James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig continues his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He argues that Buchanan had prepared for the possible secession of states in the South – and that it was almost impossible for him to avoid South Carolina’s December 1860 secession following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860.

You can read the first article in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

Perhaps the most trying period in James Buchanan’s career came when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 a month after Abraham Lincoln was electedpresident.  It has often been recollected that the nation’s fifteenth president simply let the nation dissolve under his watch - that the nation’s president was too weak and tired from age to effectively stop the secessionist threat in the South as President Andrew Jackson had thirty years prior during the Nullification Crisis. However, this was certainly not the case as President James Buchanan had prepared for such a scenario in October 1860.

 

Preparing for Succession

Before Lincoln was elected, Buchanan knew that if the Illinois Republican became president the South would most likely secede.  On the election he stated that, “throughout the presidential canvass, the cotton states openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected.” This caused much alarm for Buchanan, who turned to General Winfield Scott, the commander-in chief of the armed forces for a review of the military and its outposts in the South. This was not the action of a weak president. At the time, the President only had sixteen thousand troops to defend against secession should the South decide to do so.  When General Scott completed his review, he warned Buchanan that many of the forts in the South including Fort Sumter and those along the Mississippi River lacked sufficient troops to defend against secession.  He writes that “Fort Moultrie and Sumter, (in) Charleston Harbor, the former with an insufficient garrison, and the latter without any…should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise ridiculous.” General Scott also advised Buchanan to send five available companies to reinforce five of the eight forts that he mentioned in his report. However, they would still be understrength in repelling an attack against their station.  

Buchanan recognized the threat to the nation but being a man of the Constitution, realized that he had little power to move troops without the approval of Congress.  If he did so without congressional approval, he feared that he would only provoke the South and start the secession movement.  Buchanan did not want to start a war that he knew he was ill prepared for. He sent a request for Congress to raise five additional regiments that could be used to reinforce the Southern garrisons, but his request was ignored by Congress. Leaning on the advice of his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, he did not pursue the matter to find out why. However, Floyd was being investigated by Congress for spreading troops thinly throughout the South to render the army useless if war did break out. The trial was suspended for lack of evidence.  Just before he resigned, Buchanan recalled that Floyd had ordered federal artillery sent to a Southern fort, but the President himself stepped in and revoked the order. Floyd had resigned because Buchanan refused to order Major Anderson from Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. 

 

Buchanan’s Dedication to the Constitution

In his December 3, 1860 annual message to Congress, Buchanan put emphasis on the impending desire of South Carolina to secede from the Union upon Lincoln’s election that November.  He stated that the “election of any of our fellow citizens to the office of president does not itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union…how then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution.” In a deep effort, Buchanan tried to clarify the seriousness of secession to the integrity of the Union and what the Constitution represented.  He also stated, “in order to justify secession as a Constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of states, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” At this point, Buchanan called out the legality of secession as unconstitutional, but his role as president gave him no power to take action against it.  This again, demonstrates his sincere dedication to the Constitution and the powers it gave.  As Buchanan explains, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as they may be practiced, the Executive has not authority to decide what should be the relations between the federal government and South Carolina…he possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less acknowledge the independence of that state.”

In Buchanan’s defense he was correct, his oath of office required under Article Two Section One of the Constitution states that the president will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of (their) ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” James Buchanan lived by the oath he took as president and executed the laws of United States as given to him by the Constitution, no powers were given against slavery and secession.  If those actions were considered acts of war, only Congress would intervene to put an end to that situation.  Buchanan urged the nation to put an end to the secessionist cry but felt as if his actions were misinterpreted. As Buchanan recalls of himself, “his every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility.  No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position…without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong.” At that point, in December 1860, only a few weeks before South Carolina officially declared its secession, James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States, felt powerless to prevent the impending Civil War.

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions before South Carolina’s secession? Let us know below.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig takes a look at Buchanan’s presidency. He starts by arguing that, in spite of his Democratic Party generally favoring slavery, what are often seen as pro-slavery actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1861), actually led to Kansas becoming an anti-slavery state.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, none have been as ridiculed as the man who became the fifteenth president on March 4, 1857. Having secured the Democratic nomination in 1856, James Buchanan had little trouble defeating the Republican Party’s first candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore. At the time of his election, Buchanan was the nation’s most qualified person to hold the office of chief executive. Having been a lawyer, state legislature, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State, Buchanan remains one of the only presidents in U.S. history to have an extensive public service background.  The question then remains is, why he is considered the worst president in history and why is he blamed for the Civil War? These questions will be answered over a series of articles sequencing key events in Buchanan’s presidency.

 

Kansas-Nebraska Act

In his last message to Congress on January 8, 1861, Buchanan stated that, “I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”[1]Since that time, over one hundred and fifty years have past since he left office and the Civil War concluded. However, his legacy remains plagued by the questions posed above.  To really understand the actions taken by Buchanan leading up to the outbreak of Civil War, one must look into the political climate of the time as well as the personal beliefs that shaped Buchanan’s governing style.

One particular event that would have a direct impact of Buchanan once he became president was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This allowed for Kansas and Nebraska to create governments and decide for themselves the slavery question while also repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally into Kansas, heavily influencing the election of a pro-slavery government in Kansas. This led to violence in the territory as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups fought for control.  It also led to the creation of two governments, one at Lecompton (pro-slavery) and one at Topeka (anti-slavery).  This series of events later became known as “Bleeding Kansas” for the violence and death that occurred.  Even the United States Senate was not spared from the violence. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten over the head with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate.  Sumner had called out a relative of Brooks regarding the slavery issue offending his honor. Lecompton was also recognized as the legitimate government despite hostilities.

