On Thursday I attended James Buchanan’s 229th birthday party online. It will be replayed on the LancasterHistory website in about a week. In the meanwhile you can view the trailer for Raising Buchanan, which they previewed. It is a light-hearted portrayal of a desperate woman who kidnaps the un-entombed corpse of our 15th president and tries to ransom him to get out of her financial straits. It will be released on May 5th on iTunes, and it will be available in DVD and Blu-ray formats.
James Buchanan served the Country for almost a half century, earning himself the nickname, “The Old Public Functionary.” He unsuccessfully sought the Presidency in 1844. He tried again in ’48 but didn’t get the nomination. He tried again in ’52, but was denied for the third time. So, he figured he was never going to be President, and when he was in his sixties, he accepted what he thought would be the final position in his illustrious career of public service. He accepted, what was considered political exile, the post of Ambassador to Great Britain.
When he returned from Britain, however, he was just about the only Democrat not tainted by the Kansas-Nebraska Bill brouhaha, and the country offered him the election on a silver plate. By that time, he was 65-years old, and the life expectancy of a man of the time was about forty. He, actually, almost died from National Hotel Disease (like Legionnaire’s Disease) right before he took office, and he was still very ill when he took the Oath of Office. Because of his age and health, he announced in his inaugural address that he would not seek re-election. That was his biggest mistake. He made himself a lame duck President, and Stephen Douglas tried to use the opportunity to take over the Democratic Party, causing a split in the party that opened the door for the new guys on the block, the Republicans to win Congress in 1858 and the White House in 1860.
Two days after his inauguration, The Supreme Court issued their infamous Dred Scott Decision. Buchanan knew ahead of time what the decision of the Supreme Court was going to be. He knew that they voted 5-4 against freeing Dred Scott from slavery, with an absolute regional bias in their decision. The 5 Southern judges voted against Dred Scott and the 4 Northern judges voted for his freedom. Knowing that this strict North/South split-decision would only divide the country even more, Buchanan begged one of the Northern judges to change his vote, so that the final decision would be a more impressive 6-3 decision, without the strict regional bias. He didn’t change the outcome of the Supreme Court Decision. He only wanted to make that decision more acceptable to the American people, in hopes that they would accept the decision, obey the law, drop the slavery agitation, and let him and the nation concentrate on other pressing problems, of which there were many.
Historians have crucified him for getting involved in the Supreme Court decision, as that is an absolute no-no today, but back then it was a common practice for the Supreme Court to share their decisions ahead of time with political leaders. James Buchanan’s reputation wound up taking a beating that should have been delivered to the Supreme Court. They made the bad decision, not him, but they had one big advantage that politicians don’t have. The Constitution states that Justices “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” This means that the Justices hold office as long as they choose and can only be removed from office by impeachment. They don’t have to win elections.
Buchanan felt that because slavery was Constitutionally legal, there was nothing he could legally do about it, and besides, he felt, it would only be a short time before the South would have to bow to world pressure and drop it on their own. Iceland outlawed slavery way back in 1117, but it wasn’t until late in the 18th century that the idea started to spread from country to country like wildfire. In 1777, the State of Vermont, an independent Republic after the American Revolution, abolished slavery. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in Britain in 1787. The U.S. Constitution banned the slave trade, effective in 1808. In 1792 Denmark banned the import of slaves to its West Indies colonies, although the law only took effect from 1803. Haiti won independence and ended slavery there in 1804.
In 1807, Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, outlawing British Atlantic slave trade. In 1811, Spain abolished slavery, including in its colonies, though Cuba rejected the ban. Sweden banned slave trading in 1813. A year later, the Netherlands banned slave trading. France banned slave trading in 1817, but the ban was not effective until 1826.
