An exhaustive survey of the Presidents of the United States and everything they did wrong while in office.

May 28, 2019

Everything Wrong with the Buchanan Administration

President Buchanan amassed the largest fiscal imbalance of a pre-Civil War administration not engaging in a foreign war and that fact only scrathes the surface of his shortcomings.

Everything wrong with the Buchanan Administration

In 1807, James Buchanan entered Dickson College. When he graduated in 1809, he began studying law. In 1812, he entered the bar. Between 1812–1821, Buchanan created a successful and prosperous legal practice. During this time, he launched his political career. In 1814, he was elected as the youngest member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for Lancaster County as a Federalist and critic of President James Madison. After elected to the U. S House of Representatives in 1821, he never strayed from the national Democratic Party. Buchanan represented Lancaster County in the House of Representatives until 1830. 

Buchanan never (publicly) romanced or married. In lieu of marital companionship, Buchanan cultivated dependent friendships with many of his male political colleagues. Over time, most of these close friends were southern Democrats. This reliance on these personal ties affected Buchanan’s judgment. As president, these individuals satisfied his need for companionship. James Buchanan rarely reached beyond his tight circle of friends for guidance, and the nation suffered. 

Between 1821 and 1846, Buchanan served eighteen months as the Minister to Russia, nine years in the House of Representatives and 13 years in the Senate. These dates are significant. Despite his long career in Congress, Buchanan missed the three most acrimonious legislative debates of the antebellum period:  the Missouri Compromise was finalized before he arrived in Washington; the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) after he left. Each attempted to resolve how, or whether, slavery could be extended to the territories that came under U.S. jurisdiction. The national goal of extending the U.S. borders from coast-to-coast (“Manifest Destiny”) raised the question of the extension of slavery to the new territories and states; resolving this question increasingly divided the nation.

Buchanan advocated “states’ rights,” the strict constructionist position that “Congress has no power…to interfere with or control the domestic institutions of the several states.”[1] By 1856, Buchanan believed that according to the Constitution, the individual states, and by extension the territories, had the right to determine the status of their ‘domestic institutions,’ without federal interference. Buchanan sympathized with his southern friends who warned that uncontrolled slaves represented a violent threat to southern society and economic prosperity. For this reason, Buchanan believed that those who advocated abolition and Free Soil constituted a threat to domestic peace.

From 1846-1856, Buchanan’s political career focused primarily on international affairs; first as secretary of state under President Polk (1846-1849), then as the U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom (1853-1856). In these positions, Buchanan was a strong advocate of Manifest Destiny, and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo after the Mexican-American War. Then during his tenure as Minister to Great Britain, Buchanan and two other envoys penned the Ostend Manifesto, a document calling for the U.S. acquisition of Cuba for “any price” below $120 million; further, the Manifesto stated that if Spain would not sell Cuba to the Americans, the United States “shall be justified in wresting it from Spain.”[2]

Throughout the latter half of his career, Buchanan quietly sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In 1856, this ambition became a reality. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) negated the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition on slavery in the new territories or states above 36° 30’ latitude and rived the Democratic Party. Many prominent ‘free soil’ Democrats, led by Salmon P. Chase, bolted from the party over this “betrayal;” they joined former Whigs and anti-slavery members of the American (‘No-Nothing’) Party and established the Republican Party.[3]

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to a conflagration in “Bleeding Kansas” as pro- and anti-slavery “settlers” fought to establish prominence. Over 50 people were killed in these confrontations before Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. As the U.S. Minister in London, Buchanan was shielded from the political maelstrom that occurred over the Kansas situation. Untainted by this controversy, his northern heritage, southern sympathies, and his strong advocacy of Manifest Destiny, secured him the party’s nomination for the presidency in 1856. The new Republican Party launched their first national campaign, with John C. Frémont as their candidate. The American Party chose former Whig president Millard Fillmore as their nominee, and “the chief difference between the candidates was on the question of slavery in the territories.” Many Democrats declared that a “Black Republican” victory would result in “immediate, absolute, eternal separation” of northern and southern states.[4] Buchanan and his vice presidential running mate, John C. Breckinridge, secured fewer popular votes than their two rivals combined, but won the 1856 election with 174 electoral votes. Buchanan secured every slave state except Maryland. Frémont won eleven free states to Buchanan’s five. James Buchanan became president in March 1857, but that which carried him to the White House also spelled his doom. 

