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Happy Birthday, President Buchanan, You Lame-O

President James Buchanan was born 23 April 1791, the last U.S. president to be born in the 18th Century. Elected in 1856, he helped his country slide into the Civil War.

James Buchanan was a successful lawyer from Pennsylvania who went into politics with plenty of ambition. Wealthy by the time he was 30, Buchanan was Congressman, Ambassador to Russia, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Minister to England and, by the time he was finally elected, a presidential candidate for 12 years.

“Old Buck” was called a Northern Democrat by that time, having switched from the Federalist party back when he was in Congress. Northern Democrats — also called “Doughfaces” — were sympathetic to slave owners in the South. The national question at the time was whether to allow slavery in the territories. Abolitionists, mostly from the North, opposed the extension of slavery. They found sympathy with the Republicans, a newly formed party that opposed slavery.

Part of the reason Buchanan got the party nomination in the presidential race of 1856 was that he was the least of three evils. President Millard Fillmore, of the Whig “Know Nothing” party, ran for re-election and was challenged by John C. Fremont, the Republican nominee. Both Fremont and Fillmore had been tainted, however, by the Civil War-like conditions over the Kansas question. Namely, should Kansas enter the Union as a free state or a slave state?

Buchanan had been out of the country for most of the fighting over Kansas, serving three years as Minister to England. He beat Fremont by only half a million votes; Fillmore got about 900,000 votes. Fremont carried eleven free states, Buchanan only five. But Buchanan carried every slave state except Maryland.

It’s possible that Buchanan doomed his own presidency early on, simply by announcing that he would not seek re-election in 1860. That made him a not-quite-lame duck, and the party leadership passed to Senator Stephen Douglas.

When Buchanan took office, the treasury had a surplus. The Panic of 1857 helped take care of that. By the time he left office, the treasury was down about $27 million. With a war on the way.

When James Buchanan was president, everybody knew the threat of secession hung in the air. The slavery question was too contentious. Supreme Court Justice Taney told Buchanan about the Dred Scott decision before it was made public, and Buchanan went out and pretty much told the public, “hey, on this question of whether slaves or former slaves are really citizens, I say we go by whatever the Court decides.” Buchanan already knew the Court’s decision was that slavery couldn’t be restricted by Congress, and he was trying to get popular opinion on their side.

When it came to the question of secession, Buchanan was wishy-washy. He affirmed the right of a state to secede, and he agreed the federal government had a right to suppress revolt. He had, in fact, already exercised that right in the so-called “Utah War,” when he declared Brigham Young, the territorial governor (and Mormon leader), to be the head of a rebellion. Buchanan appointed a new governor and sent in federal troops. But Buchanan didn’t lift a finger to stop the southern states from seceding.

The slave power in the South threatened to leave the Union if an anti-slavery Republican was elected. Abraham Lincoln was elected in November of 1860. He was an anti-slavery Republican.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: Abraham Lincoln was elected in early November. He was not sworn in as president until 4 March 1861. Lincoln had to sit around for four months, unable to do anything about the secession problem.

Meanwhile, President Buchanan was intent on doing nothing about the secession problem. He wanted to get his cabinet to hold on to the end of his term, but there were plenty of resignations, appointments and shuffling around in those last few months. For some reason, those members of Congress who favored secession kept their federal jobs, while encouraging the folks back home to leave the Union. Buchanan’s own Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Thompson, was allowed to go to North Carolina to help the state secede, while holding his cabinet post up until January of 1861.

South Carolina seceded 20 December 1860, and six more states followed by the time Abraham Lincoln was there to wipe up James Buchanan’s mess. (And create his own, you might argue.)

A 250,000-ton stone pyramid now marks the birthplace of James Buchanan. He routinely gets listed as one of the worst presidents. Not because he was a corrupt cronyist like Warren G. Harding or an uninterested ne’er-do-well like George W. Bush, but because he just didn’t really take the bull by the horns and make presidential decisions.

He was also our only bachelor president, whatever you might make of that.

So, happy birthday, James Buchanan! You should have stayed in the law business.

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