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The First 100 Days: James Buchanan

From 1853-1856, when the issue of slavery and the controversial debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act were creating a passionate division in the nation, James Buchanan was lucky enough to be out of the country, far removed from the fracas. He was serving as Minister (Ambassador) to England and an ocean separated him from being associated with this fierce debate. When the 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, Buchanan was seen as an experienced leader who could appeal to both the North and the South. Buchanan won the nomination after seventeen ballots, and in November he won the Presidency. In the election, Buchanan carried every slave state except for Maryland, as well as five free states, including his home state of Pennsylvania. He won 45 percent of the popular vote and, most importantly, he won the electoral vote, taking 174 electoral votes compared to 114 for John C. Frémont, the first candidate for President from the Republican Party.


Upon entering the presidency, Buchanan wrote, "the object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government." He tried to achieve this by maintaining a sectional balance in his appointments and by telling the public that he would defer to the constitution and the courts in deciding these issues. It was convenient for the new president that the Supreme Court happened to have a case before it that was considering those very issues at the time of his inauguration.

The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories in an infamous case known as Dred Scott v. Sandford. In a move that would today be seen as highly unethical (and probably was also such in Buchanan's time), the president-elect corresponded with two justices of the court as the decision was being written, so Buchanan had a pretty good idea of the outcome of the court's decision.

Buchanan was inaugurated on March 4, 1857. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, an appointee of Andrew Jackson with southern sympathies. In his inaugural address, Buchanan promised to serve only one term in office. He told his audience that he deplored the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories.He pronounced his belief that Congress should play no role in determining the status of slavery in the states or territories and that the matter should be determined by the court and by popular sovereignty (i.e. a popular vote in the affected territory). Buchanan slyly alluded to the pending Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he stated would permanently settle the issue of slavery.

Buchanan already knew the outcome of the case, and had used his influence by putting a presidential thumb on the scales of justice to bring about the decision he wanted. Prior to his inauguration, Buchanan had written to Justice John Catron in January of 1857, asking about how the case might turn out, and suggesting that a broader decision would be more beneficial. Catron, an appointment from Tennessee, replied to Buchanan on February 10. Catron wrote that the Supreme Court's southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds if there was no support from the Court's northern justices. He urged Buchanan to convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join in the majority opinion. Buchanan hoped that a broad Supreme Court decision protecting slavery in the territories could decide the issue once and for all. Buchanan wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him to join with the southerners on the court, allowing the majority to issue a broad-ranging decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott's case.

This correspondence was not public at the time. It was said that at his inauguration, Buchanan was seen in whispered conversation with Chief Justice Taney. Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision. It is regarded by many as one of the worst and most intellectually dishonest decisions ever pronounced by the court. In the reasons for decision, Chief Justice Taney asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. He declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. When the decision was issued, some Republicans claimed that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Buchanan had hoped that the Dred Scott decision would destroy the Republican platform. In fact it only strengthened their cause by creating outrage among northerners who were offended by the decision.

Buchanan inherited a worsening economy as he began his presidency. The Panic of 1857 began in the summer of that year. Over fourteen hundred state banks and five thousand businesses failed, primarily in the north. The South was not as badly affected. Northern cities experienced drastic increases in unemployment. Southerners blamed the economic collapse on over-speculation of land, and Buchanan expressed agreement with this theory. Buchanan adopted a laissez-faire approach to the panic. He said that the government was "without the power to extend relief", but said that it would not do so. The government would continue to pay its debts in specie. It would not curtail public works, nor would any be be added. He urged the states to restrict the credit level of banks and he discouraged the use of federal or state bonds as security for bank note issues. The economy did eventually recover, but many Americans suffered as a result of the panic.

The most controversial issue that Buchanan inherited was The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the bill that created the Kansas Territory, and allowed the settlers there to choose whether to allow slavery by a vote. This resulted in violence between "Free-Soil" (antislavery) and pro-slavery settlers. The violent conflict between the two groups became known as the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis. The antislavery settlers organized a government in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton, Kansas. For Kansas to be admitted as a state, a constitution had to be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of residents. President Franklin Pierce had failed to take protective action as a series of violent confrontations escalated as supporters of the two governments clashed. The situation in Kansas was watched closely throughout the country, and some in Georgia and Mississippi advocated secession should Kansas be admitted as a free state.

Buchanan said that he did not particularly care whether or not Kansas entered as a free state or as a slave state. He simply wanted to admit Kansas as a state as soon as possible since it would likely tilt towards the Democratic Party. Rather than instituting a fair process to establish a territorial government that was recognized by majority, Buchanan chose to recognize the Lecompton government. Upon taking office, Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker to replace John W. Geary as territorial governor. Walker, a southernor from Mississippi, was given the task of reconciling the settler factions and approving a constitution. Walker was expected to assist the pro-slavery faction in gaining approval of a new constitution. However, after months in office, Walker came to believe that slavery was unsuited for the region, and thought that Kansas would ultimately become a free state.

The problem would ultimately become worse as in October 1857, the Lecompton government organized territorial elections that were riddled with fraud and voter intimidation. Proving to be a principled man, Walker threw out the returns from several counties. The Lecompton government framed a pro-slavery state constitution (known as the "Lecompton Constitution") and, rather than risking another referendum, they sent their constitution directly to Buchanan. Though eager for Kansas statehood, Buchanan realized that there had to be a state constitutional referendum. Finally he dispatched federal agents to bring about a compromise. The Lecompton government agreed to a limited referendum on the question of whether or not Kansas would allow slavery after becoming a state. The Topeka government boycotted the December 1857 referendum, and slavery overwhelmingly won the approval of those who did vote. A month later, the Topeka government held its own referendum in which voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan decided to accept the Lecompton Constitution.

This led to a clash with Stephen Douglas, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories and an important northern Democrat. Buchanan demanded that all Democrats support the administration's position of admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution. On February 2 of the following year, Buchanan transmitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress. He also transmitted a message that attacked the "revolutionary government" in Topeka. Buchanan made every effort to secure congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments, and even cash for votes. The Lecompton Constitution won the approval of the Senate in March, but a coalition of Know-Nothing Party members, Republicans, and northern Democrats defeated the bill in the House. In August 1858, a Kansas referendum strongly rejected the Lecompton Constitution. The battle over Kansas escalated divided the Democratic Party. It contributed greatly to bringing about the conditions that would lead to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.


Buchanan entered the presidency viewed as one of the most experienced persons to ever be elected to the presidency. He himself predicted that his presidency might someday be viewed in the same tier as that of George Washington. Over a century and a half later, the verdict of history has been to the contrary, as Buchanan consistently is ranked as one of the worst presidents in history.


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