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.”