Sunday, April 13, 2008

More on Lecompton

In a comment to an earlier post concerning James Buchanan, decon raised some issues about Lecompton and Buchanan that are worth exploring further. This is a very brief response to one portion of that comment.

The Republican party was born out the outrage in the North over Kansas-Nebraska in 1854-55. "Bloody Kansas" and the caning of Charles Sumner in May 1856 allowed the Republicans keep the pot boiling. But after that, the Republicans had few new issues. Northern Democrats were hopeful that the worst was over, and many Republicans expressed concern over the need to maintain momentum to have a chance in 1858 and 1860.

President Buchanan’s decision to endorse the Lecompton Constitution at the end of 1857 was a godsend for the Republicans because it provided them with a new issue with which to flog the Slave Power – and their northern Democratic lackeys. Lecompton was a disaster for the Democrats because it further decimated their northern wing, and alienated their southern wing from Stephen Douglas, laying the groundwork for the catastrophic 1860 Charleston convention.

But for Lecompton, Douglas would probably have gained the nomination of a united Democratic party in 1860. But for Lecompton, the Republicans might well have been defeated for the presidency in 1860. No Republican victory in 1860, no secession in 1860-61 . . ..

In short, consideration of “what ifs” relating to Buchanan’s handling of Lecompton strongly demonstrates how different history might have been, and how contingent history is.


  1. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I don't think it's especially fair to single out any one individual on any side of the contentious issues of the 1850's and blame them for the Civil War and its aftermath.

    I generally "blame" the uncompromising radicals on all sides, and believe that mutually beneficial electoral antagonism, and the underlying political institutions that rewarded that behavior, is the real culprit. (On the other hand, the Democratic Party's 2/3 rule for nominating a candidate was the proximate cause of no unity candidate, and that kind of super majority rule is the kind of thing that tends to reward compromise rather than radicalism.

    I'd also add that in the absence of Buchanan's support for Lecompton, Southern radicals may have been more, rather than less, intransigent at the 1860 convention. I also think it's unlikely that that Southern Democrats would have refrained from "feeding the pot" or that Republicans would have been able to manufacture some outrage even had Southern Democrats managed to muzzle themselves.

    In general, taking support for one action or vote, and treating that as the catalyst for secession and war just seems silly to me.

    I have not yet read the Stampp book you suggested, but plan to take it with me on my travels next week. Excellent posts as always.


  2. decon,

    I fear you misunderstand me. I do not mean to "blame" Buchanan for the Civil War. I've said elsewhere that there is rarely a single cause of anything -- and certainly not of a major event such as that. Buchanan's handling of Lecompton was just one of countless "what ifs" that resulted in history unfolding as it did.

    Your point that Buchanan might have incurred the wrath of the South if he had come down against Lecompton is well taken. Stampp explores at some length the pickle that Buchanan was in. On the other hand, there were ways out -- if Buchanan had not been so pig headed. (The irony is that Buchanan is usually assumed to have been a weak-willed wimp who was pushed around by his southern friends. In fact, he was quite strong-willed; he just had terrible instincts.)

  3. Anonymous4:46 PM

    I see you've given "a problem from hell" 5 stars. I'm thinking of reading that next week. What did you like about it?



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