in presidential annals for what he did not do and for how slowly he did what he did do. Only if the supposition that the existence of two nations, one holding slaves from shore to shining shore, is justified are Buchanan’s policies commendable.”
Lincoln vs. Buchanan
“Lincoln inherited the effects of Buchanan’s appeasement. These had made the Confederacy far more powerful than it might have been. The new president faced an organized government that was as wealthy as many European nations. Buchanan had faced only south Carolina, until the second week of January. Lincoln confronted a Confederacy with a constitution and leaders who were already making their case for diplomatic support in France and Great Britain, and more dangerously in the eight slaveholding states that had not seceded. These states were constrained by the power of southern Unionists and their attachment to the Union. A vigorous reaction to the secession of South Carolina, indeed a strong response to the taking of federal property throughout the cotton states, would have stanched the departure of others.”
The Smithsonian Magazine for April 2009 includes a very interesting article on ‘The Dinosaur Fossil Wars’. What makes this selection so extraordinarily interesting is the dialogue it has generated – be sure to read the extended commentary.
The Big Picture blog at Boston.com has an absolutely outstanding series of 24 photographs from the Cassini mission to Saturn, along with brief commentary for each. Don’t miss Cassini’s Continued Mission.
[Today, of course, is the 40th celebration of Earth Day, first observed on April 22, 1970. For our Earth Day feature, we focus on the travails of the Mesopotamian marshlands, their destruction, and the heroic attempts to effectuate their restoration.]
In what was arguably the greatest crime of intentionally wrought environmental mass destruction in the history of mankind, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein destroyed nearly 95 percent of the vast Mesopotamian marshlands. These marshes, critical habitat for hundreds of species of birds and fish as well as aquatic plant life, once covered nearly 13,000 square miles of lower Iraq at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Hussein and his Baathists drained them to punish the rebellious Marsh Arabs in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Through deliberate diversion of water and the destruction of 5,000 year old banks and islands, they succeeded in damaging, perhaps irreparably, the ecology of all southern Iraq, and of the Persian Gulf.
Hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs witnessed the wholesale destruction of their way of life. By 2004 a quarter of a million of them populated huge refugee camps or crowded into Iraq’s crumbling cities.
Since the toppling of the Hussein dictatorship in 2003, Iraqis and scientists from around the world have sought to regenerate the marshland, initially through destruction of floodgates and dikes. By mid-2004, the UN Environmental Program estimated that perhaps 20 percent of the area had been reflooded, but much of it with contaminated water. By 2006, one study concluded that perhaps 75 percent of the original marshland (or at least as much of it as had existed in 1973) could ultimately be restored, and later that year some estimates concluded that more than 60 percent of the land had already been reflooded.
Since that time, however, the marshland has again shrunk to less than 40 percent of its former extent. Drought and wholesale construction of dams and reservoirs, particularly in southeastern Turkey, have continued to wreak havoc on the ravaged landscape.
To learn more about the Iraqi marshlands and the chances for their restoration, see Earth Magazine’s feature Lack of Water Threatens ‘Garden of Eden’. Also of interest is the UN Environment Programme’s Iraqi Marshlands project website, USAID’s quick summary of efforts and accomplishments, this item from International Rivers, and this feature from BBC News.
A Preview of Jean H. Baker’s James Buchanan
[James Buchanan appears on nearly every listing of presidential performance as the most incompetent and indeed disastrous of all presidents. On Thursday, April 23rd, we will observe the 218th anniversary of his birth. For the first part of this selection from Jean Baker’s James Buchanan, see yesterday’s excerpt.]
“In December 1857 Senator Stephen Douglas, who would face a reelection campaign against Abraham Lincoln in eleven months, met with Buchanan in the White House. Douglas was chairman of the powerful Committee on Territories, which would oversee the passage of any legislation moving Kansas from territory to state. The president had ignored the senator throughout the year. Now, in an interview that Douglas sought, Buchanan handed down his final judgment: he would support the Lecompton constitution. In fact, as he informed Douglas, he had already telegraphed his decision to the acting governor. Advocacy of the Lecompton constitution had become an administration measure, the kind of legislative litmus test that defined party loyalty and must be supported by all Democratic senators, congressmen, local officials, and patronage holders. Douglas bristled, alert to the growing sentiment against slavery in the territories in his home state of Illinois and throughout the Northwest as well as to the palpable violation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which he had authored. Buchanan reminded Douglas of the fate of disloyal senators who, after disobeying President Jackson, had found themselves in political purgatory. Since Jackson’s day, as Buchanan recalled, no senator had voted against an administration measure and survived. An angry Douglas responded in a retort that in different forms and with different subjects has resonated throughout American history, ‘Mr. President, Andrew Jackson is dead.’
