On March 4, 1861, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln rode together in a carriage to Lincoln’s inauguration. One leaving the presidency after four controversial years and the other about to become chief executive of a nation on the brink of civil war, they were amiable toward one another but engaged in little conversation. At one point, a tired Buchanan, eager to return to his Pennsylvania estate and enjoy the pleasures of retirement, purportedly remarked, “If you are as happy entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”
Not only was 69-year-old Buchanan ready to pass on the burdens of the presidency, he was confident he had done his absolute best to prevent a civil war. Although he left office despised by many Americans, deserted by several of his political allies and even labeled a traitor by some in the North, Buchanan genuinely believed history would validate his administration.
What Buchanan could not know was that as he and Lincoln shared that carriage ride on Pennsylvania Avenue, they were, in terms of history, heading in opposite directions: Lincoln toward iconic status and Buchanan toward failure and obscurity.
Assessments of his presidency began to surface in the wake of Buchanan’s death in 1868, and they were less than flattering. In Lives of the Presidents of the United States of America, published in 1869, John S.C. Abbott referred to Buchanan’s time in office as the “most calamitous our country has experienced.” And with few exceptions, historians have agreed, consistently rating him as one of the worst—if not the worst—of American presidents. But was he as bad as we have been led to believe? Or did he do the best he could in a no-win situation? In other words, does “Old Buck” get a bum rap? Maybe it’s time to take another look at Buchanan and his presidency.
By the time Buchanan entered the White House, he’d already had a long career as politician and statesman. Buchanan became a staunch supporter of states’ rights, minimal central government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
During his years in Congress, Buchanan developed pro-Southern views, especially regarding the issue of slavery. Though he believed slavery was wrong, he did not see it as a moral issue. Buchanan considered Northern politicians and those active in the growing abolitionist movement dangerous extremists who threatened national unity. His closest friends and advisers in Washington were Southerners—he roomed for many years with an Alabama senator—and he agreed with them that slavery was a Southern issue to be settled by Southerners. Virtually all Buchanan’s stands on major issues of the day were influenced by his pro-Southern sympathies. He, like his mentor Andrew Jackson, was devoted to the Union, however, and opposed to the emerging radical Southern view of secession.
In the years that followed, Buchanan served at various times as minister to Russia, senator from Pennsylvania and secretary of state. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president three times. President Franklin Pierce, elected in 1852, appointed Buchanan minister to Great Britain.
Buchanan returned to the United States from London in 1855 as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, and found a country in turmoil over slavery in the territories.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, approved in 1854, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had banned slavery in the northern portions of the Louisiana Purchase territory and allowed voters in future states to decide the issue for themselves. The backlash in the North split the Democratic Party, destroyed the Whig Party, led to the formation of the Republican Party and heightened sectional animosity as slavery became the predominant political issue.
Having missed out on the stormy Kansas-Nebraska debates, Buchanan was not associated with the controversial legislation, as were Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, his main rivals for the nomination. With his sterling résumé and reputation as a political conservative and faithful public servant, the 65-year-old Buchanan was seen by many Democrats, North and South, as the right man for trying times.
At the Democratic Party’s 1856 convention in Cincinnati, Old Buck and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky were nominated for president and vice president. Held against the backdrop of bloody unrest over slavery in Kansas and the beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by a Southern congressman, the convention drew up a platform that endorsed the fugitive slave law, popular sovereignty in the territories, non-interference with slavery by the federal government, an end to anti-slavery agitation, limited national government and an aggressive foreign policy in the Gulf of Mexico.
The newly formed Republican Party, comprising various Northern reform groups and political parties opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the extension of slavery, nominated popular Western explorer John C. Frémont. Former president Millard Fillmore was nominated by the Know Nothings, a party that saw the growing influence of immigrants, particularly Catholics, as a greater threat to the nation than slavery.
Southerners, fearing Republicans intended to abolish slavery, threatened to secede if Frémont won. Buchanan, believing Republicans were primarily radical abolitionists, saw himself and his party as saviors of the Union. Well-organized in key states North and South, and well-funded by wealthy businessmen concerned that a Republican victory would disrupt commerce between the regions, Democrats ran a negative campaign painting Republicans as a sectional party intent on dividing the nation.
Carrying every Southern state except Maryland and several key Northern states, including Pennsylvania, Buchanan was elected president with 174 electoral votes to Frémont’s 114 and Fillmore’s 8. Buchanan won only 45 percent of the popular vote, however, compared to a combined 55 percent for Frémont and Fillmore. Even more troubling for Democrats was the fact that the Republican Party, less than two years old, performed well in the North, bringing many new voters to the polls.
