In 1857, the debate over slavery had fractured Kansas, national political parties, and even national churches. It's easy to see why the country turned to James Buchanan, a man with one of the strongest resumes ever put in the white house.
Unfortunately, he inherited 31 states, and left behind 27, as the pre-civil was secession crisis overwhelmed the nation during his final months in office.
Follow along as Buchanan develops an affinity for southern slave culture, then vigorously advances that cause as a congressman, senator, minister abroad, secretary of state, and president, engages in all sorts of corruption to strengthen slavery as a president, and then sits by and does nothing to stop the secession of the south and the rapidly oncoming civil war.
1. James Buchanan – Jean H. Baker
2. Bosom Friends – Thomas Balcerski
3. Polk: The man who transformed the presidency – Walter R. Borneman
4. Millard Fillmore – Paul Finkelman
5. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
6. Franklin Pierce – Michael F. Holta
7. Embattled Rebel – James M. McPherson
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
15.) James Buchanan 1857-1861
Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 15, James Buchanan. Ol’ Humbugger!
As you may have picked up by now, the 1850’s were not the best decade for American presidential leadership.
First we had Millard Fillmore, the Whig who’s radical enforcement of the pro-slavery fugitive slave act destroyed his political party.
Then we had Franklin Pierce, the Democrat who’s radical support of the fraudulently elected pro-slavery government in Kansas nearly destroyed his party.
Today, we top them all with James Buchanan, the democrat whose radical support of multiple pro-slavery causes will result in the temporary destruction of the union.
Yeah, the 1850’s were rough.
The thing is, I feel like there’s this perception out there that James Buchanan was a victim of circumstance. As if, after Fillmore and Pierce, there was nothing Buchanan could do to save the union. He was dealt a losing hand, and folding was his only option.
But the thing is, James Buchanan wasn’t just some hapless guy at the table, dealt an unwinnable hand. He’s one of the most experienced presidents we’ve ever had. Before he was even sworn in, he used that experience secretly interfere in a major case before the supreme court to get the opening hand he wanted. And then, he kept rigging the game, using every form of corruption imaginable to get every card he wanted. He just didn’t realize he was building a hand for civil war.
So, get ready for the story of one of the worst presidents in American history.
James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in the foothills of Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791. He was the 2nd of 11 children and a rebellious youth. In 1807, he attended Dickerson college, where he got kicked out for bad behavior – he was fond of drinking and food fights – before being reinstated, perhaps because, by now, daddy had money.
Buchanan entered politics in 1814 at the age of 23, when he was elected to the Pennsylvania state Congress as an anti-war Federalist during the war of 1812. If you remember back to episode 4 on James Madison, this war was highly unpopular in northern states who were badly impacted by the loss of trade. So, Buchanan started as a Federalist, but that ship sank pretty much immediately after he got on it, so he’ll be joining Andrew Jackson’s Democrats before you know it.
In 1819, a 28-year-old up-and-coming Buchanan became engaged to Ann Coleman, the daughter of a new-money iron magnate. But, it didn’t end well. After getting Ann to say yes to the engagement, Buchanan basically disappeared. He was always off traveling for his political work and, when he was back in town, Ann wasn’t necessarily the first woman he came calling on.
After one such departure, his first call back in town was a friend’s house, where he stayed up late chatting with the friend’s single sister after everyone else had gone to bed. When the neglected Ann learned of this, she broke off the engagement, which shocked Buchanan, but he didn’t seem to try to change her mind. Then, a month later, things took a tragic turn. Ann was visiting friends in another city to lift her depression over the breakup when she caught a cold and was prescribed an opiate, which she appears to have overdosed on. She died at the age of 23.
Buchanan never engaged in a serious relationship again. He’d never marry, he’d never be engaged, he’d be a bachelor for life. As a result, there is some speculation that Buchanan may have been our first gay president, but I’m not going to get into that now. Because, in a first for this podcast, I’m excited to say I’m going to follow this episode with an interview with professor Thomas Balcerski, a scholar of early American history at Eastern Connecticut State University. Balcerski recently published a book about Buchanan, and his sexuality, titled Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, so we’ll get into all of that when we talk to professor Balcerski in our next episode.
I can’t wait to share it with you.
So, more on that in our next episode. For now, let’s get back to the narrative..
