I'm kind of tired of this guy. Let's make this quick.
After the Kansas debacle, people starting jumping the Buchanan ship. Members of his staff left, his friends in Congress stopped returning his letters, his Cabinet lost faith. Buchanan himself got more irritable. Congress disassociated itself from JB, miring all of his bills in paperwork and committee, which was especially crippling for JB because he was such a staunchly literal constitutionist, and wouldn't do anything unless Congress was in agreement.
Which is how it all went south, so to speak. South Carolina had threatened to secede if Lincoln was elected. Lincoln was elected. So the federal employees of South Carolina walked out - court officials, judges, etc. However, there was no uprising or violence. And as yet, there was no secession, although it was understood that it was South Carolina's eventual intention.
So what can JB do? From a strictly constitutional perspective, which is all JB ever used, he claimed a few things:
- The federal government had no power to act aggressively towards one of the states in order to coerce submission.
- UNLESS the officials of that state asked for help.
- HOWEVER, the officials of South Carolina were not acknowledging the federal government.
- So, UNTIL the state seceded or incited violence towards the government, they were still technically a part of the country, and therefore preemptive action against them was illegal, in fact unseemly.
On top of this, Major Anderson was holed up inside Fort Sumter, hoping for new provisions. But if JB sent him more men or supplies, it could appear to be preparation for battle, which might spur South Carolina to fight.
It was a CONSTITUTIONAL STANDOFF!
JB didn't think that he had the authority to do anything, as matters stood. Many, many people pointed out - then and since - that DUH there was nothing in the Constitution about what to do if the states rebelled, because that would make it sound legal, and maybe JB should just improvise, maybe act like an executive? Of course, people were crying out for action, for the president to show some backbone, flex some muscle, but this was no Andrew Jackson we had in the White House in 1860. This was James Buchanan. He was an unpopular, lame duck president who had no intention of starting a war during his last 4 months in office. He proposed a second Constitutional convention that would add a pro-slavery amendment, in order to appease the South and keep them from seceding (this is where he lost my sympathy), but Congress wouldn't call it.
It was an incredibly murky situation, legally, politically, and morally, and JB very honestly did what he thought was right. That has not helped his legacy, it never does.
His reputation just got worse and worse after he left office. Since he was retired, and already a villain, people felt free to blame him for anything negative that had ever happened. His old friends, who knew that the reports were false, wouldn't even publicly defend him, because he was political kryptonite.
He didn't deserve all the vilification he got, and yet he was the exact wrong man to be president from 1856-1860.