“On February 2, 1858, Buchanan transmitted the Lecompton constitution to Congress with an accompanying message. His argument was an attack on Topeka residents, whom he compared to those in rebellion in Utah. Like the Mormons, ‘with treasonable pertinacity,’ free Kansans had defied the legitimate institutions of authority, and these ‘mercenaries of abolitionism’ had created a ‘revolutionary government’ that would spread anarchy throughout the territory. In fact the controversy in Kansas had little to do with freeing slaves and much more to do with making slavery national, but Buchanan had long ago conflated free-soilers, antislavery supporters, and abolitionists into the enemy. And to those who complained about the farcical Lecompton process, Buchanan insisted, incorrectly, that he had never promised to submit the entire constitution, only that portion dealing with the future of slavery. Besides, once peacefully accepted into the Union, Kansans could simply change any provisions about slavery that the majority disapproved. Here again he deceived, for the Lecompton constitution could not be changed for seven years and then only by a laborious amendment process that was easy enough for the Lecompton minority to impede.
“To delighted southerners, who had watched an unlikely slave state transformed into a probable one, Buchanan offered his splendid gift in a special message to Congress in February 1858: ‘Kansas is therefore at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina. Without this the equality of the sovereign states composing the Union would be violated, and the use and enjoyment of a territory acquired by the common treasure of all the States would be closed against the people and property of nearly one-half the members of the confederacy.’ This last was another of Buchanan’s convenient delusions. In fact the white South represented less than 20 percent of the population of the United States.
“By 1858 Buchanan had already done a great deal for the South, and now he prepared to do even more by using the full powers of the executive to push the Lecompton constitution through Congress, ‘naked,’ in the terminology of the day, without changes, modifications, and criticism. By his calculations the Senate presented no difficulty, with its Democratic majority, two-thirds of whom were from slaveholding states. He was proved right when the Senate voted by a comfortable margin to approve the Lecompton constitution in March.
“But the House of Representatives, based on population and therefore always a threat to the South, remained uncertain. There the combined opposition of 106 Know-Nothings and Republicans did not outnumber the 128 Democrats, but there were only 75 Democratic congressmen from slaveholding states. The rest were northerners who lived among constituencies alarmed by aggressive slave supporters in the South and increasingly attracted to the Republicans.
“Buchanan promptly went to work. Throughout the spring of 1858, using tactics often assumed to be the creation of twentieth-century chief executives, the president sent cabinet members to lobby congressmen. Contracts for shipbuilding and mail routes were dangled before wavering representatives; commissions, patronage jobs (either removals or extensions), funds for newspapers that favored Lecompton, and even cash were offered. Two years later a House committee investigating whether the president had ‘by money, patronage or other improper means sought to influence the action of Congress’ on its Lecompton votes darkly suggested that even prostitutes were offered to recalcitrant legislators. There was no paper trail to the president himself, but by the spring of 1858 most of official Washington agreed that the power of the executive had bought congressmen ‘like hogs.’ Meanwhile the administration’s newspaper, the Washington Union, turned itself into an advertisement for the merits of the Lecompton constitution. Some of its editorials, probably written by Attorney General Black and possibly by the president himself, suggested that slavery was moving north. Kansas was only the beginning.
“Despite the pressure of the administration, Buchanan lost the vote in the House, in part because his own Democrats – those from the North led by Stephen Douglas – saw Lecompton as a swindle and voted against it. Earlier, Douglas, referring to his support of the president in the 1856 convention, had sworn that as he had ‘made’ Buchanan president, so he would now unmake him. The president, refusing to compromise, shortly provided Douglas with an opportunity.
“Here was another turning point in the Buchanan presidency. Buchanan could have sent the constitution back to Kansas and encouraged the writing of a new charter with both groups represented in a new convention. Instead, under his direction new legislation, called the English bill, offered Kansans a bribe. The bribe was not of land, as has been frequently charged, but rather of timing. Kansans had only to vote for the Lecompton constitution and receive the traditional land grant of four million acres for the state to enter the Union immediately. But if Kansans rejected Lecompton, they would be penalized and would have to wait until their population reached ninety-three thousand – the number of residents on which representation in the House was based during the 1850s. Barely, with the ranks of the northern Democrats breached, the English bill passed. But Kansans had the last word.