After this broken engagement, Buchanan basically spent the next 40 years climbing the political ladder, Congressman, Senator, Minister to Russia for Jackson, Secretary of State for Polk, Minister to the United Kingdom for Pierce, and eventually President in his own right in 1857, but there are two influential and revealing experiences I really want to focus on – his initial decades living as a bachelor roommate of southern representatives, and his four years as President Polk’s secretary of State.
So, first off, that living situation.
1820’s Washington D.C. wasn’t a very developed town. Remember, the government didn’t even move there until 1800, and then the British burned the government buildings down in 1814, so there aren’t exactly a bunch of one-bedroom apartments waiting around for unmarried congressmen to snatch up – the bachelor pad hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, Legislators found roommates. And the smart Congressmen looked for roommates who might become powerful allies. Maybe you look for someone who shares your beliefs, or who came from your state, or, if you’re playing the long game and feeling ambitious, maybe you room with people from far-away places where you mind want support if you ever, you know, run for president.
Buchanan took the later tack.
Buchanan moved in with a number of southern bachelor representatives, including Alabama Senator William Rufus King, and became good friends with them. But the funny thing about friends is, let’s be honest, friends impact each other’s views on things. So, while Buchanan entered Congress kind of ambivalent on slavery, his years of living with slavery advocates turned him into a bit of a radical on the issue. The pro-slavery values of his roommates washed over Buchanan – in a baptism of bigotry.
By 1830, Buchanan was all-in, arguing that, though slavery was evil, it couldn’t be undone because it would lead to the massacre of, quote, “the high-minded and chivalrous race of men in the south.”
So, when Buchanan starts doing some crazy things in a little bit, this is where that comes from. The seed was planted here.
The second big moment of pre-presidential Buchanan’s life was his time as President Polk’s secretary of State. This is where you see how wishy washy Buchanan can be when stress is high.
You know, like if states ever start seceding when he’s president.
So, first off, Polk became president in 1845, and Buchanan was a very established Democratic senator by then who had served as minister to Russia under President Jackson, so Polk asked Buchanan, how would you like to be Secretary of state? It’s an incredibly prestigious position that, historically, is a great stepping stone to the white house – five of the first eight presidents had been a previous president’s secretary of state.
But Buchanan could not decide if he wanted the job. – a little bit of background, In the final months of the previous administration – Buchanan had been offered a seat on the Supreme Court, and he had said no.
And then when Polk asked if Buchanan wanted to be secretary of State, Buchanan said yes.
But then, Buchanan changed his mind and said no, actually, I do want to be on the supreme court, not at state, and Polk said ok, sure.
And then, Buchanan said, wait wait wait. I’ve changed my mind again, I don’t want the supreme court. I want state! And Polk said, alright, you can have state.
And then, Buchanan said, wait wait wait, wait. I’ve changed my mind again again – I want the supreme court!.
And so it continued until Buchanan finally settled at State. And I’m kind of amazed Polk gave him anything after all that waffling, and so was the aging Andrew Jackson, who told Polk he was making a mistake by putting Buchanan at state.
“But General,” Polk said. “You appointed Buchanan as minister to Russia.”
“Yes,” Jackson replied. “it was as far as I could send him … where he could do the least harm. I would have sent him to the north pole if we had kept a minister there.”
Which is harsh, and which will be validated.
As secretary of state, Buchanan should have been an integral piece of one of the busiest four years in American foreign policy history. Polk is the president who took us to war with Mexico, seized the American southwest at the end of that war, and who negotiated the annexation of the Oregon Territory, which the United States had jointly occupied with Great Britain.
This should have been a huge opportunity for Buchanan to show his stuff - which he did. And unfortunately, it wasn’t very good stuff
For example – the Oregon territory. Polk decided early on that this was going to be a game of chicken where the nation that blinked first would be the nation that lost Oregon. He wrote of Great Britain at the time, “The only way to treat John Bull was to look him in the eye.” Meaning he wanted a very assertive posture – Oregon’s ours, not yours. Bite me.
And Buchanan was kind of freaked out by this. He is not someone who enjoys games of chicken. So he kept trying to get Polk to pull the ripcord and bail.
But Polk said no, and the assertive stance worked, and the United States got the Oregon territory, despite Buchanan’s reticence.
But that’s not the only place Buchanan dithered.
