James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States, became a scapegoat for the 1861-65 rebellion of the Southern states.
After the war broke out, the Radical Republicans tarred him so Abraham Lincoln would receive no blame. But on whose watch did the war occur? This smear has been unrelenting despite his effort to correct matters with the publication of his 1865 book: “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion.” See what he had to say.
In his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, Buchanan set forth his goal: “To restore harmony ... to preserve our free institutions.” He went on to say that he was an “earnest advocate of compromise ... to save the Union.” As a lawyer and strict constructionist, Buchanan advised, “Our only safety consists in obedience and conformity to law.”
Buchanan is criticized for not addressing the secession of states in the final months of his presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of November 1860. In Buchanan’s message to Congress on Dec. 3 of that year, he warned of the impending disaster and supported the call for a Constitutional Convention to address the slavery question. He very accurately predicted: “Should rebellion break out within the seven cotton states, this could not be overcome without a long and bloody war.” He said, “To prosecute civil war would require an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
In opposing secession, he said, “Secession is neither more nor less than revolution.” He concluded, “My prayer to God is that he would preserve the Constitution and the Union throughout all generations.”
On Dec. 22, 1860, after South Carolina’s secession, Buchanan endorsed the Crittenden Compromise, which would have permanently permitted slavery in the slave states. While this proposal was not in accord with his views, he wrote, “I avowed my readiness and eagerness to accept it, in order to save the Union.” A Congressional committee killed the compromise. On Jan. 8, 1861, Buchanan appealed to Congress to submit the question of slavery to the people and to pass laws to enable the president to defend the Union against armed rebellion. Buchanan reiterated, “The Union must and shall be preserved by all Constitutional means.”
The Congress adjourned on March 3, 1861, one day before Lincoln’s inauguration, without passing “any act or resolution either to preserve the Union by peaceful measures, or to furnish the president or his successor with a military force to repel any attack,” as Buchanan put it. Reflecting his despair with the inaction of Congress, Buchanan wrote, “I feel that my duty has been faithfully, though it may be imperfectly, performed, and whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave, the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”
Prior to Buchanan, the presidency had been controlled by Southern slave- holders. Of the 14 presidents preceding Buchanan, nine were from the South. Of the five Northerners, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce were sympathetic to the South; only John Adams and John Quincy Adams were not.
During his time as a congressman and senator, Buchanan had developed many friendships with Southern legislators; therefore, he, too, had sympathy with their concerns. He saw the anti-slavery movement in the North inflaming fear in the South. Buchanan recognized that slavery enjoyed certain protections in the Constitution itself and, therefore, that slavery was reserved to the states for dealing with it.
The presidency had been weakened by circumstances following Andrew Jackson, the previous two-term president. Of the seven presidents immediately preceding Buchanan, only three served a full term (Van Buren, James Polk and Pierce). The deaths of two presidents and the failure of their vice presidents to be elected in their own right created a transitory situation.
As observed by President Herbert Hoover at the dedication of a statue honoring Buchanan, June 26, 1930: “James Buchanan occupied the presidency at a moment when no human power could have stayed the inexorable advance of great national conflict. The black clouds of dissension had gathered over the country when he entered upon his duties. The thunderbolts of war were withheld until he left the scene, but throughout his administration the sky was clouded with the ominous threatening of storm.”
Buchanan is often listed among the worst presidents. But when U.S. News & World Report published an article Feb. 26, 2007, on America’s worst presidents, Buchanan did not even make the cover of the magazine. Instead, Richard Nixon, Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant and John Tyler got the honor. It seems competition for the title of worst president keeps growing.
Learn more about Buchanan by visiting Wheatland. His April 23 birthday will be observed with a wreath laying ceremony at 10 a.m. today at his grave in Woodward Hill Cemetery. From noon to 2 p.m., a birthday celebration will be held at Wheatland.
Was Buchanan our worst president? Come and form your own opinion.
Donald Walters is a Temple University professor emeritus who talks about U.S. presidents as a speaker for the Temple Speakers Bureau. The West Lampeter Township resident also has served as a volunteer tour guide at Wheatland for 13 years. For information about Wheatland, visit lancasterhistory.org.