All The Mistakes 

Because Buchanan was overseas and did not participate directly in the political debates of the 1850’s, he did not fully appreciate how divided the country had become prior to the election, particularly with regard to the settlement of Kansas and the volatile question of slavery in the territories. He believed a solution to these conflicts was within reach through the Supreme Court. Because of his loyalty to his southern friends, he misunderstood and grossly underestimated the animosity felt by the growing population in the free states.

Second, Buchanan exacerbated the conflict within the Democratic Party. He did not understand the economic divisions within the Democracy: between the “slaveocracy” and their wealth in land and human property and the Democrats promoting the transcontinental railroad and western development. In an effort to realign the Democracy away from Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Buchanan personally spent an excessive amount of time and energy making patronage appointments, even for low ranking positions. He elevated those he considered friendly to his goals and fired or phased out individuals friendly to Douglas. He and his fellow southern sympathizing Democrats from “free” states became known as “Doughfaces.”

The composition of his Cabinet included four members who would later join the Confederate States of America and three northerners who were fellow “Doughfaces.” “For a lonely man, [the Cabinet] had to be friends who would fill his days with conversation, share his dinners, and as later transpired, when their wives were out of town, sleep in the White House.”[5] He let his friendly Cabinet members run their departments with little oversight; several proved to be extremely incompetent and corrupt. Buchanan gave them control because he hoped to focus his attention on his foreign policy goals:  extending U.S. power and influence to Latin America, Alaska, and, again, Cuba.

Buchanan’s problems began immediately; and they started with a whisper. 

The Dred Scott Decision

Over the course of U.S. history, there have been a number of Supreme Court decisions that redirected national policy; the Dred Scott decision certainly is one. In addition to the significance of the decision, it is also considered one of the worst opinions written by the court. The case, formally called Dred Scott v. Sandford, was argued before the Supreme Court first before the election, then again in December, 1856. Dred Scott was a slave whose master, an army surgeon, brought Scott with him when he was stationed in the free state of Illinois and the territory that became Minnesota. After his original owner died, Dred Scott’s new owner moved him to Missouri, where he sued his new owner for his freedom. Scott argued that his residency in both a free state and territory meant that he should be free. The Supreme Court did not announce their ruling in the case until two days after Buchanan’s inauguration.

As Buchanan climbed the podium to take the oath of office from friend, and former colleague from the Andrew Jackson administration, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the two exchanged whispered words. Buchanan then declared in his inaugural address that he would “cheerfully submit” to the decision of the Court with regard to the Dred Scott case. Initially, the exchange between two old friends, and Buchanan’s reference to the ruling during his Inaugural Address, did not seem extraordinary. Then the Court issued its ruling.[6]

The Court’s decision shocked residents of the free states. Rather than a narrow ruling on Scott’s fate, the opinion written by Chief Justice Taney had far reaching implications. Two key points emerged: the court determined that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court because those with African heritage could not be citizens of the United States. Second, the Court determined that Congress had no power to limit the ability of slave owners to carry their property into the federal territories since property rights were protected by the Constitution.

As news of the opinion swept the country, many interpreted the ‘whispering’ of Buchanan and Taney as a conspiracy. Taney had tipped Buchanan to the Court’s decision in the words they exchanged, then Buchanan endorsed this opinion in his inaugural address. “As they digested Taney’s opinion, Republicans began to articulate that it was part of a conspiracy to force slavery on the territories and maybe even into the [northern free states.]”[7] The truth has been shown to be more damaging than the contemporaneous speculations. Historians have demonstrated that in the months before his inauguration, President-elect Buchanan pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier to join the majority opinion. As Paul Finkelman has noted, “It is extremely odd that an incoming president would have begun his administration by saying that Congress and the executive branch should cede power and authority to the judiciary to solve a major political issue.”[8] That Buchanan used his role as president-elect to sway the Court was both unprincipled and unparalleled.

Buchanan believed that the Dred Scott decision would resolve the troublesome issue of slavery in the territories, and did not understand the fury that ensued. Once the Court ruled that slave owners had the right to bring their “property” into the territories, the question of whether the territory entered the United States as a slave or free state was in the hands of the residents of the territory, not the federal government. In Buchanan’s mind, this negated the agitation of the Republican Party, and would settle the differences between the factions within the Democracy. The opposite proved true. That Buchanan did not appreciate the implications of the decision, and the inappropriateness of his meddling in the Supreme Court’s deliberations, signaled his ignorance of the deep division in the country over the future of slavery in the territories. Many feared this also opened the possibility of slave owners bringing their property into states that did not permit the “peculiar institution.”