When Polk went to war with Mexico, Buchanan was so afraid of how Europe would react that he wanted to get official word out that the Mexican-American war was not about getting territory. Which was a problem with Polk, because the war was totally about getting territory. Like, duh. Aren’t you down with Manifest destiny, son? If Buchanan had his way, the United States might never have gotten California and the American southwest.
So Polk again overruled him. No promises were made about not taking land.
And then Buchanan had a change of heart. After Mexico had been defeated and when a treaty was sent to Washington giving us half of mexico’s territory, Buchanan decided he wanted more. Look at a current map of Mexico, Buchanan wanted HALF of it – basically, he was asking for ¾ of Mexico’s pre-war territory, which, I mean, taking half was crazy. Taking ¾, that’s just more crazy.
Buchanan wanted this because, now that the war was won, his ambition for higher office had eclipsed his fears. He wanted to be seen as a strong advocate of manifest destiny and, basically, American imperialism. But, again, he didn’t get his wish. We took half of Mexico. Which was very humble of us.
So, that’s Buchanan as a secretary of state. He was wishy washy, devoid of principles, lacking in backbone, and only interested in his own political future.
Or, as Polk put it, quote, “Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.”
Ok, so, as we step away from Secretary Buchanan at the end of his term in 1848, I hope I’ve painted a good picture of who Buchanan is. He’s a veteran northern politician who is wildly pro-slavery from his time living with southern representatives, and he’s not someone who shows the best judgement in high-pressure situations.
It’s a good thing we’re about to make him president!
Buchanan first came up as a presidential candidate in 1848 – the end of Polk’s presidency, but he was easily beat at the convention where he finished third in polling.
He ran again in 1852, and this time nearly won it. He was one of three favorites who were gridlocked for 48 ballots before Franklin Pierce came out of nowhere and won on the 49th, en route to winning the presidency. Buchanan actually led all candidates on 10 of those ballots, but never did punch through.
But then, the 1856 election came around, and the Democrats were totally over Pierce over his handling of Kansas, which buchanan is also going to have to deal with, so a quick refresher.
During the Pierce presidency, President Pierce and a powerful Democratic Senator named Stephen Douglas forced through legislation that nullified the old Missouri Compromise – which had banned slavery in most of the land acquired from the Louisiana Purchase – and they said residents could now vote for themselves if they wanted to allow or forbid slavery when they organized the Kansas territory’s government, which sounded good – I mean, put it up for a vote. That’s democracy – but then armed border ruffians from the neighboring slave-state of Missouri swarmed into Kansas on election day, took over polling places, stuffed ballot boxes, and fraudulently elected a radically pro-slavery territory legislature, that, among other things, made it a capital offense to so much as share abolitionist literature.
Most people in Kansas did not support this pro-slavery legislature, so they elected an anti-slavery shadow government. And then Pierce had to decide which one to support, and he chose the pro-slavery one. The actions Pierce took to support the pro-slavery legislature destroyed his northern support and nearly split the Democratic party.
So, yeah, in 1856, the Democrats were ready to kick him to the curb and elect someone else.
And that’s when Buchanan popped back on their radar.
In 17 ballots, Buchanan defeated Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas to earn the 1856 presidential nomination. In the general election, he ran against the first-ever Republican presidential nominee, John C. Fremont, and former whig president-turned-Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore.
As I mentioned in episode 13 on Fillmore, everyone knew Buchanan would win. The real question was which party would finish second, because that party would likely become the major opposition party of the future.
As expected, Buchanan romped his rivals in the electoral college, 174 for Buchanan to 114 for the Republicans and 8 for the Know-Nothings. The presidency was his. But, while he’d won the electoral college, he only captured 45 % of the popular vote and all his state losses came in the north. Buchanan should have interpreted this as a need to broaden his base with some olive branches to the north, but he’s not going to do that. Instead, well. He’s kind of going to light those olive branches on fire.
AND SO, on March 4, 1857, James Buchanan, the most experienced man ever elected to the presidency, was sworn in as the 15th president of the United States. Buchanan was 66 years old, and he’d spent nearly 40 of those years in government service, as a congressman, senator, minister to Russia and Great Britain, and secretary of state.
So what did the world, and the nation, look like when Buchanan became president? Let’s look around.
In Europe, the Crimean war had just come to an end, bringing a fleeting peace back to the continent.
