June 24, 2011

how do you get to be the worst president in US history?

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.


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.

June 22, 2011

Buchanan miscellany

I finished the Buchanan bio last night, but before I do a final post on that ill-fated administration, there are two fun facts worth noting.

THE FIRST: James Buchanan was the only president never to marry. In his 20s he was engaged to a rich, pretty girl, but he traveled a lot and rarely saw her. She started getting mad about it, and chastised him a few times in her letters, letting him know that he was on thin ice. He didn't mend his behavior. One time, when he returned home to Lancaster from a business trip, he went immediately to see a friend who was in town to visit, and then went home to sleep, and then visited his fiancee the next day. She was furious that he had waited so long to see her, especially when he'd been to visit other people and their pretty daughters, so she dumped hi. To get away from the heartbreak, she went to visit her sister. The day she arrived she took to bed, the doctor was called, but couldn't find anything wrong with her except that her heart was slowing down. It kept slowing down, until a day or two later she died. Apparently, her heart just slowed all the way down and she died, it's kind of bizarre.

After that he was rumored to be "attached" a few more times, but nothing ever came of it. When he lived in Washington, he usually shared a house with Senator King of Alabama. Andrew Jackson nicknamed Buchanan and King Aunt Nancy and Aunt Fancy, because they dressed well and were quite prim. Rumors abound, although Klein doesn't give them any quarter.

THE SECOND: During the last year of Buchanan's administration, Queen Victoria's son Albert announced a visit to Canada. JB wrote and invited him to visit the US as well, which Victoria decided he should do. This was the first time since the revolution (or before) that an English royal visited America. For 80 years relations between the two nations had been crawling from horrible to fine, and the fact that JB had been a well-liked minister to England definitely helped smooth the way.

Sub-fact: When Albert and his entourage were staying in the White House, JB threw a state dinner and afterwards had to put up many of the guests. When everyone was settled, he realized there were no more beds, and had to sleep on the couch.

Albert's visit to the US is enormously significant, and might have been recognized as such if it hadn't been the 1860. As it were, JB was a little annoyed at the distraction and all the duties of hosting him, with the nation crumbling all around him.

June 20, 2011

here comes some nonsense

Oh, James Buchanan. He was a really good lawyer. He really wanted to be president. Did he want to be president in the 1850s? No. Was he? Yes. How did he handle that? By hoping the problems of the 1850s would sort themselves out. Considering the fact that the problems of the 1850s eventually caused an ENORMOUS WAR, you could say he spent most of his presidency deluding himself.

During JB's presidency, the divided nation projected all its issues onto Kansas. Kansas was about to be admitted as a state, and after a long long battle, it was decided that the slavery question in KS would be decided by popular sovereignty — that is, the KS residents or their elected officials would vote on whether or not to have slavery. This resulted in both the North and the South trying to get lots of people to move to Kansas to vote for their cause. In the North, the New England Emigrant Aid Company was founded to essentially pay people to move to Kansas and vote against slavery.

Chaos! Shocking no one, the abolitionist and pro-slavery factions refused to work together, and instead set up two separate Constitutional conventions, and created two separate state constitutions for the population to vote on. Each faction boycotted the other's vote. The abolitionists wrote the Topeka Constitution, which only the abolitionists voted on. The pro-slavery faction wrote the Lecompton Constitution. When they sent it out for a vote, the only choices on the ballot were "Constitution w/ slavery" or "Constitution w/o slavery," but even the w/o slavery option would not have made Kansas a free state, it would have vaguely prohibited future importation of slaves, kind of. A very small minority of Kansas settlers (mostly Southerners) voted, and passed the Lecompton Constitution with slavery.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton Constitutions were sent to D.C. for ratification. What a lot of nonsense! every said, neither of these charters have anything like popular support in Kansas, one of them didn't even present a free state option, and really, the fact that there are two state constitutions proves that there was no viable state convention. COOL THANKS LET'S PASS IT, said President Buchanan. Um, WHAT, said the nation and federal government (except for the South, who were stoked). That is NONSENSE. But JB said that the Lecompton Constitution was legally drawn up and offered for a vote. The fact that the vast majority of Kansas boycotted the vote? Their fault, said JB, and asked Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton.

