Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan

Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan

At this critical juncture in our history, a new American president will be sworn into office with a nation that appears very divided. Chief among the decisions weighing on Donald Trump’s mind should be how to set up an administration which will bridge that divide. In doing so, he could certainly look to history to find moments when his predecessors faced a similar task. In that regard, there may be no greater parallels than the divisiveness facing President-elect James Buchanan in 1856, and also Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The stakes for the American republican experiment were perhaps higher in 1856 than at any previous time in the history of the nation. When Buchanan took office, physical violence was occurring in Kansas over the introduction of slavery into that territory. With the votes of the solid South, he had narrowly defeated not only the new Republican party whose platform demanded there be no additional slave territory, but also had faced an anti-immigrant third party.[1] Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore accurately stated, “I tell you that we are treading upon the brink of a volcano that is liable at any moment to burst forth and overwhelm the nation.”[2] With the Republican candidate carrying New England and what today would be considered the “Rust Belt” states of the Old Northwest, and Buchanan, the Democrat, carrying all the slave states and only 45 percent of the total national popular vote, the situation begged for a unifier.

Party unity was indispensable and the selection of Buchanan’s cabinet could have been a major catalyst toward the achievement of this goal. With the threat of secession looming, the future of the Union seemed to be hanging by the slim thread of a Democratic victory in upcoming presidential elections. It would not have been an impossible task to hold that party together. The situation called for firm leadership and a spirit of unity, not only within the Democratic party but within the nation itself. With Stephen A. Douglas in command of Illinois, and Buchanan’s friend Jesse Bright as the leader in Indiana, the president-elect could have forged a working coalition over the next four years. James Buchanan indicated just a few weeks after his election, “the object of my administration will be to destroy any sectional party, North or South, and harmonize all sections of the Union under a national and conservative government.”[3] The first of these aims was almost met by the time Buchanan left office, but it was not the Republicans who were in tatters—rather, it was his own Democratic party, split in an unnecessary rift with Stephen A. Douglas. The latter of these aims was not even a possibility four years later, as by that time, seven states had seceded and formed their own government.

With his cabinet selections, Buchanan was presented with substantial opportunities to not only diminish the growing sectional conflict within the nation, but to also set an example for future leaders within the Democratic party. The president-elect’s harsh campaign rhetoric toward the Republican party had fanned the flames of passion as he had repeatedly referred to them as abolitionists and infidels against the Union. Yet rather than moving to heal the divide and consider all sides in his cabinet choices, Buchanan relied upon the advice of his closest friends and advisers who were either Southerners or “dough-faces” (Northern men with Southern principles). These included Howell Cobb of Georgia, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Indiana Senator Jesse Bright (a Kentucky slaveowner), and John Slidell of Louisiana. Many of these men had also been the chief architects of Buchanan’s nomination.[4] To begin with, Buchanan quickly offered all four of these men cabinet posts themselves, but in the end, all but Cobb declined.

Buchanan, above all else, desired harmony within his cabinet, though it was to come at the expense of harmony within his party and harmony within the nation. His thoughts on this subject were revealed in advice to Franklin Pierce in 1852, when he wrote that “without unity no cabinet can be successful…I undertake to predict that whoever may be the President, if he disregards this principle in the formation of his cabinet, he will have committed a fatal mistake. He who attempts to conciliate opposing factions by placing ardent and embittered representatives of each in his cabinet, will discover that he has only infused into these factions new vigour and power for mischief.”[5] Buchanan also desired men who he felt were personally and socially compatible.[6]

Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When the smoke cleared in early 1857, Buchanan went to Washington with an entirely pro-Southern cabinet which consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces. In the end, Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation. The New York Tribune labeled it a cabinet controlled by slave-drivers. The paper mused, “It is well understood now that the South have got Mr. Buchanan stock and fluke. Nobody who has been intimately conversant with his political career ever doubted this would be so.”[7] There was not one Free-Soiler, not one man from a larger city, and, probably most importantly, not one popular sovereignty Democrat.