“That August when they voted on the Lecompton constitution, 11,300 Kansans voted against the slave document that the president had tried to foist upon them. Fewer than 1,800 residents voted in favor of Lecompton in a fair election; not one of the territory’s twenty-eight counties gave Lecompton a majority. The people, so long stifled by the Buchanan administration and an aggressive minority of proslavery Kansans, had spoken. Now there was a new vote for delegates to a constitutional convention, and after the antislavery ‘Wyandotte’ constitution was adopted, ratified by the people of Kansas, and sent to Congress, where it was bitterly opposed by southern congressmen and senators, Kansas entered the Union in January 1861.
“In his annual message to Congress in December 1858, Buchanan took credit for resolving the Kansas conflict . . . . He was too optimistic. Slavery was the central issue of his times and had been for over a generation. By taking the side of the South, Buchanan had split the Democrats, and in the process he had ensured his nightmare: the election of a Republican in 1860. Moreover he turned the Democratic party into a southern organization. In effect his politics were as sectional as those of the Republicans, about whom he complained so endlessly. Buchanan’s aggressive prosouthernism angered northerners, who feared a slaveholding oligarchy would soon control their government as had almost happened in Kansas. In his famous debates with Stephen Douglas in the fall of 1858, Lincoln held ‘James’ (Buchanan) to be a coconspirator along with ‘Roger’ (Taney), ‘Franklin’ (Pierce), and of course his senatorial opponent, ‘Stephen’ (Douglas), in their efforts to protect slavery everywhere in the United States.
“The destructive effects of the president’s policy were immediately apparent in the 1858 fall congressional elections when a disproportionate number of northern Democrats lost, especially the doughfaces loyal to the administration. Nowhere was the reaction against Buchanan more obvious than in his home state of Pennsylvania, where the Democratic vote fell by 20 percent. Even the president’s friend Glancy Jones was defeated for Congress by what Buchanan denigrated as ‘conspirators and hounds’ . . . But with two years left in his presidential term, a still confident James Buchanan showed no signs of moderating his aggressive southern stands.”
A Preview of Jean H. Baker’s James Buchanan
[James Buchanan appears on nearly every listing of presidential performance as the most incompetent and indeed disastrous of all presidents. On Thursday, April 23rd, we will observe the 218th anniversary of his birth.]
“Buchanan inherited the third and most crucial of his early presidential crises – that of Kansas. For Americans intent on settling the West, the territory with its fifty million acres was a prize. For southern Americans, its location between North and South made it essential for the dispersion of slavery throughout the West. Yet for the president, slavery remained an obstacle to the prompt admission of Kansas as a Democratic, possibly slave, but probably free, state. Politically, a Democratic state government in Kansas would offset the preparations for statehood of potentially Republican Minnesota and Oregon. The future control of Congress rested in a battle Americans had been fighting over slavery since the 1820s, with territories the battleground. Buchanan hoped to create a coalition of free-soil and proslave Democrats, with partisan politics trumping in significance any division of opinion over slavery, the latter now constitutionally protected by the Dred Scott decision as private property.
“Instead, by 1859 Buchanan had heightened the dangers to the Union with his policies in Kansas. More than any other of his decisions, including those in late 1860, his management of the territory demonstrated not just his commitment to the South, and not just his determination to be a forceful president, but fusing the two, his hardheaded resolve to use the executive power for southern interests. Buchanan turned out to be as stubborn for the South as Andrew Jackson was for the Union, only without Jackson’s commanding leadership and loyal supporters.
“By the time Buchanan assumed the presidency, there were already two competing territorial governments in an area to be organized under the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Although the act mandated that the people of the territory determine the fate of slavery, the implementation of popular sovereignty had not been easy. Pierce had already fired two governors, and the third resigned the day Buchanan took office. One territorial government with a proslavery legislature and judiciary was located first in Shawnee and later in a small town along the Kaw River called Lecompton. The other was the free state government located in Topeka, fifteen miles to the west.
“In the first stages of organizing the territory, prosouthern forces had moved so aggressively and unfairly to take possession of the territory for slavery that a backlash had developed. Many settlers, indifferent to slavery, cared more about their prospects of settling on fertile land; others wanted to ensure that the labor of free white men did not compete with that of slaves on that land. In 1855 proslavery residents had forcefully prevented free-state residents from voting; they had adopted a drastic slave code that limited officeholding to proslavery men; they had made any criticism of slavery punishable as a felony; and they had established capital punishment for anyone aiding a fugitive slave. Judicial decisions from Lecompton starkly revealed proslave bias as free-state Kansans rarely received any measure of justice.
