Saturday, November 13, 2004

James Buchanan

James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker

Part of a series of 200-page books called The American President Series

It seems to me that any list of our worst Presidents can not be headed by so-called criminals like Nixon, or by incompetents like Grant and Harding, or by people like Hoover, who left the country much poorer financially than they found it. Or even by Bush 41 or Clinton 42 or Bush 43. Only James Buchanan left office in 1861 with fewer states than the country had when he took office in 1857. Buchanan failed at job one, and must therefore be considered our worst President. This book explores the possible lessons to be learned by Buchanan’s complete failure.

Professor Baker relies on our image of Buchanan as some sort of dithering anachronism, helplessly watching the South secede. This image is mostly a comparison to Lincoln. The book’s point is that although Buchanan was an anachronism (he was in his 60s when he began his term, and was the oldest President before Eisenhower to complete his term), he was not dithering. Buchanan had an expansive, modern view of Presidential power, which he was not afraid to execute.

In the months leading up to his inauguration in 1857, Buchanan intervened behind the scenes to get the strongest possible pro-Southern decision in the Dred Scott case. He sent in troops to assert the Federal authority in Utah. He combined Jackson’s views of “to the victor belongs the spoils,” with 20th century views. He resorted to open pork barreling and influence peddling during the fight over Congressional ratification of the so-called Lecompton Constitution, and the other events surrounding the turmoil in Kansas. Although the book does not cover this, Buchanan went deep into the middle branches of government-appointed workers (local postal clerks, for example) to weed out supporters of Stephen A. Douglas, a fellow Democrat with whom Buchanan disagreed, after the famous Lincoln-Douglas election of 1858.

Professor Baker’s point is that Buchanan let the South leave the Union during the fateful winter of 1860-1861, not because of some sort of fancy view of the limits of Presidential authority, or the role of individual States in the United States, but because he agreed with Southern rhetoric that painted all people who were opposed to slavery as virulent abolitionists. In this view, the Southern way of life was not simply slavery, but the prevention of a world where black men would obviously spend their time raping white women.

Buchanan’s rhetoric proposed that anything that destroyed the Southern way of life, or anything that caused Southerners to feel insecure about the retention of the Southern way of life, permitted the South to take whatever actions that were needed to preserve its lifestyle. Professor Baker raises the point that the Pennsylvanian Buchanan adopted his elevated view of Southern life from a career of seeking not only political support from Southern politicians, but as the only- bachelor President, seeking personal friendship from Southern politicians, as well.

Buchanan’s cabinet was comprised completely of Southerners and Southern-sympathizing Northerners. Buchanan relied on long daily cabinet meetings. The book suggests that Buchanan held these meetings as much to stave off loneliness as for any benefit that might be derived in running the nation. After the Southern states began to secede, Buchanan continued to rely on pro-secessionist Southern politicians, many from states that had already seceded, to devise a Federal response to the secession crisis.

It was only in the third month of the secession crisis (January 1861), that one member of Buchanan’s cabinet was driven from office in a procurement scandal unrelated to secession, and other cabinet members resigned over Buchanan’s refusal to yield up enough Federal property to South Carolina. At that point, pro-Unionists such as the Attorney General Jeremiah Black, and the new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, were able to engage Buchanan in a holding pattern to slow down the secession tide until Lincoln’s inauguration (which in those times did not occur until March 4). By January, however, Buchanan exacerbated the dilemma caused by the need to keep the Federal forts in South Carolina properly supplied and garrisoned. (In a seeming contradiction, Buchanan felt that it was alright for the states to secede, but he felt that Federal property within the States -- such as forts -- continued to belong to the Federal government, and could not be yielded without negotiations.) By January, the nation was on the path to the crisis that would end with the attack on Fort Sumter.

Professor Baker feels that if Buchanan was not a true believer in the Southern cause, he could have taken actions to prevent, or at least slow down secession. His actions in Dred Scott, Utah and Kansas showed that he was not afraid of Presidential power.

Instead, Buchanan took the bizarre position that secession was unconstitutional, but the government lacked a remedy to prevent it. In other words, even if you took the Southern position that the United States had no more legitimacy than a commercial partnership, Buchanan held that somehow the United States lacked the sort of jurisdiction over the several States that an equity court would hold over business partners seeking involuntary dissolution. An equity court would at least prevent the parties from dissolving in a disorderly fashion.

Professor Baker shows that Buchanan was not senile. No President prior to George H.W. Bush came to the White House with more relevant qualifications to be President. He made his financial fortune early as a powerful Pennsylvania lawyer, and he had been a Congressman and a Senator. Buchanan had been Polk’s Secretary of State, and also consul to Russia. Buchanan was envoy to England from 1853 to 1856, immediately before being elected President, which turned out to be extremely advantageous politically, as he was out of the country working on foreign policy while the country was in convulsions during the Kansas-Nebrsaka debates in 1854. Due to Buchanan’s political aspirations, he turned down several offers to be a Supreme Court justice.

Buchanan believed the rhetoric of slaveholders, and believed that anyone who opposed the slaveholders to be the most ardent abolitionists, and unpatriotic defilers of the concept of the Constitution as a compact of the States. Under this theory of States Rights, the Federal government had the obligation to protect the institutions of each of the several states. Since slavery states needed special protections, this theory of states rights argued that the Federal government ought to grant states with slavery special protections, such as Slave Codes. Buchanan took this view, which, to my way of thinking, leaves men and women out of the Constitution, to be the reasonable consensus of the country. It was in fact, merely the consensus of Buchanan’s own social circle of Southern radicals.

According to the “Directorate,” as the Southern cabinet members who imposed party discipline were called, everyone opposed to the Southern view was explicitly a Black Republican abolitionist and implicitly someone who was in favor of miscegenation, or even the continual rape of white women. (Lincoln addressed this issue directly in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, stating that “just because I don’t want a black woman for a slave does not mean I want her for a wife”).

Buchanan, of course, did not need to see as far as Lincoln. He did need to see, however, that there were other valid views beside his own view. If he did not see that he was President of all people, he should have at least seen that he was President of all the states. Buchanan, despite all the wreckage that slavery had cost his Presidency, really did not believe that Northerners would stake the main business of the Union --- Manifest Destiny and prosperity,liberty and justice --- well, for some – on the fate of the black man. This narrow vision thing lead to Buchanan’s demise and the nation’s ultimate trial.