Friday, January 01, 2010

Associate Justice James Buchanan?

Did you know that James Buchanan almost became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1846? I didn’t either. Robert W. Merry tells the unlikely tale in his interesting and enjoyable biography of James K. Polk, A Country of Vast Designs.

The story begins two years earlier, with the death of Associate Justice Henry Baldwin in April 1844. Wikipedia reports that President John Tyler made two nominations before he left office in March 1845, both of whom were rejected.

In December 1845, president James K. Polk nominated George Washington Woodward to the vacant seat. Polk considered Woodward, a Pennsylvanian then serving as a Pennsylvania state court judge, as a “sound, original, & consistent democrat, of the strict construction school.” Baldwin had been from Pennsylvania, and I assume the Polk selected Woodward to preserve the seat for the politically important Keystone State. (Both of President Tyler’s rejected nominees had also been from Pennsylvania, making pretty clear that both parties regarded the position as reserved for that state.) Perhaps finding a worthy member of the Pennsylvania bar also accounts for Polk's delay.

James Buchanan – another Pennsylvanian – was serving at the time as Secretary of State. Polk’s leading cabinet officer was also the most annoying. Buchanan, with his eye constantly on future advancement, provided advice that shifted constantly with the political winds. On Oregon, for example, he was initially dovish, urging the president not to risk war with Great Britain. When he perceived, however, that Lewis Cass of Michigan was riding a groundswell of popularity by urging an aggressive stance, Buchanan performed a dramatic about-face and attempted to erase evidence of his earlier position.

The politically sensitive Buchanan vehemently objected to Woodward’s nomination, and late on Christmas evening, 1845, Buchanan went to the White House to complain to the president. In faction-riven Pennsylvania, the Democratic faction led by Buchanan and Simon Cameron considered Woodward an enemy. “The secretary complained bitterly that Polk had not alerted him in advance and accused Polk of undermining his political standing in Pennsylvania with numerous adverse patronage decisions,” a charge Polk vehemently denied.

Supreme Court nominations were acted on far more quickly in those days. Within a month, on January 22, 1846, the Senate voted on Woodward’s nomination – and rejected him by a tally of 20-29. Circumstantial evidence suggested that Buchanan and his crony Simon Cameron were largely responsible for the administration’s embarrassment:

The entire Whig caucus had voted against [Woodward], along with six Democrats – Cameron, [Thomas Hart] Benton [of Missouri], Ambrose Sevier and Chester Ashley of Arkansas, and David Yulee and James Westcott of Florida. Polk knew Cameron, Sevier, and Westcott were intimate friends of Buchanan, presumably susceptible to entreaties from the secretary to support the president. Clearly, Buchanan had not supported the administration in its hour of need.

In fact, it was worse than that. It appeared that Buchanan had been angling for the Supreme Court position himself and had engineered Woodward’s defeat in order to position himself as the next nominee:

Worse, Polk heard that Buchanan had expressed hopes of getting the job even before the Woodward vote. “The information given me . . .,” wrote Polk to his diary, “left the painful impression that Mr. Buchanan has been willing to see . . . Mr. Woodward rejected by the Senate in order to obtain the office himself.” Later that evening the president received visits from Vice President [George M.] Dallas, Senator Daniel Dickinson of New York, and [William] Allen of Ohio. They were indignant. The six errant Democrats had ignored all arguments in favor of the highly qualified Woodward, they reported, and voted simply for political effect. Cameron was the apparent ringleader, they said, and immediately after the vote rumors began floating across the Senate floor that Buchanan would be the next nominee. Sure enough, Polk shortly received a letter from Benton recommending Buchanan for the job.

Privately, Polk was irate, but he did not confront or take action against Buchanan – part of a strange pattern in which the president seemed reluctant to take on his disloyal cabinet member.

Things took a strange turn five months later. Although Polk had vowed that Buchanan would never get the judicial position he apparently wanted, on June 10, 1846, Polk offered his secretary of state the vacancy. Polk never explained why, and his motives must therefore remain a mystery. Perhaps he viewed it as a graceful way of booting the every-annoying Buchanan out of the cabinet. Even if Old Buck declined the offer, perhaps he would display a little more loyalty to his chief. Placating the irascible and unpredictable Benton was crucial to Polk, and perhaps that also played a role.

At all events, Buchanan appeared delighted by Polk's offer, and on June 28 he reported that he would accept the nomination.

After that, strange became bizarre. First, Polk and Buchanan disagreed as to the timing of the announcement of the nomination. On July 1, Polk told Buchanan that he would send the nomination to the Senate shortly before Congress was scheduled to adjourn (roughly the beginning of August, one month hence). Polk apparently wanted the Senate first to focus on and deal with pressing policy matters. He may also have felt that an early nomination would only give Buchanan’s enemies time to rally their forces.

Buchanan, in turn, pushed for an immediate nomination, suggesting that intervening international events might preclude his departure from State.

Apparently sensing that Buchanan’s mind was not entirely made up, on July 12 Polk tried to force the issue by seeking Buchanan’s approval to send a letter to U.S. ambassador Louis McLane in London with an offer to become Buchanan’s successor. Buchanan suggested that Polk refrain from sending the letter, since he (Buchanan) might change his mind.

Finally, on or about August 1, Buchanan “stunned Polk with the news” that he would decline the Supreme Court offer and remain in the cabinet. Since timing was no longer an issue (Congress was scheduled to adjourn in a week), Buchanan’s motivation is unclear. Merry suggests that Buchanan may have been concerned that he might face considerable opposition that might damage his political reputation. It may also be that he simply concluded that remaining at State provided the most likely path to the presidency.

Although Merry characterizes Polk as “stunned” by Buchanan’s decision, I suspect he fully expected it, because he seems to have been prepared with another candidate. It appears that Polk immediately nominated yet another Pennsylvanian – a relatively obscure state trial court judge by the name of Robert C. Grier. Grier was unanimously approved by the Senate on August 4, 1846 – only three days after Buchanan had turned down the job.

Both the unanimous vote and subsequent events suggest that Grier was acceptable to Buchanan, and at least that Buchanan did not regard him as a political enemy, as he had Woodward. Alert readers may note that, in the run-up to the Supreme Court’s issuance of its decision in the Dred Scott case in March 1857, Buchanan did not hesitate to write to Grier to urge him to join the southern majority on the Missouri Compromise issue. Grier, in turn, promptly responded to Buchanan that he was prepared to rule in a manner that would accommodate the wishes of the president-elect.

As long-time readers know, I like a good what-if, and this suggests a really good one. Buchanan may have imagined that a Supreme Court justiceship might have served as a stepping-stone to the presidency, but that was unprecedented. If Buchanan had been on the Court in 1856 and unavailable, for all practical purposes, as a potential nominee, who might the Democrats have nominated in his stead? As I recall, the Democrats selected Buchanan that year because he was about the only person of any stature they could find who had not taken a stand on Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. (The fact that he was from the crucial state of Pennsylvania was also a big plus.) Who else would have satisfied that criterion? And if the Democrats had selected a more divisive candidate (Douglas, for example), might Republican John C. Fremont have been elected? And then what? Civil War in 1857?

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