In South America, the bloodiest war in that continent’s history had just begun – the war of the triple alliance, between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, the empire of Brazil, and Uraguay. If that doesn’t sound fair, it wasn’t. Paraguay will be devastated by this war over the next four years.
China was also dealing with all sorts of problems – internal strife and the start of the second opium war, which increasingly put China under the yolk of European powers.
In the United States, well, I’ve talked about the cluster fork in Kansas. But this was also a time of great growth for the railroad industry. Railroad mileage would more than triple from 1850 to 1860, with most of it being built in the north, which will be handy when there’s a civil war in four years.
Economically, the United States was enjoying a historic 15-year run of economic expansion. The country hadn’t experienced a recession since 1841 thanks to expansion in transportation, the discovery of gold in California, and an agricultural boom brought on by the Crimean war, which forced most of Europe to buy American grain instead of Russian grain.
That run of good luck … it’s not going to last forever.
But the biggest event in the United States was happening in the supreme court, where the justices were deliberating what to do with the case of a slave petitioning for his freedom, Dredd Scott. A case that Buchanan is totally going to corrupt the outcome of.
And that’s where I’m going to begin the Buchanan presidency - a presidency that will be dominated by three things:
- The Dredd Scott Case
- More drama in Bleeding Kansas
- And the descent to Civil War, when seven states secede during Buchanan’s final months in office.
Let’s start with Dred Scott.
Dred Scott, and his wife, Harriet Robinson, were the slaves of an army doctor who lived in the south, but who was twice deployed to free states or free territories, and who took Scott with him both times. When the army doctor died back in the south in 1843, Scott and his wife sued for their freedom, saying that since they’d spent some time living in free states or territories, they should now be free. So that’s the question at the heart of this case. So, if a state outlaws slavery, and you bring a slave there, are they still a slave?
This case bounced from court to court, appeal to appeal, from 1846 until it finally reached the supreme court a decade later in 1856. It was still being deliberated when Buchanan won his election and when he looked at the case, he saw an opportunity.
Buchanan wasn’t entirely dumb. He saw how the debate over slavery was causing a lot of friction between the north and south, and he saw how it was invigorating that new Republican Party. So he called up the chief justice of the Supreme court, a fellow Pennsylvanian, and he leaned heavily on the justice to come up with a ruling that would end the slavery debate once and for all. Buchanan figured, if we put this to bed with a big supreme court ruling, the republican would lose its signature issue, die on the vine, and the Democrats might enjoy one-party rule for decades.
But, remember what I said earlier about Buchanan’s opinions on slavery? I’ll give you one guess which way he wanted the supreme court to rule.
In a 7-2 decision, the supreme court ruled that African Americans could not sue for their freedom in federal court because they could never be citizens of the United States.
Quote, “We think ... that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States”
The ruling continued, saying African Americans were, quote “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Which, holy hell, what the heck is that?
But there’s still more.
The supreme court went on to say that Congress had exceeded its authority when it passed the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and it went beyond the Kansas-Nebraska act by declaring the Missouri compromise null and void. The federal government could no longer ban slavery in federal territories, which is exactly what the south had been wanting for decades.
And Buchanan thought he had done a bang-up job.
The north disagreed by the way. Because, this was crazy. I mean, what’s next? The Supreme Court just said, “The negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” How far off are we from forcing northern states to reimpose slavery on their black inhabitants? And what’s this about African Americans can’t be citizens? What?
So, yeah. That’s the Dred Scott ruling. Before he was even president, Buchanan influenced the supreme court to give him the exact ruling he wanted. It was announced two days after he was sworn it. So Buchanan isn’t some hapless guy playing the cards he was dealt. He told the supreme court, these are the cards I want, and they gave them to him.
So! With the slavery in the territories question resolved, Buchanan moved onto the next big item on his list. Bleeding Kansas!
And get ready! Because he’s going to rig the deck again, and it’s not going to be pretty!
So, as I mentioned a moment ago, the situation in Kansas was bad. There was a pro-slavery government that was fraudulently elected, and there was an anti-slavery shadow government, that actually had the support of most Kansans.
In 1857, Buchanan said he wanted the two sides to settle the matter by skipping Go and advancing directly to statehood by electing delegates to a convention, where state constitution would be written and then voted on via direct referendum by the people of Kansas. If approved, the constitution would be sent to D.C., where Buchanan and Congress would sign off on it to put it into effect.