Rather than forming a Cabinet that reflected the various factions comprising the Democratic Party, the bachelor president, having few close friends, chose men compatible with him socially and ideologically: four Southerners and three Northerners who held pro-Southern views. Because he preferred harmony to unvarnished, diverse opinions, Buchanan ignored free-soil Democrats and popular sovereignty advocates who supported Douglas. Relations between Buchanan and the powerful senator were strained and would only deteriorate over the next four years, damaging the party in the process. Thus Buchanan began his presidency isolated from points of view that clashed with his own.
Buchanan’s primary goal was to ease sectional tensions by bringing an end to the strife in Kansas, and to check the growth of the Republican Party and the abolition movement—which he saw as one and the same. He hoped the Supreme Court’s imminent decision in the Dred Scott case would settle once and for all the issue of slavery in the territories.
The case dated to 1846, when the enslaved Scott filed suit in a Missouri court to gain freedom for himself, his wife and two children because he had lived for a time with his master in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. Buchanan had been tipped off before his inauguration that the court’s decision would likely be made along sectional lines, and if a Northern justice or two would support the majority decision, it might carry more authority with the American public.
Buchanan consequently informed Justice Robert Grier, a fellow Pennsylvanian who supported states’ rights, that he wanted a decision with Northern support. The justice obligingly joined the majority, which declared blacks were not citizens and therefore could not sue in court, and that Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in any territory because the Constitution protected slaves as property.
So when Buchanan announced in his inaugural address that he would abide by the court’s decision, he already knew the outcome. Rather than diffuse sectional tensions, the decision emboldened Republicans who now claimed slavery could be extended into the North, and weakened Northern Democrats who espoused popular sovereignty in the territories.
At the end of Buchanan’s first year in office, the nation—primarily the industrial North—was hit with a crippling economic depression. Bankruptcies and unemployment soared and economic expansion in certain industries, such as railroads, shriveled. Buchanan, who believed Northern bankers and speculators had caused the panic, failed to act on behalf of those affected most. Legislation pushed by Northern and Western congressmen to revitalize the economy, provide free homesteads to Western farmers, finance agricultural colleges and improve navigation on the Great Lakes was opposed by Southern politicians and vetoed by Buchanan.
Buchanan also blew an opportunity to settle the “Bleeding Kansas” controversy early in his presidency. Advocates on both sides of the slavery question had clashed since the territory was opened to white settlement in 1854. Buchanan was determined to admit Kansas as a Democratic state, with or without slavery. So he quickly appointed Robert Walker, a former secretary of the treasury and a pro-slavery man from Mississippi, as the new territorial governor and promised only to support a constitution that was submitted to the people for approval.
While most Kansas residents opposed slavery, a pro-slavery minority won control of the 1857 constitutional convention because free-state men refused to vote. The convention, held in the town of Lecompton, produced a constitution that permitted slavery and prohibited any changes to the document until 1865. The Lecompton Constitution would be submitted to Congress after allowing a popular vote only on the question of whether new slaves could be brought into the territory.
The Lecompton Constitution survived the limited vote, with free-state voters again refusing to participate in what they considered a fraudulent process. Walker appealed to Buchanan to honor his pledge and reject any document not submitted in its entirety for a popular vote. The president, under pressure from Southern leaders threatening secession, retreated from his promise and submitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress with his endorsement. That led to an irreparable break with Stephen Douglas, who saw the constitution as a repudiation of the Democratic-sponsored principle of popular sovereignty. The Senate passed the Lecompton bill, but the legislation was defeated in the House even though Buchanan used the power of his office, including money and patronage, to try to win passage.
A compromise bill finally survived, but Buchanan’s credibility as an impartial executive was shot. And when a subsequent vote on the constitution took place in Kansas with all parties participating, it tanked—by a vote of 11,300 to 1,788. Kansas statehood was delayed until 1861, when it entered the Union as a free state.
Buchanan’s Lecompton stunt proved disastrous for the country in general and his party in particular. Not only did he stir up Southern secessionists, he split his party by alienating anti-slavery Democrats, purging pro-Douglas men from the organization and targeting Douglas in his 1858 Senate re-election bid. The Republican Party used the president’s machinations as a campaign issue to attract the support of alienated Northern Democratic voters. In the elections that fall, the Republican Party made considerable gains at the expense of Northern Democrats. Republicans in Congress launched an investigation into Buchanan’s use of cash and patronage on behalf of the Lecompton legislation. Although Buchanan himself was not directly charged with malfeasance, the issue of corruption in his administration would haunt Democrats.
