Sunday, April 28, 2013

Presidental Character: Week Fifteen, What DO You Say About a Man Who Did Nothing For the Office?

I just want to note that last week's entry on Franklin Pierce was introduced by noting he had to have been the unhappiest man to ever enter the White House.  However, I never got around to explaining why: my reasoning was not only because his personal life had a massive tragedy - his son died right in front of him during a terrible train wreck on the ride to the inauguration - but because Pierce's Passive-Positive need to be loved had to have suffered during the growing outrage between North and South of the 1850s.  Thing was, I never found an appropriate place to say anything about the personal loss Pierce felt and it felt hollow and tasteless to compare political wants to an emotional tragedy.  Even writing it here doesn't sit well with me.

The guy up for Week Fifteen doesn't present that problem: partly because James Buchanan didn't suffer the way Pierce did, but mostly because Buchanan didn't do much to generate much sympathy for what he did - worse, what he failed to do - while serving as President.

You can argue that the way the nation was going - dividing into increasingly violent groups between North and South, abolition and slavery - there was little anybody could do.  Hindsight is always 20/20 after all and people in the moment couldn't see how things were getting worse (or, even more horrifying, some wanted it to get worse to profit from it).  Note: the argument over whether the Civil War was inevitable can be shelved for another time.

I would argue that the right man with the right character - mostly an Active-Positive to my measure - could have found solutions or made better arguments for more sensible compromises.  Or at least figured out a way to arrest every slave-owning secessionist before they could organize.

Into this mess came Buchanan, a politically ambitious man who lucked into the role as Presidential nominee by 1856 by virtue of being literally out of the country as the fighting over "Bleeding Kansas" dominated the political scene.  The Democrats were ostensibly the sole nation party but the newly formed Republicans were giving them a run for the money.  Dems needed a candidate to convince Northerner moderates to stay aligned with them.  What the Northern voters didn't pay much attention to was the fact that Buchanan was an ardent pro-slavery supporter even from the North.

Buchanan was also as close to being Active-Negative in his character as can be determined from his track record and performance in office.  This created a huge disadvantage for him and for the nation: Buchanan wanted to do things, but was Uncompromising in his nature and fixed on a particular course.  And given his track record on slavery, it was for the expansion of slavery, something that only made the pro-slavery forces in places like Missouri and Kansas even more aggressive.

It didn't help that right out the gate Buchanan's pro-slavery agenda ticked off Northerners when the Southern-leaning Supreme Court under Taney passed the Dred Scott decision.  As big a breach of judicial activism ever seen, the Justices not only resolved that Scott had no right to petition for freedom as a slave, but that ALL African-Americans even the freed and free-born were not citizens under the law.  The Taney court also ruled that, under the established Property rights under the Constitution (with slaves as property) the federal government had no authority to ban slavery in any territories (an issue that wasn't even being discussed in Scott's case).  The ruling was broad over-reach, an obvious attempt to settle the slavery issue once and for all in favor of the slave-owners and to the detriment of Free states (especially states where since the Revolutionary War black men COULD vote and hold office as citizens).

And Buchanan had a hand it in.  While it didn't become well-known until later, Buchanan used his influence to get a wavering Northern judge to join Taney's ruling to give it a more bipartisan appearance.  By today's standard he committed a clear breach of ex parte communication: while it wasn't illegal by the standards of 1857 it was improper for the Executive to put pressure on the Judiciary like that.  Even though it wasn't public knowledge the Republicans documented Buchanan's whispered dealings with Justices during his own inauguration and put two and two together.

Buchanan's administration never had a positive day afterward.  Instead of silencing the issue it made Southern radicals more arrogant and openly claiming to have slavery in every state; it angered even more Northerners who once viewed slavery as a state issue but now saw it as a national crisis; and it divided Buchanan's own party even further between ardent pro-slavery types like himself against more moderate "let the people not the politicians decide" types like Stephen A. Douglas (whose own attempts to placate slave-owners with "popular sovereignty" saw his plans dashed by the Dred Scott ruling).

