He had a most impressive resume, but turned out to be disastrous. When he took office, the country was “the United States of America.” When he left office, the country was on the verge of civil war, with states seceding.
He called the abolitionist movement “weak, powerless and soon to be forgotten.” They were extremists who “who refused to allow southern slaveholders their constitutional right to take slaves into the territories.”
He tampered with Supreme Court justices, trying to persuade them to rule against the citizenship of the African-American slave, Dred Scott. He glorifed Southern slaveholders, and white men as “chivalrous.” Four of his original seven cabinet officers were large slaveholders.
He supported the pro-slavery legislature of Kansas against a free-state government. He claimed the federal government had no authority to compel a state to remain in the union, and surrendered Deep South federal forts. When he refused to support the Democratic nominee for President in 1860, Stephen Douglas, he virtually handed the election to the Republican, Abraham Lincoln.
He was a prime example of a cowardly, weak, feeble leader, paralysed in a time of crisis, who refused to stand up for moral principles, and instead gave in to the nation’s adversaries. Buchanan’s compromises amounted to nothing less than appeasement if not treason.
Learning from James Buchanan, by historian Jean Baker:
He “failed because he used that power with such partiality as an activist, ideologically driven executive. He had chosen sides in the great crisis and did not listen.
“Negligent about slavery, but greatly attached to the values of white southerners, he went beyond political custom by castigating Republicans as disloyal. Yet his vision for the future of the United States was at odds with most Americans, whose definition of freedom did not include a slave republic dominated by a minority of slave owners. In one of the essential ingredients of successful leadership, Buchanan had failed to interpret his nation. Tragically, his administration served to encourage the future enemies of the republic as he gave the Confederate States of America precious time and support to organize for war.”
In Buchanan’s defense, historian Russell McClintock points out that no president in 1860 could have prevented the civil war. “That’s because of party politics,” he explained.
If the party was to retain the loyalty of both its Northern and Southern wings in the 1856 election, selection of a presidential candidate with strong convictions – someone like the controversial Stephen Douglas – was impossible. So the party chose a Northern candidate with traditional Democratic views on the limited nature of federal power and a history of sharing Southern views regarding property rights in slavery. And those, of course, are precisely the convictions Buchanan displayed in the winter of 1860-61.
If decisive action against disunion were to be taken, it needed to occur much earlier. Upon taking office in 1857, Buchanan would have had to imagine and articulate to the nation, if he had knowledge of European history, the terrible consequences of disunion — years, decades, if not centuries of war and economic upheaval. He would have had to have the vision and strength later demonstrated by Abraham Lincoln, in trying to hold the union together. The nation might have fallen into civil war anyway, but with a strong and firmly committed President, it might have ended far sooner and the carnage might have been far less.