So, convention, referendum, Congressional approval. - For Kansas, this is the ballgame. Pro slavery vs anti-slavery. Whichever side gets its constitution adopted, that’s game, set, match.
The first thing Buchanan did to get this process rolling was appoint a new federal governor to look over Kansas. This is basically the assignment you do not want. The governor is supposed to keep the two sides from killing each other while making sure the convention and referendum processes are fair and lawful.
So the new governor calls for an election whereby Kansans can elect delegates to the convention to write the constitution.
And, wouldn’t you know it, a whole bunch of border ruffians swarmed over from Missouri again to take over polling places and stuff ballot boxes to stack the convention with pro-slavery delegates, who would write the constitution they wanted – not the one actual Kansans wanted. And they weren’t even trying to make this look honest. There were precincts with only three or four homes where 1,200 ballots were cast for pro-slavery candidates.
Which is bad, right? But don’t worry. The governor, who’s responsible for this process being fair and lawful, is going to step in, look at some of those counties with just impossible ballot numbers and throw them out, resulting in a more balanced convention, but super pissing off the south and embarrassing Buchanan.
And then, well, the pro slavery guys, eh, this whole democracy thing is overrated, and that’s when the convention-referendum-Congressional approval process begins to go off the rails. 60 pro-slavery delegates skip the Kansas convention and write a pro-slavery constitution all on their own. And then, instead of trying to pass it by territory-wide referendum – as they were supposed to do – they submitted it straight to Buchanan, skipping straight to the Congressional approval step.
As in, that’s right, nobody in Kansas was going to be allowed to vote on their own state’s constitution, which they also didn’t really get a chance to write.
Now, Buchanan decided that approving this constitution straight away would be a bit too on the nose. So he came up with a solution. Which was not much better. Buchanan arranged for a referendum in Kansas where the people would get to vote between two constitutions. One with slavery, and one without slavery. And when I say one without slavery, I mean it totally still had slavery.
Both constitutions were virtually identical to the one the pro-slavery delegates had sent to Buchanan. The only difference was that the so-called “no slavery” constitution said no new slaves could be brought into Kansas, but the 200 slaves currently in Kansas were totally still slaves, and all their descendants would be, too. So, either way, Kansas would totally be a slave state. You had to pick one of these two constitutions – there was no “neither” options.
The free-state Kansans were so pissed off by this non that they boycotted the official referendum and held their own unofficial referendum instead, where the “neither” option existed. And, wouldn’t you know it!
And, wouldn’t you know it! Buchanan’s referendum resulted in about 4 to 6,000 votes for the “slavery all the way” constitution, beating the “No importing slaves” constitution. I say 4-6,000 because there was more fraud again and 2,000 of those votes may have been fake.
The free state referendum resulted in 10,265 votes for NEITHER constitution. It was an unofficial referendum, so it was technically meaningless, but when the “slavery all the way!” constitution reached Washington D.C., everyone knew that most Kansans didn’t want it.
Ok. So the ball is now back in Buchanan’s court. His original plan – convention, referendum, congressional approval – hadn’t gone too well. Everyone knew that pro-slavery border ruffians were forcing slavery on Kansas against Kansans’ will. Would Buchanan reject this pro-slavery constitution and start over?
Heck no he wouldn’t!
Buchanan threw his full support behind the “slavery all the way!” constitution for Kansas.
But now that the ball is in buchanan’s court, he’s going to have to hustle a bit if he wants to get it in the net. Because he still needs congressional approval, and everyone in the north? They’re kind of horrified. Including any remaining democrats from that region. Such as Illinois’ influential democratic senator, Stephen A. Douglas. Between the republicans and the northern democrats, Buchanan was going to have a heck of an uphill fight getting Congress to approve this constitution.
But don’t worry. It wasn’t anything a little corruption couldn’t fix.
Buchanan went to extreme measures to get the “slavery all the way!” constitution approved by Congress. Cabinet members pressured legislators, pork projects were dangled, patronage promised, bribes were distributed, and even prostitutes may have been used to entice congressmen into line.
Buchanan did everything he could think of to bend Congress to his will, but he failed. This was just a bridge too far for everyone in the north. Congress refused to ratify a state constitution that hadn’t even passed an honest referendum.
