In “Defense” of James Buchanan

In “Defense” of James Buchanan

Journalists, pundits, the public, and even some scholars love to celebrate James Polk as a “man of destiny,” successful president, “a political chess master,” and an “expansionist leader” with a “republican vision” who, through “extraordinary diligence,” worked to “spread the blessings of American democracy.”[1] James Buchanan, on the other hand, is roundly condemned as the “worst” president and an example of “political ineptitude,” most recently in a post on Muster.[2] These judgments, I believe, are misleading and inaccurate. Polk was indeed successful in achieving the majority of his goals as chief executive, but so was Buchanan. The fact that secession occurred during his administration should not cloud our assessment of his political skills and ability to accomplish his aims. If we judge him a failure because his actions led directly to the Civil War, then we must judge Polk likewise, as his invasion of Mexico was arguably the match that set the house aflame. Consider this blog post, then, a ‘defense’ of Buchanan’s political acumen and success (though certainly not an endorsement of his distasteful policies).

Before we can even get to his administration, we need to appreciate the fact that Buchanan and his operatives wrested the 1856 Democratic nomination from the hands of Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Appeasement of 1850, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the most widely-admired Northern Democrat of the decade. Such a feat was no accident. Months ahead of the Democratic national nominating convention in Cincinnati, Buchanan worked to maintain the allegiance of the slave states, alienate Douglas from partisan leaders, and directed state-level operations to guarantee that key Northern states, such as Indiana, would hold strong for “Old Buck” despite large pro-Douglas majorities. At the convention, Buchanan operated through his top advisers Jesse Bright of Indiana and John Slidell of Louisiana to ensure that critical committees were dominated by “Buchaneers,” that the traditional Two-Thirds Rule (which benefitted the staunchly pro-slavery Buchanan) was renewed, and that states with divided delegations, like New York, remained inert. Douglas, despite his popularity, did not really stand a chance. Buchanan was many things, but politically inept was not one of them.

Portrait of James Buchanan
President James Buchanan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As president-elect, Buchanan moved quickly to assemble a cabinet that suited his needs and leadership style. In order for us to judge the effectiveness of his cabinet, we must consider his desires and designs. Yes, Buchanan’s cabinet was lackluster, full of pro-slavery cronies and mediocre minds. But that is exactly what the confident Buchanan wanted. He had spent a lifetime in public service, and he knew from experience how to run an administration and deal with Congress. He also knew exactly which policies he wanted to pursue. Thus, he did not want a “team of rivals” (as the inexperienced Lincoln needed) or an assemblage of great intellects (as Monroe had preferred). Buchanan’s selection of the incapacitated Lewis Cass for the State Department was especially deft, since the president-elect had extensive foreign policy experience and clear diplomatic goals. Instead of assembling capable administrators and trusted advisers, Old Buck, the tough partisan warrior and seasoned public servant, chose to use his cabinet appointments for patronage purposes. He sought to use his appointive power to heal the internal party divisions wrought by his predecessor Pierce (who bungled appointments so badly that he had a partisan revolt on his hands before he even took office). These were Buchanan’s priorities, and we historians must respect them as such.[3]

While he selected his cabinet, President-Elect Buchanan also worked behind the scenes to achieve a long-held personal and partisan goal: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against black Americans and against Congressional authority over slavery. Buchanan, ever the skilled wire-puller, achieved exactly that with the infamous Dred Scott decision. Originally, Supreme Court justices were not inclined to issue a broad ruling on the legal status of the enslaved Missourian Dred Scott, but Buchanan, who had close personal and professional connections to several of the justices, exerted pressure of dubious legality and convinced the court to turn the Missouri case into a national edict on slavery and federal power. It was a major victory for the Slave Power, and an epic accomplishment for a man not yet even inaugurated.[4]