“To ensure their control, the proslavery community encouraged citizens of Missouri living along the western border of that state to travel across the border into Kansas and vote illegally in elections that hardly represented the will of the majority. The proslave US Senator from Missouri, David Atchison, led armed invaders into Kansas, some of whom carried banners heralding ‘Southern Rights’ and ‘Kansas for the South.’ Meanwhile election officials turned away free-soil residents who refused to take oaths supporting slavery in Kansas.
“Under conditions in which less than a quarter of the electorate voted and sometimes only 10 percent did so, the Lecompton government had nevertheless established an election calendar that would lead to the writing of a state constitution – first the election of convention delegates, then the convening of a constitutional convention that would write the state’s first charter, which had to be voted on by citizens and accepted by the US Congress. It was a laborious process, but one that had been followed mostly without incident by every territory on its way to statehood.
“Outraged free-soilers had responded by establishing their own government in Topeka. In turn the Topeka government drew up its own code of laws, barring slavery from the territory, along with the settlement of free blacks. Free-soilers encouraged northerners to come to what they intended would be land reserved for white families. Advertisements in northern papers featuring news about organized migrations brought some settlers to the territory and infuriated southerners, who were engaged in their own promotions. The growing majority of settlers opposed slavery in Kansas and were insulted by the aggressive slaveocracy intent on trampling the rights of free white men. They boycotted the Lecompton elections for those of their own Topeka government.
“Nothing better illustrates the volatile situation in Kansas than the violence, which was marked by the burning of the free state stronghold of Lawrence by a proslavery militia, the abolitionist John Brown’s brutal murder of proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek in the spring of 1856, and the reprisal assassination of Brown’s son by proslavery forces. Territorial Kansas supported so much organized violence that a series of incidents was dubbed, with only a little exaggeration, ‘the Wakarusa War.’ Although some killing involved frontier arguments over land claims, slavery became the true flash point for hostility. By the time Buchanan took office, a contingent of fifteen hundred US Army troops was trying to keep the peace.
“Presidents shared constitutional authority with Congress over the territories, but their power to appoint and instruct governors often determined the course of events. Clearly Buchanan needed to restart the process. Instead the president continued to support the Lecompton government, arguing that it was the officially recognized territorial structure. A more evenhanded approach might have begun with a new census, a new registration, and the relocation of the capital in another town. Yet Lecompton, entirely controlled by proslavery Kansans, remained the capital recognized by Washington throughout Buchanan’s administration. Hardly conducive to the expression of democracy, the town boasted a large wooden shack as its only public facility, one muddy street, and too many taverns where corrupt federal office holders drank and gambled with the proslavery militia.
“Buchanan did appoint a promising new territorial governor. Robert Walker had been born in Pennsylvania and had moved to Mississippi as a young man. Buchanan had known and respected Walker from their shred time in the Senate in the 1830s and in Polk’s cabinet during the 1840s where Walker served as secretary of the Treasury. But Kansas was the graveyard of governors, and an irritated president had to make a personal plea to Walker’s wife, who thought the position not only dangerous but underpaid and certainly unworthy of her husband’s talents. Buchanan promised Walker – and it was a crucial commitment – that any Kansas constitution must be submitted to the people to approve. Again this was customary procedure, although a few southern states had not done so. Just as the formative document of the United States, the Constitution, had been approved by the people, so nineteenth-century Americans expected that state constitutions would be ratified by a majority of the citizens. Buchanan had promised as much.
“As Walker left for Kansas in the spring of 1857, Buchanan instructed him that all ‘bona fide citizens’ must vote in such a ratification process. Buchanan repeated his instructions in his annual message to Congress in December 1857: ‘A constitution shall be submitted to the people of the Territory, [and] they must be protected in their right of voting for or against that instrument and the fair expression of the popular will must not be interrupted by fraud and violence . . . it [is] far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas, either for or against slavery.’ Yet by 1857 the Topeka government represented three times as many Kansans as did that in Lecompton. Only by fraud could the protection of slavery in th constitution survive the political process.
“In the summer of 1857 – his first as president – Buchanan paid close attention to political conventions in Georgia and Mississippi, which were threatening secession if Kansas was not accepted as a slave state. As one Georgian wrote Senator Alexander Stephens, the future vice president of the Confederacy, ‘If Kansas comes in as a freestate, Buchanan will richly deserve death and I hope some patriotic man will inflict it.’ Meanwhile, Walker, like two previous governors, had decided that Kansas was destined to become a free state, and the governor had described an ‘isothermal’ line above which, for reasons of climate, slavery was impractical and uneconomic. That line ran through southern Kansas. Secretly, for this was a doctrine offensive to southerners, Buchanan had always believed that slavery would simply expire in environmentally hostile areas in the West. A problem that would solve itself, it did not merit the disturbance of the Union. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ But in the face of southern pressure, the president now supported the best chance slave supporters had, and that was the Lecompton constitution.