The Lecompton Constitution

During his inaugural address, Buchanan referred to the divisive and “Bloody” situation in Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in May, 1854 gave the residents of the territory of Kansas the right to choose through “popular sovereignty” whether to deny or permit the “peculiar institution” once the territory became a state. Kansas emerged as the testing ground for this concept, and the trial did not go well. 

Soon after the passage of this measure, Emigrant Societies in Massachusetts and Missouri recruited volunteers to migrate, temporarily or permanently, to the Kansas territory to establish residency in time to vote for the representatives who would write the constitution for the state. Thence, the state constitution would be delivered to the U.S. Congress for ratification and Kansas would then be admitted as either a slave or free state. The stakes were significant because the House of Representatives, where representation was based on population, had become increasingly anti-slavery. The Senate, composed of two senators from each state, with no regard to population, became the refuge for blocking anti-slavery legislation that poured out of the House. For this reason, the “slave power,” as many at the time characterized these political manifestations, needed senators who would vote for the interests of continuance and expansion of slavery. In 1855, thousands of Missouri residents, “Border Ruffians,” crossed the state line into Kansas, and helped elect a pro-slavery legislature. In response, free soil advocates convened their own legislature. By the end of 1855, “the polarization of forces in Kansas was complete.”[9]

Violence erupted between the pro- and anti-slavery factions. In May 1856, three events occurred that highlighted the tensions in Kansas, and impacted national politics. During the “Sack of Lawrence,” pro-slavery advocates marched into Lawrence and destroyed buildings and pro-free soil newspaper presses. Three days later, John Brown and a group of abolitionists attacked pro-slavery settlers, killing five. Between these events, in the Senate chamber in Washington, DC, Congressman Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner as a protest against Sumner’s fiery anti-slavery speech, based in part on the Kansas situation, and the general sense amongst many that the “Slave Power” had an inordinate influence in the national government.

Different constitutions were drafted by opposing state legislatures. The Lecompton Constitution was the primary pro-slavery document; the Topeka Constitution was the opposing anti-slavery document. James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker, former Treasury secretary and senator from Mississippi, as the territorial governor. Upon his arrival in Kansas, Walker realized that the anti-slavery settlers outnumbered those for slavery, and declared the pro-slavery legislature, and the draft Lecompton Constitution, invalid. This reaction angered southerners in Congress, and Buchanan’s cabinet. Buchanan’s vigorous support for the Lecompton Constitution “failed” Walker in his efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to the turbulence in the state.[10] Walker became increasingly outspoken in his repudiation of the Lecompton Constitution, while Buchanan openly supported it and urged Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state. Walker resigned as the territorial governor.

In February 1858, Buchanan sent the Lecompton Constitution to Congress for approval, the first step to becoming a state. A bitter and acrimonious debate ensued, and Congress deadlocked. Stephen A. Douglas, Buchanan’s political rival in the Democratic Party, and the originator of the “popular sovereignty” doctrine, opposed its approval. In August 1858, the voters of Kansas again had the opportunity to go to the polls and vote on the proposed Lecompton Constitution; they turned it down by a vote of 11,300 to 1,788. This constituted a tremendous defeat for Buchanan, who lobbied hard for its passage. “Anti-Lecompton” Democrats became Buchanan’s adversaries in the House; in 1858, Buchanan lost political influence in Congress because of his missteps. Kansas remained a territory until 1861, when an anti-slavery constitution was submitted and approved by the now predominantly Republican Congress. 

The Lecompton Constitution fray demonstrated Buchanan’s inclination to accept the pro-slavery arguments endorsed by the Supreme Court. He picked the wrong side in this dispute, then stubbornly adhered to his selection despite the advice from his hand-picked governor. His defense of extending slavery aggravated tensions within his political party, and threw more fuel on the fire of partisan acrimony. The nation watched in dismay as the situation in Kansas dragged on. His passive-aggressive approach to the violence and political stalemate in Kansas turned the electorate against his administration. The Democrats suffered in the congressional election of 1858; Republicans gained 23 seats in the House and five in the Senate, a clear sign of the perceived weakness of Buchanan’s leadership and the waning southern political power.

The Utah Expedition

Like most antebellum Protestants, President Buchanan distrusted Mormons. Soon after taking office, he launched the “Utah War,” a military offensive against the territorial government led by Brigham Young.

Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church in 1830. Smith claimed an angel appeared to him and directed him to tablets inscribed with a lost scripture. He translated the tablets into the Book of Mormon. The Mormon faith expanded many of the tenets of Christianity. Their belief that an ancient, chosen people inhabited the Americas led Mormons to convert Native Americans to their faith, which threatened the communities where they tried to settle. The Mormons also practiced polygamy. These beliefs made the Mormon faith anathema to the American Protestant majority that surrounded them. Joseph Smith founded the church in western New York, an area known as the “Burned-over district” for the intensity of Protestant conversions that occurred during the 1820s and 30s. Smith and his Latter Day Saints experienced violent opposition to their faith. Forced out of New York, they migrated westward, experiencing hostility continuously. In 1844, Smith was murdered, and his eventual successor, Brigham Young, unified the desperate groups scattered across the Midwest and led a migration to the Utah territory. Once in Utah, they hoped to preserve the integrity of their faith in a remote landscape far from their enemies.

In 1850, President Franklin Pierce appointed Brigham Young to a four-year term as Utah’s territorial governor. The continued hostilities between the Mormon settlers and non-Mormon officials and travelers passing through the territory concerned Washington administrators. “Two radically different philosophies of governance [existed]; Brigham Young’s vision of Utah as a millennially focused theocracy … and the U.S. government’s view of Utah as just another territory.”[11] When Young’s term as governor expired in 1854, President Pierce neither reappointed him nor selected a replacement. So Young continued governing the territory without official approval.

Soon after the election, non-Mormon federal administrators in Utah wrote to officials in Washington complaining of continued violence and harassment between the Latter Day Saints and non-Mormons. These appeals led the government to declare Utah in a state of “rebellion.” Buchanan decided to act forcefully. Although Buchanan took a non-interventionist role in Kansas, he did not hesitate in acting against his aversion to polygamy. He named a new territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, and requested a 2,500-man military force that would accompany the newly appointed governor to Utah. At that time, this force constituted roughly one-third of the U.S. standing army. That such an extraordinary force was launched toward the territory of Utah is remarkable. To make matters worse, Buchanan did not communicate directly with Brigham Young. In fact, it wasn’t until his annual address to Congress in December 1857 that Buchanan even acknowledged the situation in Utah. Buchanan referred to it as the “first rebellion which has existed in our territories,” conveniently ignoring the conflagration occurring in Kansas.[12]

Although there was no direct communication from Washington, Brigham Young heard of the impending “invasion;” he declared martial law, sealed the territory’s boundary, and burned federal supplies stored in Utah. In September 1857, 120 migrants passing through Utah to California were massacred, further evidence of the tensions that had built in the territory. The anti-Mormon expedition marched west, towards an uncertain reception. “Among the miseries [encountered] by the Mormon expedition … were the destruction of the wagon trains, the ambushes, the theft of the oxen, the snow, and the grueling two weeks that it took to struggle the last thirty miles…”[13] President Buchanan’s friend, Thomas L. Kane, who corresponded regularly with Brigham Young, intervened, and convinced the president that the Mormons would accept peace if offered, so the president granted amnesty to all Utah residents who would accept federal authority. The force that marched into Utah remained in the territory through the remainder of Buchanan’s presidency, which created complications for the Union as the Civil War commenced.

Fiscal Imprudence and the “Buchaneers”

When James Buchanan took office in 1857, the U.S. Treasury recorded a $1.3 million surplus, and a moderate $28.7 million debt. By the start of Abraham Lincoln’s administration, the Treasury carried a $25.2 million deficit and a $76.4 million debt. This represented the largest fiscal imbalance amassed by a pre-Civil War administration not engaging in a foreign war.

Soon after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Panic of 1857 swept the country. Customs receipts, the primary source of revenue for the federal government, declined, never matching the income collected during any year of Buchanan’s predecessor, President Pierce. Despite this drop in revenue, expenditures during the Buchanan presidency topped those of any peacetime administration.[14] 

Rather than adjusting to the loss in revenue, the Buchanan administration initiated a “flood of innovations.” The Mormon expedition added millions in expenses to the army’s budget; the naval department activated more services that many later claimed supported the illegal slave trade; Buchanan spent generously to expand the postal service and award patronage positions to Democrats faithful to him.[15]

Corruption also sapped the federal budget. Historian Mark W. Summers described the Buchanan administration’s malfeasance as the “most devastating proof of government abuse of power since the founding of the Republic.” The Republicans controlled the 36th Congress, and launched an investigation into the Buchanan administration’s corruption. The committee, chaired by Pennsylvanian John Covode, uncovered scandals in the War Department over sweetheart land deals to friends of Secretary John Floyd. Floyd also overpaid for supplies for the Utah march, which greatly inflated the cost of the expedition. Government printing contracts were used to finance Buchanan’s political machine. “Considerable evidence” exists, according to Jean H. Baker, “that [Buchanan’s] effort to bulldoze the Lecompton Constitution” through Congress “involved several forms of bribery.”[16] The level of corruption engaged in by the “Buchaneers” surprised even their supporters. The report of the Covode Committee circulated widely during the 1860 election.

