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.”