Sunday, December 03, 2006

That List

[posted by Callimachus]

Alright, I'm going to take up Reader_iam's implicit challenge and address just a little bit the silliness about "worst presidents ever," which, whether it's debated among historians or plumbers is about like debating "who would win, Batman or Superman?"

I'm just going to key in on one bit from the WaPo column:

Take the worst president of all time, Buchanan. In office when Lincoln's election in 1860 triggered the secession of one Southern state after another, Buchanan sat by as the country crumbled. In his December 1860 message to Congress, three months before Lincoln was inaugurated, he declared that the states had no right to secede, but that the federal government had no right to stop them. By the time he left office, seven states had left the Union, and the Confederates had looted the arsenals in the South. If Buchanan had exercised his powers as commander in chief, the rebels might have been stopped at far less than the eventual cost of the Civil War -- more than half a million American dead and the ruin of the South for generations.

This stock answer -- "Buchanan was worst" -- absolves the columnist from any suspicion of really having thought about it. I once wrote a defense of Buchanan, but the only publication I could find to run it was "Southern Partisan." Never mind; they paid nicely. Short version follows:

Yes, let's face the unpleasant facts. Buchanan was not Lincoln. If he had been Lincoln, he would have provoked the South, bypassed the constitution, suspended civil liberties, jailed thousands without charges, offered to guarantee slavery if the South returned, then turned around and abolished it -- but only in the places where he had no power over it.

Buchanan, arguably, could have done this, but I doubt it would have improved his historical reputation.

The Constitution, not Buchanan, kept Buchanan in the White House between Lincoln's victory and the new president's inauguration. And it was Lincoln's election victory, not Buchanan, that brought on the crisis of 1860. Buchanan was a lame-duck president from a broken political party, without a smidgen of popular backing, North or South. He lived amid swirling talk of coups. A GOP senator prayed that "some Brutus ... would arise and remove him from the scene of his earthly labors." A Chicago editor wrote that if Buchanan showed his face there, "he would be hung so quick that Satan would not know where to look for his tratorious soul."

So far from supporting the South, Buchanan denied its right to secede, especially if the pretext was nothing more than the election of a president who was likely to violate Southern rights. Yet Buchanan -- and his attorney general, a competent Pennsylvanian named Jeremiah Black -- did not find in the Constitution as it was then written the power of the federal government to attack a state. And Congress, not the president, had the authority to levy troops, alter the Constitution, and revamp the relationship between the federal government and the states.

As it was, Buchanan defended the federal government's property where he was able to do so, principally at Fort Sumter. He made clear that he considered it his duty to collect revenues in Southern ports. He stared down the South Carolinans time after time when they demanded its surrender. At one point, Buchanan wrote to Gov. Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, "If South Carolina should attack any of these forts, she will then become the assailant in a war against the United States. It will not then be a question of coercing a State to remain in the Union, to which I am utterly opposed, ... but it will be a question of voluntarily precipitating a conflict of arms on her part ...."

He hardly had the resources to do more than hold the line: The entire U.S. Army numbered barely 16,000 men, mired in red tape, scattered across the Indian frontier and led by aged and infirm Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, who even before the election had published his opinion that the country ought to be divided into four separate confederacies.

The Constitution did not allow the president to call out a huge American army and impose his will on any place that displeased him. That is a modern view. It was invented, in part, by Lincoln.

To dismiss Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as incompetence is to write off the foundation of the American republic and the genius of the Founders. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their balanced government and its institutions.

During the crisis, Lincoln sat in Springfield and said nothing, baffling even his friends. The other Republican leaders, behind Seward, pursued a policy of "masterly inactivity," in a misplaced belief that Southern unionist could rein in the secessionists. The session of the 36th Congress that met in December merely made long speeches that nobody read. It voted no emergency measures, it raised no new troops.

In short, nobody with the opportunity did differently than Buchanan was doing. Any active step Buchanan might have taken would involve the incoming administration in inextricable complexities. Declare war on the Confederate States of America? Then that would acknowledge them as a sovereign power, and invoke international laws. Declare martial law? And throw Maryland and Virginia into turmoil, which would have made Lincoln's inauguration difficult, if not impossible? He had to sneak through Maryland after dark, as it was.

In fact, when Buchanan turned the government over to Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, only seven states had seceded. Virginia and Tennessee had confronted secession and rejected it at that time. Buchanan's policies let that happen. Together, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas represented half the future CSA's population and resources and held key military installations and armories. Thanks to Buchanan's touch, Lincoln still had a chance to hold them.

Even more important, Maryland, without which the North would have had to abandon Washington, D.C., remained in the Union. Secession sentiment ran strong there. Lincoln in his turn only managed to hold the state's loyalty by martial law.

But that was Lincoln's work, for which he earned his place on the national calendar and the national currency. Buchanan has his virtues, even if they are unfamiliar ones today.

P.S.: As everyone knows, the answer to "who would win, Batman or Superman?" is "Chuck Norris."