But Buchanan’s nothing if not stubborn when slavery’s on the line. He decided that if Congress needed an honest referendum, he’d give them an honest referendum. And if Congress couldn’t be bribed, well, maybe Kansas could.
The “slavery all the way” constitution was sent back to Kansas with a caveat attached. If Kansas voted to accept the “slavery all the way” constitution in a fair referendum, it could immediately be admitted as a state and 4 million acres of federal land would be given to the state’s government to get it off to a running start.
But. If Kansans voted against the “slavery all the way” constitution, they would have to wait until their population grew bigger before trying for statehood again, and the state government wouldn’t be getting all that free land. Buchanan wrestled just enough arms to get Congressional approval before sending this referendum over to Kansas, confident in victory.
But again, he failed.
In 1858, 1,800 Kansas voted in favor of the “slavery all the way!” constitution, and 11,300 Kansans voted AGAINST it. By a 10-to-1 margin, Kansas had voted against immediate statehood and 4 million acres of federal land in order to keep slavery out of Kansas.
And now, finally, Buchanan threw up his arms and said ‘screw it!’ He was done. Kansas would eventually be admitted as a free state in January, 1861.
Oh, and I need to mention John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was a radical abolitionist who, with his followers, murdered of a handful of Kansans who supported the pro-slavery government during Bleeding Kansas. Well, after that issue was finally put to bed, he decided he wasn’t done killing his way to emancipation. On October 16, 1859, Brown and 20+ followers raided and occupied the federal arsenal at Harpers’ Ferry, Virginia, in a totally insane bid to spark a slave uprising in the south. He was quickly surrounded and captured by none other than Robert E Lee, then put on trial and hung, but this episode TOTALLY freaked white southerners out, contributing to their fears and their decision to secede.
But, that’s getting a bit ahead of myself. Back to Buchanan and the consequences of his Kansas policy, because oh boy, were there consequences. The north and west were so offended by his attempts to force the pro-slavery constitution on Kansas that Democrats suffered resounding defeats in the midterms, sweeping the Republican party to power in Congress.
And power in congress means power to open investigations.
The final two years of Buchanan’s presidency were dominated by investigations into the graft and corruption he’d used to strengthen the Democratic party and try to enact his will in Kansas. All sorts of stuff was dug up. In addition to the Kansas shenanigans, Buchanan was found to have overpaid federal contracts to companies who then gave kickbacks to the Democratic party. As in, the work you’re doing should cost $10, but I’m going to pay you $100, and then you’re going to me $50. Kapish?
Investigators found Buchanan had blackmailed and bribed congressmen and senators for their votes, and more.
And, um, this is where things might start to sound familiar to an audience in 2021.
Buchanan said Congress had no right to investigate the executive branch and refused to cooperate. He called the investigation an inquisition, and said anyone who testified was a parasite. He supported primary challengers to members of his party who weren’t sufficiently loyal to him, and argued he couldn’t have personally been bribed because he was too rich to be bribed.
The investigations resulted in a report that concluded Buchanan was clearly guilty of all of it, but pulled up short of recommending impeachment. Buchanan claimed complete exoneration.
But, well, this wasn’t a popular recipe for re-election. So Buchanan didn’t even try. He sat out the 1860 election, and was horrified when Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, a one-time congressman and lawyer from Illinois, beat his Democratic challenger to win the white house.
And that takes us to the third major event of Buchanan’s presidency – the secession crisis.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first republican to win the white house. His message had been simple and clear, I’m not going to outlaw slavery where it exists, but I’m not going to let it expand to federal territory, either.
But that’s not how it was heard in the south.
You know today how we talk about people living in information bubbles? You know, only seeking out and listening to news that reinforces and radicalizes their political views?
Well, that was happening in 1860 United States, too. The Democratic press had convinced southerners that Lincoln and the Republicans would free all their slaves if elected, and then there’d be a race war where all the southern whites would be killed. And, you know what? People believed it.
On Nov. 10, 1860 – four days after Lincoln was elected - South Carolina – the state that had tried to secede alone during the nullification crisis back in 1832 – they decided they wanted to try again and called a convention to discuss disunion.
This time they’d have company.