Despite assertions by many that Buchanan was the tool of his pro-Southern cabinet, that was not actually the case. They just happened to all agree because he had intended it that way from the start. He and his harmonious cabinet presided over the nation’s hastening dissolution. Buchanan indeed spent much time with his cabinet members. They convened every day in meetings, sometimes consuming four to five hours at a time. Yet Buchanan retained control and made the final decision which almost always coincided with his entrenched classical republican principles favoring the “property” rights of Southerners. Buchanan ranks today at or near the bottom of every poll of presidential effectiveness. A recent popular press book on Buchanan is titled Worst. President. Ever.[8]

In contrast with his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln selected men who were considered his political rivals for cabinet advisors, even retaining qualified men who were or had been Democrats.[9] He generally limited his cabinet meetings to twice per week on Tuesdays and Fridays, at noon in his office.[10] He was a patient listener at all times, regarding the advice of each cabinet member equally and “for what they were worth, and generally no more.”[11] Lincoln’s cabinet sessions often became contentious when members expressed disparate viewpoints. Yet Lincoln, ever respectful of all opinions, made the final decision, and is today revered for beginning the reunification process of a divided nation.

Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Buchanan, the political master, chose advisers who already agreed with him and mostly ignored their advice until the secession crisis was upon him. Lincoln, the political novice, chose advisers who held opposing viewpoints, calmly listened to their advice, and deftly managed to win a civil war hastened in many respects by Buchanan’s refusal to reach out to those who disagreed with him. History never specifically repeats itself, but there are parallels between 1856, 1860, and 2016. As we, like Buchanan and Lincoln, transition from one era in our national history to another, let us remember the only way to achieve true success requires the inclusiveness of both people and ideas.

[1] “Republican Party Platform of 1856, June 18, 1856,” The American Presidency Project, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29619.

[2] Statement of Millard Fillmore, Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., (1856), Appendix, 716.

[3] “Mr. Buchanan’s Inaugural,” New York Herald, December 3, 1856.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[5] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 11, 1852, James Buchanan Papers, 1783-1895, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (HSP).

[6] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 17, 1852, Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[7] “Pacific Road – Kansas A Slave State,” New York Daily Tribune, February 18, 1857.

[8] Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016).

[9] Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[10] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), I, 136-137.

[11] Ibid.

Rick Allen

Rick Allen is a history graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University. Having retired in 2016 from a career in the health insurance industry, he is now engaged in writing a thesis titled “Team of Confederates: The Political Ineptitude of James Buchanan” under the direction of Dr. Adam Criblez. Rick’s main historical interests are antebellum American politics, the sectional crisis, the history of leadership, and heritage education. He can be reached at rtallen1s@semo.edu.

2 Replies to “Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan”

  1. Wondering if you have access to files from during President Buchanan’s term in office. Within a month of his term end, he would have received a telegram from the elders of the hamlet of Town Line NY (as published in the Feb 11, 1861 edition of the Buffalo Commercial Newspaper, that there was a vote which passed that the town elected to secede from the union. This article states that a telegram was sent to President Buchanan. We’ve been trying to find a copy of said telegram, but most archives companies charge a hefty fee to look for the item, with no assurance that it is still available. Wondering if you can help. This would be the center piece of our museum if a copy was found. Google Town Line, NY and you’ll see the interesting turn-of-events that occurred there. (In 1945 they took a vote to “rejoin”).

    1. Hello, that is an interesting story and one I was not aware of. I used the papers of James Buchanan for much of my research. At the time, they were only available in two places that I was aware of – the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Purdue University (microfilm). I made several trips to Purdue to use the papers on microfilm there. I am aware that now the Library of Congress has digitized most (if not all) of the microfilm of the papers. However, not everything was microfilmed and the remainder is only available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Here is the URL which describes the collection. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/b/Buchanan0091.html
      Most things which came to an American president were likely preserved, even in 1861, though it cannot be certain that this specific record was kept. Telegrams were by nature transitory. I note that Box 58, Folder 12 contains Miscellaneous Papers related to secession. Box 54, Folders 13-14 also contain “Notes, etc. regarding secession.’ There are other possibilities as well. By February 1861, Buchanan had already tried to supply Fort Sumter and was still holding out a vain hope that the Peace Conference then meeting in Washington would work a last-minute miracle. He had reached out to Lincoln to no avail and was awaiting the end of his term, hoping hostilities would not commence on his watch. The Confederate States of America would have been formed just about a week (February 4) prior to the date on your telegram so I would suspect that is not a coincidence. Some references online seem to indicate the Town Line secession was a result of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers – that was of course in April 1861 – two months after this – so that is not possible. There was so much going on in the months from December 1860 to April 1861 so the timing is very important. Buchanan had so many problems at this time, I doubt if he would have taken the secession of a town in New York seriously. There were pockets of disunion sentiments in various places in the North but the state jurisdictions would be most significant to the president. Buchanan was in many ways at this time being “handled,” if you will, by Jeremiah S. Black, Joseph Holt, and Edwin M. Stanton, in any case.

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