Monday, February 20, 2006

Worst President

A group of historians voted on the 10 worst presidential blunders of all time. I generally agree with numbers 2 through 10.

So who had the worst blunder? President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War, said a survey of presidential historians organized by the University of Louisville's McConnell Center. ... Scholars who participated said Buchanan did not do enough to oppose efforts by Southern states to secede from the Union before the Civil War.


When South Carolina seceded in 1860, James Buchanan asked his attorney general, Jeremiah Black (an honest Pennsylvanian who later served Lincoln, too), to outline the constitutional position on the matter. Black concluded that, in effect, the secession was illegal, but the executive branch had been given no power to do anything about it.

Buchanan acted accordingly, scrupulously constitutional to the end. Lincoln followed him and in essence ignored the Constitution, forced the union to hold together, and let Congress write the necessary changes after the fact. No bonus points for guessing which leader is revered in history and which routinely makes "worst presidents" lists, including this one.

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. In the months between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, Buchanan lived amid swirling talk of coup. 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 many other capable observers, 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 a cover to allow treason, as some historians do, 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 reign 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.

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.

To blame Buchanan because he "did not do enough to oppose efforts by Southern states to secede" is to blame Buchanan for not being Lincoln. 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, thrown an untried army into meat-grinder battles under incompetent generals, 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.

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