On Dec. 20, South Carolina seceded. Mississippi followed on January 9, then Florida on January 10, Alabama on January 11, Georgia on the 19, Louisiana on the 26, and Texas on February 1. That’s seven states in 44 days, all on Buchanan’s watch. Four other states would secede in the opening months of the Lincoln administration.
And James Buchanan, who was still president until March 4, well, he kind of made things worse.
Back in December, when the south was talking about secession, but nobody had left yet, Buchanan gave a speech saying secession was illegal, but stopping secession was also illegal. He argued that neither Congress nor the President have the power to make war on seceding states, which, well, that’s a hell of a green light on secession.
Remember in episode 7 on Andrew Jackson, when we covered the nullification crisis? South Carolina wanted to secede and Jackson acted swiftly, mobilizing the navy, rotating soldiers to make sure South Carolina garrisons were loyal, fortifying federal positions, and having his agents pressure the secessionists to stand down.
At the same time Jackson had threatened with a stick Henry Clay had offered a compromise offramp as a carrot, and the crisis had been diffused. But neither of those things were happening in the winter of 1860-61. Former president John Tyler helped organize a convention to come up with a compromise, but the delegates couldn’t agree on one. There was no carrot. There was no stick. If anything, there was support for southern secession.
I hadn’t gotten into it yet, but Buchanan’s cabinet had several members who were as radically pro-southern as he was. And as states started to secede, unionist northerners started to resign. Buchanan’s Secretary of War would actually become a confederate general when the fighting broke out, and he used these final months in office to ship small arms and artillery to the south so it would be in confederate hands when the shooting started. Other southerners in Buchanan’s administration acted as spies, relaying any information of value to the confederate government that was organizing in Montgomery, Alabama. Four members of Buchanan’s cabinet joined the confederate government after the outbreak of war.
As federal arsenals and supply depots were captured throughout the south, the epicenter of the crisis quickly centered on South Carolina, where, on Christmas night, 1860, loyal federal troops abandoned their old and indefensible fort and moved to a new fortification, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor.
When Buchanan learned they’d moved to Fort Sumter, he freaked out. He wanted to order them back, but was talked out it. Then he learned the besieged garrison was running out of supplies. On Jan. 5, 1861, he ordered a ship carrying fresh supplies and 250 men to reinforce Fort Sumter, but spies told the Confederates that the ship was on its way and, when it reached the harbor, confederate guns opened fire and drove it off.
In Washington D.C., a Texas senator taunted his northern colleagues, “Your flag has been insulted! Redress it if you dare.”
Buchanan didn’t dare. The crisis appeared to have broken him. He’d developed a twitch in his eye. He couldn’t get out of bed most days. He began forgetting what he’d read and what orders he’d given. His only wish was that the confederacy would wait until he was out of office before starting the war, so that he might blame the war on Lincoln instead of himself.
As the south prepared for War, Buchanan didn’t lift a finger to stop it.
On March 11, 1861, a new southern government, the confederate states of America, ratified a constitution similar to the north’s, but with radical protections for the institution of slavery.
By then, Buchanan was out of office. Lincoln had been sworn in seven days earlier on March 4. It was his problem, now.
Thus ends the administration of James Buchanan. If you’re going to remember three things, I’d recommend:
1. Dred Scott, the supreme court ruling Buchanan asked for that opened federal territory up to slavery and said African Americans couldn’t even be citizens.
2. Bleeding Kansas, the mini Civil War where Buchanan engaged in every act of corruption he could think of to try to enact a pro-slavery constitution, but thankfully failed.
3. The secession crisis – when southern states started seceding, Buchanan didn’t lift a finger to stop them, allowing the Confederacy precious time to organize and mobilize for a civil war that would kill more than 600,000 Americans.
So, ok, that was pretty crazy, right? But that highway to the civil war wasn’t the only thing that was happening during the Buchanan administration.
Domestically, three new states were added. Minnesota on May 11, 1858; Oregon on February 14, 1859; and eventually Kansas, on January 29, 1861.
The United States also suffered an economic recession in 1857. Remember a million years ago when I said the Crimean war had resulted in an American agriculture boom, as western Europe had to buy American grain instead of Russian grain? Well, when the Crimean war ended in 1856, Europe started buying Russian grain again and that ag bubble burst. At around the same time, a large ship carrying gold from California sank at sea – gold that was badly needed by banks in New York. And then an old-fashioned bank panic took off when an Ohio corporation tried to call in some bad loans that weren’t repaid, forcing it to suspend some of its own payments and sending ripple effects of loan defaults across the economy. 1,400 banks and 5,000 businesses went bankrupt during the panic and recession.
