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?”