Meanwhile, many of Buchanan’s foreign policy initiatives languished in Congress. His efforts to purchase Cuba for $30 million, establish a protectorate in northern Mexico and control two coast-to-coast Mexican transit routes fell victim to sectional politics as Republicans saw them as part of a larger Southern strategy to expand slavery.
The fallout from Lecompton blunted the Democrats’ chances to win the presidency in 1860. Buchanan and Southern Democrats blamed Douglas for the party’s defeats in the 1858 midterms and refused to support him for the nomination, even though he was the overwhelming choice of Northern party members. The party ended up fielding two candidates: Douglas, representing the Northern wing with a platform endorsing popular sovereignty; and Vice President John Breckinridge, backed by Buchanan and representing the Southern wing whose platform called for a national code to protect slavery. The Democrats’ disarray ensured the Republicans and their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, victory in November. Buchanan’s war against his own party’s Northern membership dealt a devastating blow to the objectives he set for himself when he assumed office four years earlier.
Once again Southerners threatened secession, despite the fact that Lincoln and the Republicans had vowed not to interfere with slavery where it existed. Buchanan—who in his annual message to Congress blamed the Northern anti-slavery movement for the crisis—called for constitutional amendments to protect slavery in the territories and in the South, and strict enforcement of the fugitive slave laws in the North.
Lincoln and his party, however, rejected any compromise that would permit the extension of slavery beyond states where it already existed. When Southern states began to secede in December 1860, Buchanan, a devout Unionist, refused to recognize the legality of their actions. Yet he believed the Constitution prohibited him from stopping them. So he did nothing. As secession gained momentum, Buchanan’s Southern friends, including many in his Cabinet, abandoned their most loyal Northern supporter. The bachelor president was virtually alone during his final days in the White House.
As seceding states now grasped for federal property within their borders, all eyes, North and South, focused on Charleston’s harbor, where Fort Sumter was surrounded by batteries taken over by South Carolina forces. At first, Buchanan seemed willing to abandon the fort to prevent an outbreak of war. But his Cabinet, now dominated by Northerners, balked. Buchanan ultimately refused to give up the fort and agreed to send reinforcements in January 1861 on an unarmed vessel, Star of the West. The ship was stopped cold, however, when South Carolina batteries opened fire as it entered the harbor.
Buchanan didn’t bother to send any further reinforcements. He preferred to let the clock run down on his presidency and escape Washington before war broke out.
It was a weary Buchanan who returned to his Pennsylvania estate in March. The Sage of Wheatland devoted much of his retirement to writing a defense of his presidency. Though Buchanan supported the Union in the Civil War and Lincoln’s objective of reuniting the country, he denounced the Emancipation Proclamation. He believed the measure would prevent the restoration of the pre-war Union. Buchanan’s own history of his administration, published in 1866, criticized Southern radicals for secession but blamed the anti-slavery movement and the Republican Party for stirring up sectional tensions that caused the war. He died in 1868 believing that if only Republicans and Northern Democrats had heeded his call for compromise on slavery in the territories, the war wouldn’t have happened.
Buchanan was elected in an era that demanded strong executive leadership, but despite his political and diplomatic experience, he was ill equipped for the task. Buchanan failed as president not because he was weak, indecisive or in over his head, as he has been portrayed, but because he stubbornly adhered to a narrow, antiquated political philosophy that was out of touch with American society in the 1850s. He longed for the Jackson years of decades past, when Democrats North and South were unified, the anti-slavery movement was despised and sectional issues were settled by concessions to the South. He failed to comprehend the economic and cultural changes occurring in Northern society, didn’t understand the growing moral repugnance to slavery in the North nor the difference between those who wanted to prevent its spread and those who wanted to abolish it.
As a Northerner enamored of the South, Buchanan let his emotional attachment to the region guide his decisions. His consistent favoritism toward one section of the country compromised his credibility as a national leader. He refused to acknowledge the ideas or opinions of Republicans and spurned Northern Democrats if they disagreed with his pro-Southern views, relying instead on a small circle of advisers who shared them. Rather than forging a national coalition to address the growing crisis, Buchanan widened the sectional divide that stoked the fires of secession.
James Buchanan was a not a traitor to his country. That he could have prevented the Civil War is unlikely. He entered the White House with noble intentions of restoring harmony to a divided nation, but he couldn’t see that nearly everything he did made matters worse. Because he failed to provide the resolute national leadership so desperately needed, Buchanan deserves to be ranked among our country’s worst presidents.
No bum rap here.