In 1819, Portugal abolished the slave trade north of the equator. Britain placed a naval squadron off the West African coast to enforce the ban on slave trading. In 1823, Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society was formed. In 1833 Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering the gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies. Plantation owners in the West Indies received 20 million pounds from the British government in compensation for their freed slaves. Then in 1833, Great Britain and Spain signed a treaty prohibiting the slave trade.
In 1846, the Danish governor proclaimed emancipation of slaves in Danish West Indies, abolishing slavery there. In 1848, France abolished slavery. In 1851, Brazil abolished slave trading.
So, Buchanan hoped that slavery was destined to become a non-issue. He often mentioned that long before the Civil War, the State of Virginia came close to abolishing slavery in the state legislature. Then Nat Turner’s Slave revolt in 1831 brought that idea to a screeching halt. Radical Abolitionists were at work trying to spark a race war, and that struck fear in all Southern hearts Most Southerners didn’t own slaves, but they all greatly feared what might happen to them and their families if 4 million slaves were suddenly freed overnight, especially if they were given guns.
Buchanan believed that if the Abolitionist would just calm down, slavery, as an institution, would die out on its own. But the Abolitionists didn’t calm down. They grew even more vociferous with the publication of Harriet Beacher Stowe’s fictional play Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Simon Legree is an extremely cruel plantation owner who sees his slaves as nothing more than feelingless objects to be used or abused as he pleases. He beats his slaves and rapes the women. This work of fiction was all the evidence radical Northerners of the time needed to “prove” that every single slave holder was like Simon Legree and had to be stopped immediately by any means possible.
The Constitution allowed slavery in the South, but the North was, nevertheless, inflamed by the idea that it was their moral obligation to end the institution immediately. I guess they forgot that it was mostly the ships built in New England that brought the slaves to America in the first place. “There’s nothing worse than a reformed drunk.” Anyhow, by itself, ending slavery is a very noble goal, but they decided to do it, not legally, but by superseding the law and using any means possible, and that meant killing. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…” The South just wanted to be left in peace. The North wanted war. They were spoiling for a war, especially since they felt they could easily win the war in three months or less.
When the South severed its ties with the North, the South did not invade the North to fight for their independence. They simply left the Union and tried to peacefully form their own government, a government that took their safety and the safety of their families way more seriously than the Union did.
The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence states that, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
This is what the South tried to do, but the North wouldn’t let them, because of their highly-aroused sense of moral outrage at the institution of slavery. Many ardent Abolitionist, like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry tried to arm the slaves and urge them to kill their masters. To me, this is comparable to the bombing of abortion clinics and the murdering of surgeons to show your moral outrage at the legalization of abortion. It was moral outrage on steroids, and it led to the inevitable Civil war that killed more than 650,000 Americans, not to mention how countless many more lives it ruined.
Buchanan served in his State legislature. Then he was a Congressman, a Senator, Ambassador to Russia, Secretary of State, Ambassador to Great Britain, and finally President. He was also offered an appointment to the Supreme Court by a few Presidents. Very few people have done more for this country than James Buchanan, yet historians continue to mock him as the worst President ever. I place a lot of the blame on Jean Baker, who wrote a very unflattering biography of James Buchanan.
In my opinion, Buchanan was just unfortunate to get the Presidency at one of the worst possible times to be President. Civil War was already raging when he took office. There was bloodshed in the Kansas territory over the slavery question, and hundreds were killed. Buchanan had to send troops to bring law and order to the territory. Religious conflict caused Mormons on their way west to be killed for their beliefs, and then they revenged the killings by massacring a group of Non-Mormons passing through Utah on their way to California. Buchanan sent troops to restore order in Utah. He also tried to buy Alaska from Russia, so that he could invite the Mormons to live there in peace. He was a President who wanted peace, when the North badly wanted a war. They called him a Doughface, a derisive name used against anyone who had any sympathy for the South.
There is, also, little talk by historians about the numerous foreign policy triumphs during his Presidency. I’ll have to cover that in another rant.
Happy Birthday, President Buchanan
Peace & Love, and all of the above,