It’s Presidents’ Day, and I have another chance to write about my favorite President, the much-maligned James Buchanan. History treats him unkindly, but that is more to the credit of the rival newspapers of his day than it is the fault of Buchanan. In this article, however, I will acknowledge some of the mistakes that James Buchanan actually did make, but I will also try to give his side of those stories.
Back in 1856, many newspapers were like the PACs of today. They were arms of the political parties that supported them. The newspapers of the South were Democratically controlled and those in the Northeast United States were mostly Republican controlled, and like FOX news today, they spread the word, not the truth.
There was a kernel of truth, however, in the pejorative nickname they gave to James Buchanan in the campaign of 1856. They called him Ten-Cent Jimmy. Times were different back then, and, as hard as it may be to believe today, the newly-formed Republican party of that day was trying to establish itself in the North by showing support for the working man. They campaigned for wage increases.
Buchanan employed a staff to maintain his household at Wheatland, here in Lancaster, and he was known for paying low wages. It would be politically incorrect to blame this on his Scotch heritage, but that might have been part of the problem. This is one reason why his household staff often quit to seek more lucrative employment, and why he so rarely got a cook, who was actually a good cook.
During the campaign, when it was brought up, that laborers in the Northeast were working for only 10 cents a day Buchanan didn’t take umbrage. He didn’t fight for wage increases. The Republican newspapers were quick to pounce upon this wealthy man’s inability to sympathize with the plight of the low-paid laborers. They nicknamed him “Ten-Cent Jimmy” and it stuck.
There was little else to criticize about the man, though, and James Buchanan became the 15th President of the United States, despite the continued onslaught of negative press from the new Republicans.
The Press also hounded him for interfering in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision, and they blamed him for what history records as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever. The Supreme Court is known for making some awful decisions, so you know that to be the worst, it must have been really bad.
Actually, the Supreme Court didn’t make a decision in the case. A Decision by them would have been bad, but they made it even worse by deciding to throw out the case entirely because they determined that the plaintiff, Dred Scott, being black, had no legal right to even present a case to the Court. They leaked their intentions to throw out the case to the incoming President, James Buchanan.
There were 5 Southerners and 4 Northerners on the Court and the racially charged outcome was going to be determined by a vote of 5 to 4. You can guess who was sympathetic to the black man’s case, and who was not. Buchanan knew the effect the decision would have on the country, and he also knew that the country was already headed for a North-South Civil War. He did not want the Supreme Court to make a decision that the public would see as a strictly North/South thing. He could not get any of the Southern Judges to change their mind, so, to try to pour oil on troubled waters, he persuaded one of the Northern judges from Pennsylvania to change his vote. James Buchanan was deathly afraid that a 5-4 strictly South/North split would upset the already fragile situation in the already North/South split country. In his Inaugural Address, he pleaded with the country to calmly accept whatever decision the Supreme Court handed down in the case, and let that be the end of all the North/South bickering about the slavery question. Two days later when the Supreme Court made public their 6-3 decision not to decide, the country exploded, and instead of putting the slavery question to rest, it divided the country even more. By getting involved, Buchanan has taken the historical blame for what was really the Supreme Court’s bad decision.
Critics try to make it sound like the Court was leaning in favor of Dred Scott and a pro-slavery Buchanan swayed them otherwise. That was never the case. Buchanan was only trying to ease North/South tension by making a bad decision not look like such an obvious North/South decision. He has been paying for that intervention for the past 160 years. As Oscar Wilde said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The Supreme Court decision also cast Buchanan as Pro-Slavery, which he was definitely not. In fact, he had purchased many slaves in Washington D.C. where slavery was legal, brought them to the Free State of Pennsylvania and given them their freedom. He offered many of the freed slaves jobs in his household, but when they heard how little he paid his staff, most just thanked him for freeing them and went on their merry way.
Buchanan is also blamed for splitting the Democratic Party by not running for re-election in 1860. Again, this was another negative that could be blamed upon his Inaugural Address where he made a promise to the American people to spend all his efforts on trying to heal the country and none on seeking re-election. The soon-to-be 67-year-old President was still recovering from a bad case of National Flu at the time, so he was also admitting that he would be too old and sickly to run for re-election in 1860. Instead of being given credit for his integrity, he made himself an instant lame duck, and the fighting began for the control of the Democratic Party.
The last point I would like to make is that he was vilified for not turning over control of the Party to Stephen A. Douglas, the powerful Senator from Illinois. First of all, Buchanan personally detested Stephen A. Douglas. When the unctuous Douglas gave him a $20,000 check for his 1856 Presidential campaign, Buchanan cashed the check, but he wrote the thank you note to Stephen “D.” Douglas.
Secondly, Buchanan correctly predicted that Douglas was only popular in states that were going to vote Republican anyway. In the 1860 election, Douglas didn’t even win his home state of Illinois, a state that is now famous for being “the Land of Lincoln,” not the home of Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas only carried one and a half states in that election. He won in Missouri and split the electoral votes in New Jersey. As Buchanan predicted, he came in second in all the states that the Republicans carried, and as Hillary Clinton and so many others have recently learned, you only win an election if you get the electoral votes, not the popular vote.
I could go on and on about the many ways that history has short-changed “Ten-Cent Jimmy,” but I’ll save them for another day. I’ll just close by wishing everyone a Happy Presidents’ Day and give a special shout out to the wonderful folks who work so hard to preserve the home and history of James Buchanan at Wheatland, especially all the volunteers, who don’t even get ten cents a day for all they do.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,