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james buchanan

10 august 2008

A mnemonic rhyme from the time of the first Cleveland Administration, intended to help children learn their Presidents, summarizes the fifteenth with the sentence: "Secession arose through the halting Buchanan." That's the view that we have of James Buchanan, if we have any at all: a wild-haired, dithering valetudinarian with his head cocked at a crazy angle, unable to concentrate on the business of a Republic in crisis, as if David Copperfield's friend Mr. Dick had come to life and been installed in the White House.

Jean Baker's entry in the Times Books American Presidents series revises the received view of a "halting" Buchanan. Far from feckless, Buchanan, in Baker's appraisal, was an overly energetic partisan of the South. Himself a Pennsylvania lawyer, Democratic Party power-broker, and squire of sorts, Buchanan had long abandoned the politics of his section and come to identify with the grander squires of the slaveholding South.

When Abraham Lincoln, in his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, identified "Stephen and Franklin, and Roger and James," (Douglas, Pierce, Taney, and Buchanan, respectively) as conspirators to extend the slave power across the whole North American continent, some critics demurred at including the sitting President Buchanan in the mix. Surely Buchanan, a Unionist since Jacksonian days, was no hireling of the fire-eating slaveocracy. But in Baker's view, Buchanan may have been the most extreme of Lincoln's gang of four. At every step in his administration (1857-61), Buchanan pressed Southern interests in Congress – and possibly even in the Supreme Court. Baker suspects Buchanan of urging Chief Justice Taney to make the Dred Scott decision a sweeping last word on the property rights of slaveholders. When the Court held that black people were, virtually everywhere, chattel and not citizens, Buchanan assumed that the nation would fall into line and the divisive issue of slavery would at last be settled. He didn't dither; he was decisive to a fault. But Dred Scott settled nothing. Its very extremism drove the Union apart.

In Baker's portrait, Buchanan resembles not so much Mr. Dick as Dick Cheney. Arrogant, authoriarian, arm-twisting, Buchanan assumed that the Union could be preserved by making the anti-slavery half of it simply shut up.

Buchanan's faults are lamentable, because he had many good personal qualities. Unmarried and childless, he provided for a number of nieces and nephews. He was well-educated, hard-working, and a successful high-level diplomat. But the tact that Buchanan brought to foreign affairs was missing in his domestic politics. Like some other failed Presidents (Nixon comes to mind), Buchanan was more at home dealing with plenipotentiaries and dictators than with Congress.

Buchanan's intraparty bête noire was Stephen A. Douglas. One side-effect of Baker's James Buchanan was to make me much more appreciative of the Little Giant, a genuine Unionist and genuine small-d democrat. Douglas, in debate with Lincoln, comes across as fence-straddling and apologetic for slavery. Douglas, beset by Buchanan, comes across as an admirable defender of the right to decide thorny questions by popular consent. The right of white people alone, to be sure; but Buchanan didn't even think much of the rights of free white people to a democratic disposition of the slavery question.

Baker, Jean H. James Buchanan. New York: Times Books, 2004.