I met James Buchanan yesterday.
He was tall, perhaps six foot three. His white hair, thinning but not balding, was swept up and to the left, as though with a quick single hand motion upon rising that morning. A large, very slightly bulbous nose emerged from a cragged, pockmarked, deeply wrinkled face that looked every bit its sixty-nine years and then some. Though mentally acute and able, he moved with a weary deliberation that suggested exhaustion of a lifetime spent in high-stress occupations. The eyes were not bright; they simply viewed without shining. His cheeks, the last wrinkle-free bastion of everyone's face, had finally succumbed to age, with a finely textured cascade of shallow, grey lines arranged vertically upon each side.
His mastery of the new debit chip-card technology was somewhat impressive for someone his age, and upon completion he clutched his purchase, a brown-bagged bottle of rye whisky, and shuffled to the exit in slow laboured steps, a very slight stoop in his back. As I watched this vital but exhausted person go, the thought occured to me: this is the man who must save the Union as it crumbles around him.
James Buchanan gets a horrible rap from history. He is dead last in six of the last seven scholarly rankings of US Presidents, and has never achieved better than third worst since the first rankings were compiled by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1948. When people are not talking about how he let the Union dissolve under his watch, indeed if he is talked about at all, he is wink-wink nudge-nudge rumoured to be the first (and only?) gay President. Thus far no ardent homophobe has, to my knowledge, drawn any connection between the two, so at least he has that to be grateful for. Ironically Buchanan is considered the best prepared President in American history, having served in a professional capacity under nearly every president since Andrew Jackson, including a fortuitous stint from 1853-56 as the United States Minister to the United Kingdom, deftly sidestepping the Kansas-Nebraska Act imbroglio that inflamed opinion on all sides in Washington and throughout America. Buchanan's successor, by contrast, had just a single term in the House as his sum total of Federal political experience. Perhaps "experience" is not the asset it's made out to be.
"How easy it would be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever. All that is necessary is to let it alone!"- James Buchanan, 1860
A consummate Doughface (Northerner with Southern sympathies), the Pennsylvania-born Buchanan held, throughout his career, that although slavery was a contemptible institution, so long as it was not expressly forbidden by the Constitution there was nothing that could be done about it. He believed that strict adherence to the Constitution, regardless of personal opinion over its rights granted, was the highest duty of any truly patriotic American, and that everything that fell under its jurisdiction was a strictly legal matter requiring strictly legal, Constitutional remedies. His conception of the Presidency being as limited and inobstructive as possible was a natural consequence of his strict constructionist views.
Probably the singular failure of James Buchanan was an inability to recognize the true scope and nature of America's split over slavery. He could not comprehend why, after the Supreme Court ruled in slavery's favour in 1857, people who nominally called themselves American would continute to fight it. Buchanan did not understand that the "debate" over slavery had evolved beyond the constraints of Constitutional law and had become a matter of sheer, white-and-black morality. Abolitionist politicians such as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward had, by 1860, already framed the debate as appealing to a "higher" law, with many Northerners in agreement; Southerners, meanwhile, lived in constant fear of their own slaves since John Brown's raid in October 1859 and worried the North's incessant prodding of the issue was a direct threat to their own safety. James Buchanan remained mainly oblivious to these radically divergent societal currents, and when he did grasp them, he believed his limited role as President was impossible to stop events. In short, he was probably the worst possible leader for his tumultuous times.
"The late Presidential election...has been held in strict conformity with the Constitution's express provisions. How, then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution? Reason, justice, a regard for the Constitution, all require that we shall wait for some overt and dangerous act on the part of the President elect before resorting to such a remedy."-State of the Union address, December 3, 1860
Inability to grasp the true nature of the slavery crises that rocked America in 1850s was probably Buchanan's biggest failure, but it was only one factor among many. He was not a take-charge-style leader, and obsessed over personal reputation. He was not young, either, being the third oldest President at Inauguration, just shy of his 66th birthday in an era when most people did not live that long. Though not necessarily corrupt himself, he certainly tolerated it within his administration, and was an exemplar of the sort of shady backroom deals that Americans, from independence to present day, detest. Indeed, prior to his inauguration he pressured Pennsylvania supreme court justice Robert Cooper Grier to side with the majority Southern opinion in the Dred Scott case so as to avoid appearances of splitting across sectional lines, much like the modern-day Supreme Court does. Having foreknowledge of the verdict, he then proclaimed in his Inauguration speech that all patriotic citizens should accept the court's pending decision, "whatever it may be". Two days later, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered his racist, contemptible verdict in what is widely considered the worst Supreme Court decision in the nation's history.
To be fair, part of the failure of James Buchanan lies in the nature of the Antebellum presidency itself. A modern Republican's wet dream, Presidents of the day viewed themselves as simple administrators of Federal government functions, more often than not referring to the position as "chief magistrate". Actually promoting oneself for high office would have been unthinkable; all the election work was done by well-wishers and admirers. They were often little more than affable, obscure fellows no-one took issue with, like Franklin Pierce, or decorated war generals like Zachary Taylor or William Henry Harrison who had little knowledge or interest in the workings of government. At any rate, real power in that time was held in the Senate, and most of that era's most illustrious politicians (Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, Lewis Cass, etc.) were LBJ-style masters of the upper chamber. Being president was like being an interchangeable placeholder while the real work was done elsewhere. Unique among Presidents, James Buchanan announced, at his Inauguration, that he would not run for a second term, thus relegating himself to lame-duck status from day one.
And so, when South Carolina declared its unilateral secession on December 20th, 1860, Buchanan was simply lost. Most of his closest friends and political allies were Southern, and as they abandoned Congress and his cabinet en masse, Buchanan was reduced to an impotent figurehead. His policy in the wake of the wave of secessions spreading across the South was uneven and vacillating. He absolutely refused to send Federal troops to safeguard munitions caches, mints, and other critical infrastructure, fearing that any move would irrevocably alienate the South; as a result, the ragtag Southern militias became very well armed, partly due to the machinations of his own Secretary of War John B. Floyd, of Virginia. But he also refused to surrender forts Moultrie and Sumter, near Charleston, which was quickly seized upon by the South as a pretext for initiating hostilities. By late January 1861, with seven states having seceded and the gravity of the situation becoming clear, Buchanan simply tried to prevent anything major from happening prior to Lincoln's inauguration on March 4th, mostly to safeguard his own reputation. In the last month of his term, February 1861, he issued eight Special Messages to Congress, all of them concerning trivial matters such as repayment of debts owed by Paraguay, settling ownership of the Juan de Fuca islands, and treaty details with the Delaware indians. His final Message to the Senate, dated March 2nd, 1861, is as follows:
"I deem it proper to invite the attention of the Senate to the fact that with this day expires the limitation of time for the exchange of the ratifications of the treaty with Costa Rica of 2d July, 1860. The minister of that Republic is disappointed in not having received the copy intended for exchange, and the period will lapse without the possibility of carrying out the provisions of the convention in this respect. I submit, therefore, the expediency of the passage of a resolution authorizing the exchange of ratifications at such time as may be convenient, the limitations of the ninth article to the contrary notwithstanding. -JAMES BUCHANAN."
As I watched James Buchanan amble through the automatic sliding doors, tired and slow, all I could feel was sympathy for the old man.