Today we continue our series on little known or remembered US Presidents with one of the great failures of the office, James Buchanan. He became the 15th President following Franklin Pierce who was not re-nominated after his only term as President. Buchanan defeated Republican John Fremont and No Nothing candidate (and former President) Millard Fillmore in the election of 1856. Buchanan, a lifelong bachelor, graduated from Dickinson College, served in the Pennsylvania Legislature, in the House of Representatives and Senate, as President James Polk’s Secretary of State and is ministered to the Court of St James’s for President Franklin Pierce.
In short Buchanan had one of the most impressive government service resumes of any US President. Yet in CSpan’s 2017 presidential ranking, he came in dead last. Buchanan has been in the bottom three of every major poll ranking Presidents since 1948. By the end of his single term, the Southern states were an open rebellion. The question we will explore is how did such an experienced and intelligent President fail so miserably?
The Dred Scott Decision
As bad as the issue of Kansas was for the nation and the hardening of the north against the evils of slavery, it was the Dred Scott decision which was more critical. In this now completely repudiated decision, Chief Justice Roger Tawney completely gutted all prior attempts at compromise and ended the possibility of it going forward by finding no rights under the constitution for enslaved persons, anywhere in the United States, slave state or free state. This decision invalidated the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and even the Kansas-Nebraska Act which all allowed some form of free state regime.
Buchanan’s role in the decision is less well-known but he let it be known that he hoped the Supreme Court would not decide the decision narrowly, but give a broad, expansive reading of the rights (or non-rights of slaves, Americans under the Constitution). It’s unquestionable that he did lobby it and at that time the Supreme Court was split between five southerners and four northerners. However the Dred Scott decision was a 7-2 majority. While it is not known whether the President’s lobbying encouraged this voting pattern, it is clear the disastrous decision emboldened the South while hardening the North.
Leadership Lesson – If there is an impartial tribunal tasked with making a decision do not lobby it as it will destroy the credibility of their decision going forward.
Initially Buchanan failed around the continuing issue of Bleeding Kansas. While this issue had certainly begun under his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, it continued under Buchanan. The matter got a lot worse under Buchanan in part due to his own actions. The lawlessness in Kansas and the murder and mayhem, perpetrated largely by the pro-slavery forces, only got worse. First there were two competing governments in Kansas at the time, one of which was pro-slave and the other was free soil. Buchanan came down quite decidedly on behalf of the pro-slavery side, which was the Compton Government. Kansas split the Democratic Party just as it had killed off the Whig Party. The Republic Party arose from the ashes of the Whig Party but after Buchanan, the Democrats were basically out of power for the next 50 years.
Leadership Lesson – Understand the facts on the ground before you rush to a decision.
Buchanan’s major downfall as a leader came from his clear bias toward the pro-slavery South. It all started with his Cabinet which consisted of four Southerners, one pro-Southern Northerner and two additional Northerners who were considered doughfaces. (Doughfaces were pro-Southern Northerners.) The cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation. The better approach would have been to incorporate more Northern Democrats and to take their counsel. Jean H. Baker, professor at Goucher College and author of the book “James Buchanan” in the American Presidents series, has said, “If you’re the president of the United States, you’re the president of everyone, including the North,” Baker says. “He failed miserably to understand an important thing, which was that the South was becoming a minority. That’s why they were behaving the way they were. They saw more and more that they were going to lose the Electoral College and indeed they lost it in 1860 to Abraham Lincoln.”
Leadership Lesson – You cannot be seen to be playing favorites. Such actions will destroy your credibility.
Panic of 1857
In addition to the question of slavery there was an economic downturn in 1857. In the 1800s, they were called “panics” and 1857 was the first major one since the Panic of 1837. Interestingly, this economic downturn was global in nature, when the UK government contracted the money supply. While at this time in history, we usually do not think of the global economy as interconnected, in fact, in the 19th century it was becoming quite interconnected. This was really the first worldwide economic crisis.
It was exacerbated in the US by the sinking of the SS Central America, which was loaded with gold headed for banks in New York and probably had enough gold to stanch the panic. The panic continued due to the debt the Northern banks had issued to build railroads in the north. This hurt the Northern states far more than the South, which was still largely agricultural. President Buchanan took what was probably a principled constitutional position that the federal government had no role in intervening to provide aid to end the panic. However many in the North once again viewed this action, or rather non-action, as Buchanan siding with the south.
Leadership Lesson – A leader must respond to a crisis and step in to supply support.
I hope you have enjoyed this review of the four Presidents leading up to the election of 1860 and you can see how their miss-steps, actions and failures to act all led to the terrible conflict that took over 600,000 American lives. Could the Civil War have been prevented? Perhaps if there had been a leadership class equal to the times but clearly it was not the four men we have discussed in this series.