The governor of Kansas RESIGNED rather than be associated with this nonsense. The Senate approved it, but the House did not. There was even a fist fight on the floor of the House, but this wasn't rare. The House decided that the constitution should be sent back to Kansas for another vote, this time with a yes/no option instead of a slavery/no slavery option, and it was voted down 6 to 1.

So now everybody is mad. The South is mad that it didn't go through, because they thought the original vote was fair. The North was mad that Buchanan had tried to force it through. The governor of Kansas was mad. Buchanan was mad that he looked like an idiot. And worst of all......Stephen Douglas was mad. Never make Stephen Douglas mad! The Douglas/Buchanan feud split the Democratic party in two. Buchanan never really had a shot at accomplishing anything after that.

And Kansas had to wait another 3 years for a constitution.

June 15, 2011

the value of an untarnished reputation

The secret to JB's success, as time went on, was his avoidance of conflict. The mid-19th century was an explosive, divisive time, and Old Buck got through it without much baggage. It was great for his career, but it inspires no respect.

He served alongside what Klein calls a cache of Parliamentary giants - not only future presidents like Van Buren, Polk, Filmore, and Pierce, but lifelong statesmen like Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Douglas, Benton, and Crawford. These men got their hands dirty. They loved speechifying. They defended their political interests fiercely. "Best not to say anything," said Buchanan from the sidelines. "Best to see how this all plays out." He wasn't uninterested, or unintelligent, but he was gun-shy. A few early misunderstandings with Andrew Jackson that threatened his political standing made him wary to enter the fray.

During the four gargantuan Congressional battles that led up to the Civil War - the Missouri Compromise, the nullification crisis, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska bill - Buchanan was elsewhere. Either not in office or abroad. He was, of course, Secretary of State during the Mexican-American war, but that hung solely around Polk's neck.

As the 1850s started getting real crazy - John Brown, Kansas-Nebraska, the Fugitive Slave Act's big comeback - Buchanan was in England negotiating fishing rights. He returned to America in 1856, just in time for the election, and everybody said, hey, nobody hates this guy!

So they gave the reins of the country, in its darkest hour, to a chronically passive man.


June 10, 2011

Buchanan v. Polk

How trying it is, when one cannot be president, to be Secretary of State to one so undeserving.

Buchanan's mission to Russia turned out quite well for him. Because Russia had recently enslaved the Poles, and were frightfully unpopular in continental Europe, they decided to fete the American, in order to win an ally. So Buchanan went to all the balls and danced with the Empress and was all around a success. He also managed to negotiate a mutually beneficial trade agreement between the US and Russia, despite (or because of) the fact that the Russians opened all his mail.

So he had left America a b-list politician and returned a statesman. He returned to the Senate for a while, and was a frontrunner for the 1844 presidential nomination. But Van Buren was running, obviously, and he didn't want to openly oppose the party patriarch, pledging only to run if VB dropped out. By the time VB did, Polk was the nominee.

Polk named him Secretary of State, which in any other administration was an invitation to succeed him in office. But Polk was tired of seeing the last year of an administration turn into a squabble over who in the cabinet would be the next president, so he made Buchanan promise that if he planned to run for president in '48, he would immediately resign the State Department. Buchanan kind of agreed, but claimed that if his supporters started campaigning for him, he could hardly be asked to stop them.

Much to JB's chagrin, Polk really only wanted him to manage State, not run it. Polk, you may remember, was a micro-manager. A lot of previous presidents gave the State Department to their bestie so they could work closely together. Since Polk didn't have any friends, he gave it to an able statesman, but didn't let him do anything.

Let's remind ourselves, though, that Polk was an insanely efficient president, and Buchanan was known for kind of writing a lot of letters and never getting anything done. So when Polk wanted to settle the Oregon/Canada border he was like "Tell the British 49 degress" and Buchanan was like "They'll never agree" and Polk was like "I'll just do it" and Buchanan was like "Surely we should send another envoy to talk to them about it" and Polk was like "Nope!" and Buchanan was like "We need to have more meetings about this" and Polk was like "I just did it while you were fussing." So, they were not a match made in heaven.

