Thursday, April 10, 2008

On James Buchanan

In a comment, Recon asked about James Buchanan. The low marks I give him do not relate to his actions in response to the secession crisis at the end of his presidency. In all fairness, the guy was leaving office, tried to send the Star of the West to relieve Fort Sumter, and did nothing to prejudice the options of his successor, whose problem this clearly was going to be.

No, my problems with Buchanan lie elsewhere:
[I] . . . am confident that James Buchanan (1857-61) is at or near the bottom of the barrel. After having improper communications with the Supreme Court in connection with the Dred Scott case, he handled the Kansas Lecompton Constitution dispute in the worst possible way, stubbornly refusing to take advantage of several opportunies to diffuse the crisis. In the process, he went out of his way to alienate and destroy the credibility of Stephen Douglas, the last best hope of the Democratic Party. He somehow managed to believe both that secession was unconstitutional and that there was nothing he could constitutionally do about it. To top everything off, until the waning months of his presidency his administration harbored the likes of Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who was both corrupt and actively working against the federal government.

Kenneth Stampp's excellent America in 1857 is particularly damning of Buchanan's handling of the Lecompton issue.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:15 AM

    I suppose I'll have to refresh my memory in regards to the Lecompton Constituion and examine it in much more detail to reply with any authority to Stampps' charges regarding Buchanan's handling of the Lecompton constitution and that supposed blunder creating an environment in which secession (and war?) was inevitable.

    Generally, I think it's implausible to imagine that secession could have been avoided merely by a different handling of the Kansas constitution. I'm willing to listen and learn though, so I'll peruse the Stampp book. Funny that he doesn't even mention this theory in "And the War Came".

    I don't believe that secession was inevitable at any point until it actually happened, and that even then it was not an irreversible course of action, and certainly not a decision that need have ended in violence. My view is that secession was an unpopular movement forced on the southern populace in an undemocratic manner by an opportunistic set of radicals. Was Howell Cobb driven to support secession by Buchanan's blundering.... That seems unlikely, no? And without Cobb's support, there is no way Georgia secedes, as he was its most forceful and influential advocate.

    Certainly secession was unpopular in "The South". And it was not sufficiently popular in even the deep South to risk delay, a multi-state convention aimed at unified southern action, or even a referendum in any seceding state. (Except Texas, but only there after Sam Houston was forced out in a coup, and where the "election" was boycotted by a large number of counties and held in an atmosphere of violent and deadly suppression of pro-Union sentiment.)

    I think we agree that Buchanan is unfairly criticized for what he did and didn't do in the secession crisis. Most of the critics advocate an earlier and more aggressive response, which is, in my view, simply a roundabout way of saying they wished the Civil War had started at an earlier date.

    Buchanan's critics seem to forget that under his watch several southern states explicitly considered and rejected secession (NC, VA, TN, AR, MO, KY, MD, also DE nominally a slave state, but not southern in any meaningful sense). The majority of these subsequently seceded, and did so on Lincoln's watch and in response to the aggressive approach that Buchanan rejected.

    The most interesting thing I've discovered in my brief study is Buchanan's initiation of the "Utah War". His blunder there, and certainly it was a blunder, seems to be eerily reminiscent of Bush's blunder in invading Iraq in my mind, in that it could have been easily avoided, diplomacy and planning were woefully inadequate, and it deployed scarce military resources away from a greater threat. While Buchanan certainly blundered in sending the Army west to confront an imaginary and exaggerated threat, he seems to have at least reversed course before (much) blood was shed and the Army chewed up and bogged down.

    I'm not ready to consign Buchanan to the bottom of the barrel on the basis of my review so far. The Utah War, while a clear blunder, doesn't seem to have had direct, significant, and negative consequences for the nation.

    I would like to hear more also about "improper communication" with the Supreme Court.



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