Howell Cobb, Buchanan’s close friend and Treasury secretary, had responsibility for “finding a way out of the financial morass,”[17] and found the task above his ability. Before the launch of the internal revenue measures during the Civil War, the federal government had only two options for raising revenue quickly: increasing tariff rates, or borrowing. Cobb remained dedicated to the Democratic Party’s advocacy of a low tariff. The Tariff of 1857 had been passed just before the start of Buchanan’s term, and this measure lowered tariff rates, and therefore, revenue. “Free trade” tariffs had been a cornerstone of the Democratic Party since the 1840s. Cobb, as one of the leading members of the party, did not consider raising import duties, even in the face of fiscal imperative. Rather than propose higher tariff rates, Cobb and the Buchanan administration turned to deficit financing. During their four years in office, the Buchanan administration enacted six different “emergency” loan measures to pay ordinary government expenses. This represented the first time a president used deficit financing to meet regular administrative costs.

As the deficits mounted, and the political situation in the country became more tenuous, the terms of the loans grew more disadvantageous to the government. By 1861, the Treasury could not borrow money for less than 12 percent interest, a historic high during a period of peace. The dependence on Treasury notes to meet ordinary government expenses began a policy of short-term borrowing that the incoming Lincoln Administration could not reverse at the onset of the Civil War. The compounding effect of the Buchanan administration’s failure to either cut expenses or raise revenue subsequently impaired the Republican’s effort to secure funding in the early months of the Civil War, and added considerable costs once the war commenced.

The Seccessionist Winter

James Buchanan has incurred his greatest criticism for his lack of leadership during the “Secession Winter,” the five-month period between the November, 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican president, and his inauguration in March, 1861. During this time, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. By the end of June, 1861, four more states joined the Confederate States of America: Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. “The whole nation was clamoring that something must be done; but … in the city of Washington, it seemed fairly agreed that nothing could be done,” observed Henry Adams.[18]

The Democrats did not nominate Buchanan as their 1860 candidate. In a contentious convention, the party split and two nominees ran: Senator Stephen Douglas and Vice President John Breckinridge. Buchanan threw his support behind Breckinridge; Abraham Lincoln won both the popular and electoral vote in a four-way election (John Bell ran as a Constitutional Unionist).  Buchanan was the last Democratic president until 1884.

Politicians representing slave states had threatened to secede for decades, beginning with the Nullification Crisis of 1832. The difference between 1860 and 1832 was that slavery had become the sole issue, and there was little room for compromise. After the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, Democrats stated they would advocate secession if a “Black Republican” nominee won the presidency. And so they did.

During the secession winter, Buchanan became an actor in a play he didn’t write. Through his misdirected advocacy of the Lecompton Constitution, his blind faith in his cabinet members, and his deaf ear to the electorate after 1858, he crippled his administration. The president collapsed under the weight of the problems. “Like Wilson during his campaign for the League of Nations … and Nixon … before his resignation, Buchanan gave every indication of severe mental strain affecting both his health and judgment.”[19] Despite all these setbacks, Buchanan continued to push for his international goals: securing Cuba, establishing a military presence in Mexico, and even another military expedition – this time a naval invasion of Paraguay to protect U.S. interests that had been harassed.

To put this true constitutional crisis in perspective, one must remember that the three branches of government were conflicted regarding the extension of slavery into the territories. In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that slave owners had the right to carry their property into any territory under U.S. control. This was the law during the election of 1860. However, the Republican Party won the popular mandate with a platform that called for limiting the extension of slavery into the very same territories. Congress had passed legislation allowing residents of the territories to choose whether or not they would allow the institution of slavery to exist once the territory became a state. For a strict constructionist like Buchanan, this created a dilemma. “His conclusion that secession could neither be legitimately carried out by a state nor be legitimately prevented by the federal government,” was considered “lame.” On December 3, 1860, Buchanan stated that, “the long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern states” had caused the southern states to secede. Then he called for a constitutional convention to address the differences. Buchanan, like many in Washington, believed a conflict could be avoided, and looked to Congress to reach a compromise, as it had done repeatedly through the antebellum period.[20] Members of Congress, like the president, were operating in a “lame duck” session, with a new majority entering in 1861. Many in the incoming administration and Congress suggested that the southern states be allowed to secede peacefully, which would end the stain of slavery in the U.S. There was no consensus to act forcefully.