When a Supreme Court position opened during Polk's presidency he offered it to Buchanan, probably to be like, get out of my life, but Buchanan turned it down and suggested a friend of his. Polk ignored his suggestion and nominated somebody else. Once the nomination was up for confirmation, Buchanan was like "Well if you're going to ignore my suggestion than I'll go ahead and take the post" and Polk was like, dude, they are already voting on it. The nominee was not confirmed, so Buchanan kindly informed Polk that he would take it. This time Polk just ignored him and nominated somebody else, who was confirmed, and then Buchanan was like "Yeah I don't want it" and Polk was like DUDE.

Buchanan was basically peeved that he was the most reined-in Secretary of State in American history, which is fair enough. It meant that all the prestige that usually comes from holding that post, which so frequently translates into a successive presidency, was denied him, because everyone in Washington knew he didn't do anything.

June 08, 2011

James "Backfire" Buchanan

Alright! James Buchanan is happening!

ATD has been 100% dull recently while I work on other writing assignments, but this summer is going to be epic – as in, I’m going to read Buchanan and Lincoln and hopefully all of Shelby Foote before my friend and I visit Gettysburg in August.
But for now, Buchanan. JB almost always tops the list of “worst presidents in history,” because he allowed the South to secede, and war to break out. This puts an interesting lens on the early years of his life. While I’m reading about his education and career as a lawyer, I’ve got my eye out for the tragic flaws, the enormous lapses in capability that will one day throw the Union into turmoil.
So far, they’re few. Biographer Klein is being fairly coy about how poorly JB’s career will end. He’s keen on letting the early, state government phase of JB’s career stand alone, without breaking in with foreshadowing. I’m not a big fan of this tactic, because the first 100 pages of a presidential biography are reliably the least interesting. In general, any man who eventually rose to the presidency was the smartest and most admired young man in the milieu of his young life, so these sections of presidential biographies all read the same. “What a talented young lawyer/congressman/soldier! So smart! He’ll definitely go far,” say all their friends and family.
And then, God help us, they enter state politics. Know who cares about Pennsylvania state politics in the 1810s? No one. It’s not until, usually, page 200, that they get to national politics, and I’m finally like, “Oh hi John C. Calhoun! Hi Senator Adams!”, and I generally re-enter the narrative that runs through presidential history.
Those first 200 pages can be awful, as the dudes slowly climb the ranks of government, but of course they’re important for character development. Klein is being fairly objective, but lets The Buck’s flaws shine through.
And yes, while he is an obviously smart and talented lawyer and politician, he can be kind of a snot. He was a mama’s boy, and grew up fussy and conceited. He almost got expelled from college for acting like a douche all the time. His father, who clearly recognized his son’s Achilles heel, was always writing him letters reminding him to be humble about his academic prowess and to try to be agreeable. The society of Lancaster, PA, and later PA government, seemed to acknowledge that he was an important member, but not an endearing one.
He took offense easily, and wrote fussy letters about it, and his political views seem quite malleable. I first met JB when he was Polk’s Secretary of State, and Polk grew to despise his fussy, demanding ways. I will never stop describing him as fussy.
That’s not to say that sometimes he wasn’t right to throw a fit. He seemed to have chronically bad political timing. He would form an alliance of PA politicians, and then everyone they excluded would get elected to higher office. He switched political parties, and his old party swept the state elections. He went to visit presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, and Jackson later accused him of being there to strike a corrupt bargain. He was always working for his political betterment, it frequently backfired.
The tides turned when he was appointed as minister to Russia. Far-flung foreign appointments, as Klein points out, were given to politicians who you didn’t want in your government, but were too important to ignore. Jackson or Van Buren (I forget which, but they both disliked him) wanted him out of their hair without angering his supporters by an outright snub, so they packed him off to Russia. It turned out to be his big break.