“In response to the complaints in August 1857 that federal troops in Kansas had been used against free state residents in Topeka and Lawrence ‘to force the people of Kansas to obey laws not their own,’ Buchanan produced a message intended for the South as well as the North. The Dred Scott decision, he said, was now the controlling fact of territorial life. Isothermal lines were irrelevant. Territorial slavery existed in Kansas and in every territory, wherever slaveholders wanted to take their property; ‘the highest tribunal known to our laws has so decided.’ An exasperated president wondered how anyone could doubt that slavery could exist in territorial Kansas. Just as the slavery crisis was caused, in Buchanan’s view, by abolitionists, so in Kansas the offense lay with supporters of the free Topeka government, who refused to vote in Lecompton-organized elections.
“Using a flawed historical comparison, the president professed to be following the ‘wise example’ of Madison, who had not attacked the antiwar Hartford convention during the War of 1812. He would not send the army against Topeka, Buchanan said, ‘unless they shall attempt to perform some act which will bring them into actual collision with the Constitution and the laws.’ One Georgian hailed Buchanan’s widely reprinted letter as ‘the greatest State Paper for the South that has ever emanated from the executive chair since the days of Washington.’ But as it turned out, it was overreaching by the Lecompton government that lost the state to slavery – with Buchanan’s help.
“In the October 1857 elections organized by the Lecompton government for the territorial legislature and a delegate to the US Congress, voting fraud was so extensive and so obvious that Governor Walker threw out the returns from several counties. Most illegal votes came from along the Missouri border south of Kansas City, Missouri, near Westport and Platte City. Precincts with a dozen homes voted twelve hundred ballots for proslavery candidates; names copied from the Cincinnati directory comprised many of the registration lists. In negating these votes, Walker inflamed southern sentiment and embarrassed Buchanan, who withdrew his support from the governor.
“Later in October, the previously elected Lecompton delegates met to frame a constitution. An uninspiring lot, they guaranteed that the right of private property, including slaves, overrode any constitutional or legislative sanctions. Articles in the charter of government also legalized the future of the two hundred slaves already in the state and established a slave code, for the treatment of slaves, based on that of Missouri. Defiant to the end, the sixty, often inebriated delegates decided that their only chance to protect slavery was not to permit a referendum. As authors of the constitution, they would simply approve the document necessary for Kansas statehood and send it to Buchanan, who would send it to Congress.
“But such a process was too blatant, even for Buchanan, who had promised submission of the constitution to Kansans for approval. Federal agents from the Interior Department were dispatched to discuss a compromise. Under pressure from Washington, the convention reluctantly agreed that Kansans would simply vote on slavery, leaving the body of the constitution in place. But existing articles legalized the status of those two hundred slaves already in the state. Such a vote would offer no choice. Kansans, if they could even cast ballots in a fair election, could vote for or against slavery, but not for or against the constitution. This arrangement reminded one free-soil Kansan of tests for guilt in which the accused was thrown into water: if he floated, he was taken out and hanged; if he drowned, he was considered not guilty.
“Buchanan had influenced this supposed compromise, thereby violating his pledge to Walker that he would ‘stand of fall on submission.’ No one could make the case that the choice given Kansans was legitimate, although Buchanan tried. Walker proclaimed it a fraud and a travesty, and as a result became the third failed Kansas governor. Buchanan insisted in his annual message to Congress that under the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the doctrine of popular sovereignty, voters could only vote on the future of slavery. Accordingly, on December 21, 1857, Lecompton Kansans cast ballots for the constitution with slavery or for the constitution without slavery, there being no vote for or against the constitution as a whole. In all 6,143 votes were tallied for the option ‘with’ (over 2,000 of these were fraudulent) and 569 ‘without.’ But the vote begged the point, because the much larger disenfranchised free state Topeka community, worried about violence and fraud, boycotted the election. When they did vote under an election organized by their political community three weeks later, in January 1858, 10,266 votes were registered against the Lecompton constitution; only 162 for.
“The critical moment of Buchanan’s presidency had arrived. Would he accept the Lecompton constitution with its articles protecting current slavery and its establishment of a slave code? Would he lobby for congressional approval of the enabling act that would make Kansas a state and supposedly bring peace and quiet, even if it blatantly violated the popular will? Or would he restart the process as Walker and two former governors of Kansas were urging?”