As politicians deliberated, the U.S. garrison in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina had to make a decision. Originally stationed at Fort Moultrie, which was difficult to defend, the commander, Major Robert Anderson, moved to Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. By this time, four members of Buchanan’s cabinet had resigned, and he replaced them with northern, non-Doughface politicians. This transition confronted the president with the reality that he had to act. Buchanan authorized a non-military supply ship to bring provisions to Fort Sumter. In another example of Buchanan’s failure to communicate well, Anderson was not notified that supplies were en-route. When the unarmed ship entered the harbor, South Carolina defenses fired; Anderson watched “with some dismay” as the ship turned and headed back to New York. Buchanan issued a statement on January 8, 1861 asserting his right as president to “use military force defensively” to protect the forces in South Carolina. He requisitioned a new supply ship, stating they would sail when Anderson requested provisions. This request did not come until March soon after Lincoln’s inauguration.

From February 4-9, a secessionist convention met in Alabama and adopted a new constitution. By February 18, the Confederate States of America had a new president and governmental structure. During this time, the different proposals drafted by the Congress through the Crittenden Commission in Washington did not receive approval. A national referendum was proposed, but was never approved by Congress. As the head of the new majority party, President-elect Lincoln did not issue any formal statements or direction to guide the Republicans towards a reconciliation with southern representatives in Washington. The failure to address the crisis was not Buchanan’s alone.

Conclusion

“Buchanan’s failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South,” concluded Jean Baker.[21] Although broadly correct, the crisis of secession represented an inevitable reckoning for the accommodations of the past. Slavery had always been a bane upon the nation; the original compromises made could no longer be sustained. Many historians have suggested that if Buchanan had been more like Andrew Jackson, who resisted the Nullification movement in South Carolina by threatening to hang the perpetrators and invade the state, the crisis may have been averted or at least ameliorated. They forget that Jackson and Calhoun’s Nullification Crisis was resolved by congressional legislation – specifically the “Compromise Tariff” of 1833.

No doubt, Buchanan was a poor president and administrator. If the secession crisis had not occurred during his tenure, he still would rank as one of the worst presidents. He relied too much on friends, rather than non-fraternal advisors; repeatedly, he picked then stubbornly clung to the pro-slavery side of different political issues that surfaced; he believed too much in the separation of powers, and willingly delegated the serious political differences facing the country to the judicial and legislative branches; finally, he saw his legacy as furthering American expansion beyond the continental empire and focused on perceived opportunities abroad rather than problems at home.

Blaming Buchanan for secession and the Civil War is convenient for our historical memory. Did he fail – yes. Did he acquiesce to pro-slavery interests – yes. When our country hit the precipice of 1860, did the nation fail as well? Yes. Coming to terms with all these failures will help us avoid future calamity.


[1] The National Conventions and Platforms of all Political Parties, 1789-1900. Thomas H. McKee, ed. Third ed. Baltimore, MD: Friedenwald Co, 1900, 91.

[2] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963, 190.

[3] Ibid, 247.

[4] Ibid, 262.

[5] Baker, James Buchanan, 78.

[6] Paul Finkelman, “James Buchanan, Dred Scott, and the Whisper of Conspiracy,” in James Buchanan and the Coming Civil War, John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner, eds. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013, 22.

[7] Ibid, 35.

[8] Ibid, 27.

[9] Potter, 207.

[10] Ibid, 315

[11] William P. Mackinnon, “Prelude to Armageddon: James Buchanan, Brigham Young, and a Preisdent’s Initiation to Bloodshed,” in James Buchanan and the Coming Civil War, John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner, eds. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013, 50.

[12] Ibid, 56.

[13] Phillip S. Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978, 316.

[14] Jane Flaherty, “The Exhausted Condition of the Treasury on the Eve of the Civil War,” Civil War History, vol. 55, no. 2 (June 2009), 252.

[15] Klein, President James Buchanan, 327.

[16] Flaherty, “Exhausted Condition of the Treasury,” 254.

[17] James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 129.

[18] Henry Adams, The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 and Other Essays, ed. George Hochfield. New York: Sagamore Press, Inc, 1958, 5.

[19] Baker, James Buchanan, 130.

[20] Potter, Impending Crisis, 520.

[21] Baker, James Buchanan, 140.