Buchanan's A-N nature to not compromise stymied his attempts to calm the nation, mostly because he refused to compromise with the anti-slavery forces and because he refused to bring his pro-slavery allies to heel.  His backing of the Lecompton Constitution - one of two brought before Congress to admit Kansas as a state - was a serious political defeat: Lecompton was passed by slave-owners in opposition to the majority residents of the territory, and there were serious glaring voting errors that got it introduced into Congress; yet Buchanan openly backed it.  Douglas openly opposed it (it violated his tenant of popular sovereignty, he knew it was illegally passed, and despite his political opportunism Douglas was honestly committed to good government) and used his clout in Congress to kill it.

There was almost nothing else to Buchanan's Presidential record.  In terms of foreign policy endeavors, nothing to write about other than the continued attempts (following his predecessors) to purchase Cuba as more slave territory.  In terms of the economy, there was a Panic of 1857 where Buchanan pushed for "reform not relief" (another A-N belief similar to Van Buren's).  And then there was how Buchanan handled the post-election crisis of 1860.

Buchanan had promised at his inauguration to not run again, leaving 1860 wide open.  Douglas, ambitious as ever, ran for the office but battled the Southern Democrats over the party platform causing the final breach splitting the party in two.  Breckinridge ran as the Southern Democrat, openly pushing for "all slavery everywhere", and a third party called Constitutional Union formed out of Southern Whigs remnants that advocated Union and compromise above all.  Oh, and the Republicans - this time dominating Northern states to such a degree that even with the Southern states refusing to even put a Republican on the ballot the GOP would win the Electoral count - nominated this guy Abraham Lincoln, a political rival and friend of Douglas who ran on an anti-slavery platform but with a moderated message advocating containment and not outright abolition.

Lincoln won the Electoral count in a cakewalk.  He got over 39 percent of the vote as well, given the four-way race was as close a mandate win as could be given: except for the fact he didn't win a state south of the Ohio River.  Douglas, pro-Union and the first man to actively campaign for President - previous candidates felt it unbecoming the office: Douglas honestly wanted to petition Southerners and Northerners to keep the Union together - got 29 percent of the vote but only won Missouri (how, I still don't know: I'd figured most Missourians would hate him for his stance on Kansas).  Breckinridge won most of the South except for the three states - Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee - that went to Bell, but Breckinridge got only 18 percent of the vote and Bell only 12.  (South Carolina didn't even have a popular vote: they went and gave their Electorals to Breckinridge).

Lincoln's election was the breaking point.  Despite Douglas' efforts - and the fact that combining Douglas' and Bell's pro-Union support was strong across the upper South - a wave of pro-slavery Southern states seceded.  The greatest constitutional crisis - a breaking of the Constitution itself - was at hand.  And for five months - November 1860 to March 1861 - Buchanan was still the President and had to do something to preserve the Union.

Buchanan pretty much did nothing.  While pro-slavery he was also pro-Union and openly opposed talk of secession.  But he did nothing about it: his Active-Negative view against overstepping Constitutional authority prevented him from doing little more than re-arranging troop deployments between forts, many of which were abandoned or seized by seceding states.  Even Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor would have done something against the secessionists (knowing Jackson he would have personally led the army into South Carolina and hanged every conventioneer in Charleston before Christmas).  Most of Buchanan's Cabinet resigned: some to serve in the new Confederacy, some out of frustration that Buchanan refused to act.  And Buchanan was caught flat-footed when Major Anderson made the tactical decision to move his troops to a more defensible position in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter.

Buchanan's lack of action gave the secessionists time to organize, supply themselves (off Federal supplies no less), and prepare for a fight.  It was this inaction more than anything else that makes a lot of historians label Buchanan one of the worst Presidents of all time.

The tides of history were flowing towards conflict.  Buchanan's fault was that he did nothing about it, neither to stop it as best he could nor to avert the scope of the damage it could cause.

Next up: A melancholic, moody man can still make for an Active-Positive President.

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