Presidential Review–James Buchanan

9 Jun

James Buchanan

Poor James Buchanan–he had, in my opinion, the most disastrous presidency in American history and that’s saying a lot.   He is consistently put down at the bottom of ratings lists by historians.  During his lifetime he grew to be so hated that he would receive in the mail pictures of himself with the word traitor on it and a noose around his neck.  At that time, many quarters blamed him for the start of the Civil War.

Now I’m not going to heap that responsibility on his shoulders, the issues that started the Civil War had been a powderkeg since the United States began, real friction started–particularly around the issue of slavery, once the founding fathers passed on.  Personally I think that by the time Buchanan became president the Civil War was inevitable.

That being said, Buchanan had the negligible talents for saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, not taking action when it’s clearly called for, and once he does take action it’s either too harsh or too late for it to be effective.

First Item–The Dred Scott case–just after he was inaugurated the supreme court ruled on the Dred Scott case that the national government cannot constitutionally ban slavery in any state.   Buchanan was knee deep in the politics of this decision, talking closely to supreme court justices and even putting a little pressure on one of the Northern Justices to go with the southern majority to make this ruling.  The ruling was a disaster–I can see the thinking behind it–if you take some divisive issue and send it down to the states, then the National Government can be seen as a unifying force.  However, we’re not talking about road building–the reason slavery was such a divisive issue was not just because of human rights, but also even the states that did not have slavery ended up having to make concessions to support it.

Second Item–Bleeding Kansas–So, the fighting in Kansas still raged on with two state governments and no resolution in sight.  Buchanan instituted a pro-slavery governor to try to bridge the divide.  What happened instead is that the pro-slavery rigged the vote to such a degree that even the pro-slavery governor quit in disgust.  (Incidentally, most people at that time thought that Kansas was mostly settled by free-soilers). Despite this, Buchanan accepted the vote as real, pushed it through the House,  and almost got away with it, until Stephen Douglass stopped it dead in the senate.  Buchanan made a personal enemy of Douglass and tried to get him pushed out of congress by getting the Republican nominee from Illinois–a Mr. Abraham Lincoln, elected instead.   Lincoln lost–but the split that Buchanan started here would continue through the next presidential election–and eventually give Lincoln the presidency.

Third Item–John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry–To gloss over a very complicated set of happenings, John Brown had taken over an armory at Harper’s Ferry, with the intentions of starting a slave revolt to end slavery.    The government’s initial response, I think was pretty sensible–they sent Lee in to break it up.  (Keep in mind, however you feel about slavery, John Brown had already killed a number of townspeople and was basically sitting on a stockpile of weapons.)   However, Buchanan saying a speech right after the raid was over blaming the North for deifying him did not help the tensions that this raid brought up.

Fourth Item–The Panic of 1857–Buchanan’s response towards the panic were decidedly odd.  He advocated reform but not relief, which I’m sure really made the public feel better.  He also wanted to get away from paper money, which clearly in the long term was not the answer.  Beyond this the panic, which hurt the north but not the mostly agrarian south, made the south think that they didn’t need the north to survive.

Fifth Item–The Utah War–While basically doing nothing about the slavery issue, Buchanan instigated a federal military action against Utah over rumors that Utah officials were resisting federal officials in their duties.  The rumors were never substantiated beyond a general distrust of the Mormon powers that ruled there.   I do not know whether Buchanan intended this to be a message to the slave states (who were talking about secession already) by having a conflict that had nothing to do with slavery.      The troops were sent too late in the season to do much, were inadequately fortified, and ended up taking two years to secure land that the Mormons defended using mostly passive resistance techniques.  The result was a farce–and also bolstered the south’s idea that resisting the Union might be possible.

Sixth item–Finally, after Abraham Lincoln had one the election of 1860, several states seceded.  Buchanan did nothing–he did not send out troops, did not try to secure government holdings, even in his speeches he spoke about how the federal government was not constitutionally allowed to stop secession.    With Fort Sumter, Buchanan did attempt to send supplies down to reinforce the troops holed up there, but at the first sign of shooting the ship retreated.  Outside some minor attempts at negotiation (all failed)–the only other thing he did was blame northern abolitionists for causing the secession in the first place.

And that’s the worst part, while I don’t think that Buchanan could have averted the war, I do think had he made some swift decisive action as soon as secession started the war could have been shorter, much less bloody, and smaller scale.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the possible homosexuality of Buchanan.  The question “was he, or wasn’t he?” is a question that always pops up when Buchanan gets discussed.  Here’s the facts:  he did have an engagement with a woman, Anne Caroline Coleman which he broke off abruptly.  She died immediately after with rumors of suicide.  There were also rumors that Buchanan had an affair with another woman which was the whole reason for the break-up.  In any case Buchanan claimed that this situation put him off of romantic interests forever, and he never courted another woman again.

He did, however, start some very close relationships with men, having Rufus King as a companion for 13 years, living with him, sharing a bedroom, and even having rumors follow him about the matter.  The relationship will always be in that grey area though, because though they were certainly very close, the line between close companions and romantic relationship is extremely subjective, and there’s no way to know from those times what those men thought of the relationship themselves.   When King died, Buchanan mourned and sought in vain for a replacement.

In any case, Buchanan was the worst possible president at the worst possible time, and though blaming him for the civil is too harsh, his actions did spur it on as much as anybody on either side.

Well, next up–Lincoln.  Our greatest president right after the worst.  Get ready!

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