 

Dealing with Bleeding Kansas

Upon assuming office, Buchanan had to deal with the crisis in Kansas left to him by his predecessor Franklin Pierce.  Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act believing that territories were “perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions in their own way.”[2]However, Pierce would come to favor the pro-slavery legislation over that of the anti-slavery actions.  James Buchanan’s views of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were not favorable. He wrote that “Congress which had commenced so auspiciously, by repealing the Missouri Compromise…reopened the floodgates of sectional strife.”[3]The governing style of James Buchanan was one based on that of a diplomat.  Having an extensive background as a negotiator, he used his prior experience in his many diplomatic and legislative roles as chief executive.  He also heavily relied on his days as a lawyer and his knowledge of constitutional law to formulate his opinions.  This is how he dealt with the crisis in Kansas.

As president, Buchanan believed that he did not have the authority to interfere in the elections which took place in Kansas despite the fraud that had occurred there.  He wrote that “it was far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas wither for or against slavery.”[4]Essentially, Buchanan felt that the people of Kansas could settle the matter themselves without government intervention. Despite his intentions, Buchanan took military action in sending federal troops to Kansas in 1857 to secure the legitimacy of a state constitution without fraud or violence.  His justification for this was that it was his duty to protect the recognized government and the people’s wishes as President of the United States.  Buchanan recalls, “under these circumstances, what was my duty? Was it not to sustain this government (in Lecompton)? To protect us from the violence of lawless men, who were determined to ruin or rule? It was for this purpose, and this alone, that I ordered a military force to Kansas.”[5]

In doing this, Buchanan was criticized for appearing to support the pro-slavery party in creating a slave state.  This, however, was not the case as he attempted to perform his duties in executing the laws and by preserving and protecting the Constitution.  He states in a broad question to such people, “would you have desired that I abandoned the Territorial Government, sanctioned as it had been by Congress, to illegal violence…this would, indeed have been to violate my oath of office.”[6]Standing firm on his beliefs, Buchanan was convinced that his action would help to support a positive and legal result at the next election.  To him, it was still up to the people to decide on the manner.

 

1858 Kansas Election

In early 1858, a new election was held to elect state officials based on the passage of the constitution in November.  This election for governor, lieutenant governor, and other officials, resulted in the election of several members of the anti-slavery Topeka Convention.  The balance of power shifted towards them and they were more determined to vote in the creation of a constitution with some aspects of the Lecompton Constitution.  James Buchanan took this as a victory because he had wished that the anti-slavery party would take part in the elections.  Buchanan, writing in the third person, states that “it had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery party to vote.  Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas would speedily terminate.  A resort of the ballot box, instead of force, was the most effectual means of restoring peace and tranquility.”[7]Buchanan, keeping to his constitutional beliefs, used force only to enforce the rights of the people to vote under the Constitution. Essentially, Buchanan gave the anti-slavery party the tools to vote in a free and fair election without fear of violence.  It only took them a while to take him up on his efforts before they would vote in the government.  James Buchanan recognized that they were in effect the majority of the population and in accordance with the law, it was up to them to decide the slavery question.  

On February 2, 1858, James Buchanan gave a message to Congress regarding the constitution of Kansas.  The newly elected government (with a large majority of anti-slavery supporters) had sent the Lecompton Constitution (with slavery elements) to the president for Congressional approval.  In Buchanan’s message he stated that “slavery can therefore never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no manner can this be obtained so promptly.”[8]Although this may be interpreted as pro-slavery, to Buchanan it was not, because the people of Kansas had elected their leaders and had submitted a constitution in forming a state legally.  It was his duty to ensure that their wishes were carried out. He warns that, “should Congress reject the constitution…no man can foretell the consequences.”[9]In Buchanan’s eyes, the admittance of Kansas into the Union in a timely manner would “restore peace and quiet to the whole country.”[10]  In closing his message to Congress, he admits that he had been forced to act in Kansas on behalf of the people to ensure fair elections and opportunities for both sides. He states of the matter, “I have been obliged in some degree to interfere with the expedition in order to keep down rebellion in Kansas.”[11]

 

Buchanan and the Constitution

Although Congress would reject the Lecompton Constitution due to the slavery elements, James Buchanan could not interfere as it was not in the powers of the executive granted in the Constitution.  In 1861, Kansas became a free state. In looking at the situation in Kansas, James Buchanan’s actions were in accordance with the Constitution and his role as chief executive.  Since the Lecompton government was established by Congress it was the legal government in Buchanan’s eyes.  He recognized that voter fraud and violent intimidation had elected pro-slavery delegates that did not speak for the majority of Kansas.  It was for this reason that he urged them to have new elections which were fair.  When that advice fell on deaf ears, he sent federal troops to defend the rights of the people at the ballot box.  This action was taken as his support of the pro-slavery election results.  However, it gave the anti-slavery party the ability to vote in unbiased elections which would lead to their control of the government.  In the words of James Buchanan, “I have thus performed my duty on this important question, under a deep sense of responsibility to God and my country.”[12]

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during Bleeding Kansas?


[1]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 84.

[2]Michael F. Holt, Franklin Pierce, (New York: Times Books, 2010): 77. 

[3]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 13. 

[4]Sloan, 35. 

[5]Buchanan, 18. 

[6]Buchanan, 18. 

[7]Buchanan, 24. 

[8]Sloan, 47. 

[9]Sloan, 47. 

[10]Sloan, 48. 

[11]Sloan, 49. 

[12]Buchanan, 26.