“[H]e urged the people to call upon the Lord night and day, to help them now, if ever, when they were about to be deprived of their law, their country and their holy temple; and not to allow this nation, which had just begun to revive, to be subjected again to [the] blasphemous…” – 2 Maccabees 13:10-11
“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” – Military Strategist Carl von Clausewitz
“Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.” – Jesus
It is June of 1856 and the U.S. Civil War will begin in less than five years. Over 620,000 men, now alive, will die in the bitter partisan conflict.
A man with the initials of J.B. is accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. James Buchanan bears the distinction of being the only president born in Pennsylvania, before or since, until at least 2021, should Joseph Biden be certified the winner of the election. Just as his party’s nominee will be one hundred and sixty-four years later, Buchanan is a junior, having the same name as his father.
The Democratic National Convention takes seventeen ballots to nominate Buchanan, although he is an early frontrunner. Within his party, he is considered to be a compromise candidate who can appeal to both the north and the south. Despite being from Pennsylvania, he favors the continuation and even expansion of slavery, as well as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which is hated by Northerners.
Aside from favoring southern policies despite hailing from the north, Buchanan’s main appeal is his age and experience. He is nearly sixty-six years old, and is essentially tied as the oldest president to take office until that time. He has had a long career in the United States House and Senate, although for the previous three years he has been largely out of politics, choosing to remain above the fray by accepting a job as an ambassador. Behind the scenes, he works with his party’s elite to increase his chances at the 1856 nomination.
Buchanan does not campaign personally in the general election, although this is not unusual for the time. Instead, he prefers to conduct the campaign through surrogates and by letter writing. Although enthusiasm for his campaign is low, he emerges as the winner. His opposition is unable to put up a united front, dividing its votes between the first Republican presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, and former president Millard Fillmore. In a sign of things to come however, the newly created Republican Party gets over thirty-three percent of the vote.
Buchanan uses his victory speech to attack Republicans, calling them “dangerous.”
His inaugural address is given on the steps of the U.S. Capital, and is the first ever to be photographed. In it, he strikes a more conciliatory tone. Knowing that he is a mere transitional president, he tells the crowd on a warm March 4th that he will serve only one term. He promises to “restore harmony” to the people. He also speaks out in support of mass immigration.
More worrisome is that his address, which historians believe may have done more harm than good, ignores the violence on America’s streets.
Three years earlier, to the day, the United States Senate had passed the infamous Kansas–Nebraska Act, which decided that whether slavery would be permitted in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska upon their ascension to statehood would be determined by popular vote.
It was a grave mistake that led to bloodshed between neighbors.
Following the murder of a free-state advocate by a pro-slavery man in Kansas, violent clashes between settlers, many of whom moved there for expressly political purposes, overwhelmed both territories. This was despite the fact that the initial murder turned out to have little to do with politics. Pro-slavery settlers sacked the town of Lawrence. John Brown, later of Harpers Ferry fame, then murdered five pro-slavery residents of the Pottawatomie Creek town in retaliation. Even outside of major attacks, the local population lives with constant violence.
Buchanan praises the Kansas-Nebraska Act in his inaugural address, and lauds the idea of popular sovereignty. He never once hints that the policy has resulted in any violence, although that violence has dominated the national political conversation for months.
In the nation’s capital, things are not much better.
For over a decade, challenges to duels among members of Congress, almost universally from Southerners to Northerners, had become more and more common. A man who failed to accept such a challenge might be called a coward – harsh language against someone who must maintain a strong face before voters. Worse, a man who refused to duel was often considered fair game for attacks on the street. Citizens of the northern states had previously seen dueling as barbaric but in recent years, fed up, they have begun sending their congressmen guns.
The whole thing had come to a head about ten months before Buchanan’s inauguration. Infuriated by a speech given by anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner, Congressman Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and used a metal-headed cane to beat Sumner unconscious. Brooks continued to beat Sumner after Sumner passed out, while another pro-slavery congressman, wielding a pistol, stopped others from intervening.
In the aftermath of the attack, supporters sent Brooks dozens of canes.
This climate too, Buchanan ignores in his speech, which concludes with him taking the constitutionally required oath of office. He hopes his presidency will focus on foreign policy.
After taking the oath, Buchanan immediately faces a more serious problem than a tone-deaf speech.
He’s not up to the job.
He is not just old on inauguration day, but ill, and barely able to address the assembled guests.
Some historians believe that his illness that day is from food poisoning, but he continues to have bouts of illness throughout his presidency, including mental lapses.
He gives the job of Secretary of State, the most powerful position in his cabinet, to Lewis Cass, a seventy-five-year-old who also struggles mentally and delegates most of the work involved in his position to younger men. Other prominent positions go to radical partisan warriors, undermining Buchanan’s supposed desire for unity and demonstrating his inability to stand up to his party’s base. His administration will later become known for corruption as his cabinet members, likely on his orders, attempt to buy votes in congress using taxpayer money.
From the beginning, the president misuses not just money, but his political capital, continuing his push for popular sovereignty in Kansas, but failing to effectuate any positive change there.
In 1859, over two years into Buchanan’s administration, the aforementioned abolitionist John Brown leads an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to use the seized weapons in a slave revolt. Rather than calm the waters, the president accuses Northerners of conducting an “open war” on the south, echoing claims by southern leaders that the raid, rather than the solitary act of a fanatic, is a plot by Republicans.
In the waning days of his administration, after Abraham Lincoln becomes the president-elect, southern states begin to secede. President Buchanan condemns secession, but believes he can do little to stop it. He ignores the recommendation of the nation’s top general to prepare the military for war. He fails to reinforce the endangered Fort Sumter, now besieged by secessionist militia, making just one lackluster attempt to do so. The island fortress will soon become the Civil War’s first battlefield.
Future historians will consistently rate Buchanan as one of the two or three worst presidents in American history, and assign him a significant share of the blame for the clash the followed his time in office.
May God spare us another Biden… I mean Buchanan – presidency.
If He does not, let us pray the Almighty grants us another Lincoln thereafter.