There was also a totally crazy Mormon crisis out west. In short, the Mormons were pretty much the only occupants in the Utah area at this time. The Mormon religion had started in the American northeast in 1830, but moved west in a series of migrations when, to put it nicely, the Mormons and their neighbors kept not getting along, sometimes resulting in murders. By 1857, the Mormon Leader, Brigham Young, was basically ruling Utah as a quazi theocracy and bristling against federal attempts to secularize it when, well, he sort of arranged for a federal surveyer to be assassinated, and then led a militia to murder of 125 non-mormon pioneers and framed some native americans for the massacre. At this point, Buchanan declared the Mormons were in revolt and raised an army of 2,500 soldiers to put them down, but, before fighting could break out, a friend brokered a peaceful end to the conflict that saw the Mormons accept secular government and Brigham Young replaced as governor.
Which… is kind of crazy when you hold up how Buchanan reacted to the Mormons next to how he reacted to the south. One of the biggest differences may have been that the southerners were fighting for slavery, which Buchanan thought was awesome, and the Mormons were fighting for their religion and polygamy, which Buchanan thought was gross.
So yeah, eventful stuff.
On the invention front, the first ever patent for a pencil with an eraser attached to the end was awarded to Philadelphia inventor Hyman L. Lipman, an immigrant from Jamaica, on March 30, 1858. So yay, we have pencils with erasers now!
Internationally, the Indian subcontinent officially came under British imperial rule in 1858. The region had long been controlled by the British East India company, but a revolt in 1857 convinced the crown to take direct control of the situation, beginning 90 years of imperial rule.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published, On the Origin of Species, which put forth his theories on evolution. So, yay, evolution! And also, boo, people who are going to use that to justify some really racist stuff over the next 100 years.
So that’s the nation, and the world, that Buchanan left behind when his presidency ended in 1861.
Buchanan spent the next six years basically trying to defend his administration, even publishing a book of excuses and justifications in 1866, but I’m not sure anybody cared. The best thing that ever happened to Buchanan’s legacy was when people to start thinking he’d been too inept to stop the civil war, rather than blaming him for his role in starting it.
A couple years after the publication of his memoir, Buchanan caught a cold and died a month later, on June 1, 1868, of respiratory failure. He was 77 years old.
So what can we learn from the life and administration of James Buchanan?
I think this is more a lesson for all of us voters – and that’s the cost of electing the wrong president. I don’t know if the civil war could have been avoided, but holy smokes, Buchanan did not help. One of the reasons Buchanan was elected is because he didn’t have a strongly known stance on Bleeding Kansas, since he’d spent the Pierce Administration serving overseas as our minister to Great Britain. And this allowed many Americans to simply assume he agreed with them. Remember, this is a democracy. We are all the boss, meaning we are all the leaders. Whenever you’re casting a vote for someone, whether it’s the president, congressman, or dog catcher, make sure you know their experience and position on all the issues relevant to that job. If you alone were responsible for putting this president, congressman, or dog catcher in this job, and you alone were responsible for their success or failure, who would you choose?
Make sure you know your candidates’ positions on the issues that matter. Because if you just assume they’re going to clean up that whole bleeding Kansas mess they’ve never commented on, they might just muck it up so bad that the cause a civil war instead.
Before we get to the end-of-episode music, I’d love to issue a bit of a challenge to you. This episode is roughly the 1-year anniversary since Abridged Presidential History first launched and I’ve been having a blast putting it together for you. If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to leave a 5-star review on iTunes and recommend the show to a friend. I won’t be able to see the recommendations, but I currently have 70 reviews on iTunes and I’d love to see if we can hit 100 ahead of my release of episode 16 on Abraham Lincoln on May 1. If you guys can do that, that would make my day. Thank you for your support.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biographies for today’s episode was James Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, and Bosom Friends, by Thomas Balcerski.
In our next episode, we’ll have that interview with professor Balcerski, which, I’ll tell you, I already did it, and it’s really fascinating. I hope you’ll find it interesting, too. After that, we’ll return to the narrative with an episode on Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, and how he became the man who won the civil war.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.