As president, Buchanan continued to achieve his goals: he reduced U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic anti-slavery naval squadron; forced Nicaragua to grant transit rights across the isthmus; bullied Mexico into accepting U.S. occupation during times of civil disturbance; sent nineteen warships with 200 guns to Paraguay to force acceptance of U.S. economic interests; purged his Democratic Party of any lingering anti-slavery elements or moderate “Softs”; prevented any federal action during the Panic of 1857; and forced the defiant Mormon community at the Great Salt Lake to recognize and accept U.S. authority. More famously, Buchanan, in an unprecedented exertion of executive influence, was able to push the fraudulent, pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of Kansas through an uncooperative Congress full of anti-slavery Republicans and anti-Buchanan supporters of Stephen Douglas. Like the Dred Scott ruling, it was an epic accomplishment, though, unlike Dred Scott, one largely misunderstood or underappreciated by scholars. The president employed all manner of carrots and sticks to achieve his greatest victory, everything from cash bribes to patronage promises to political assassination to turning wives against their Congressional husbands. The fact that the constitution was quickly rejected by Kansans does not in any way diminish the magnitude of Buchanan’s achievement.[5]

Buchanan did not expect or plan on the “secession winter” of 1860 to 1861, and his failure to act in defense of the Union is rightly condemned by most historians. That should not change, however, how we see the rest of his administration, a single term in which he achieved monumental political victories and proved himself a wily politico, skilled strategist, and powerful executive. He and his supporters were enormously proud of their accomplishments, and Buchanan even penned an 1866 monograph vigorously defending and celebrating his actions.[6] Like Polk, he achieved most of his goals, served only one term, presided over a dramatic party split, and watched Democrats fail in the next presidential contest. If we are to judge the success or failure of an administration based solely on achievement of executive goals, then Buchanan should rank alongside Polk. If, however, we want to judge a president on the morality of their policies and their long-term impact on the health of the nation, then both Polk and Buchanan must be deemed rotten failures. We cannot have it both ways: Polk judged on his accomplishments, while Buchanan measured by morality. Similarly, we must recognize that the designation “worst” president is a moral, anachronistic one, and does not accurately reflect his achievements (no matter how distasteful they may be to us today).

[1] Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 1-2, 224; Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987), 51; Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (New York: Pearson, 2005), 211; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 579.

[2] “James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president?” Constitution Daily, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/04/james-buchanan-why-is-he-considered-americas-worst-president/ (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst. President. Ever.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-worst-president-james-buchanan-214252 (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/worst-president-ever-the-ignominy-of-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016); Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016); Garry Boulard, The Worst President – The Story of James Buchanan (iUniverse, 2015); Rick Allen, “Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan,” Muster, http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/12/harmony-amidst-division-cabinet-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016).

[3] For more on Buchanan’s cabinet, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995).

[4] For more on Buchanan’s role in the Dred Scott decision, see Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties; Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995); Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[5] For more on Buchanan’s role in the passage of the Lecompton Constitution, see Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties.

[6] James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866).

Michael Todd Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of history at Tarleton State University (member of the Texas A&M System) and author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014). He is also a board member of Historians Against Slavery and edits the HAS Blog. He is currently working on Georgia in the Civil War era. You can contact him at mlandis@tarleton.edu or follow him on Twitter, @DrMichaelLandis.

3 Replies to “In “Defense” of James Buchanan”

  1. Seems hard to make a case for either of these narrow politicians, though it is a good reminder that the American electorate has made poor choices in the past, especially when aided by the Three-Fifths Clause. For a more realistic and less laudatory appraisal of Polk, you might cite in note 1 the excellent profile by William Dusinberre, “Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk.”

    1. Peter: Thanks for the comments. I agree that Dusinberre’s treatment of Polk is the best yet. Sadly, it doesn’t get the use / respect it deserves.

  2. I enjoyed the perspective of this document and I thought it was very well thought out and written. This is a unique perspective unlike other sources I have seen. Comparing Polk to Buchanan was fair and I agree with your statements about how they should both be judged with the same criteria. Thank you for this article.

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