Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Civil War: 'It was not my fault,' Buchanan insisted

Except for the U.S. presidents who came from the same families, it is hard to think of two presidents more closely linked than New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. They were Nos. 14 and 15, the so-called Doughfaces – northern politicians with southern views. Their feckless performance and political ineptness are sometimes blamed for bringing on, or at least hastening, the Civil War.

In a few days, I’ll post a professional appraisal of Pierce’s inability to hold his tongue during the war. For today’s post, I turned to my friend Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College historian, for a peek at Buchanan, his fellow Pennsylvanian.

Quist and Birkner's new book
With John W. Quist, a historian at Shippensburg University, Birkner has just co-edited a book of essays on various aspects of the Buchanan presidency. The title is James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. For anyone interested in the political crisis that led to the war, this is an excellent primer – and good reading, too.

One of my favorite chapters is an edited transcript of a 2008 panel discussion moderated by Quist and including two sages of 1850s American politics, William W. Freehling and Michael F. Holt. The discussion is not only crisp and enlightening; it's also funny.

Just one example: To a question about the prospects of slavery expansion into the western territories, Holt ends his answer with this observation: “If you draw the 36-degree, 30-minute line and extend it to the Pacific Ocean, as Buchanan wanted to do in the 1840s, it would hit the Pacific Ocean at the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Course.”  

Michael Birkner wrote the book’s epilogue, “Buchanan’s Civil War.” I asked him this question about it:

In your essay on Buchanan’s life during the Civil War, you identify his main preoccupation as shoring up and burnishing his reputation as president. What might he have done differently to stave off the war, and how effective a case did he make in his own defense on this issue?

Here is Michael’s answer:

In sitting for interviews recently in connection with the opening of his presidential library, George W. Bush was repeatedly asked how he thought history would judge him, especially on his Iraq policy. Bush’s response was characteristic of the man: he wasn’t going to second-guess himself. He would let the historians sort things out. He was not worried about it.

What a difference from the approach of the 15th president, James Buchanan, during his retirement years!

Michael J. Birkner
Elected on the promise of defusing sectional tensions and quelling “agitation” on the slavery question, Buchanan departed the White House in March 1861 with tensions at fever pitch and the Union broken. Barely a month later, secessionists in South Carolina opened fire on a few “brave and hungry men” led by Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter. And the great war came.

“It was not my fault,” Buchanan repeatedly told family, friends and all who asked about his role as president in the events leading to war. If there is any thread that runs through Buchanan’s retirement years (1861-68), it is his determination to vindicate his conduct as president in all particulars, especially the secession crisis.

Mike Pride asks what Buchanan could have done differently, if anything, to stave off the war. This question goes to the heart of a central, ongoing debate among scholars about the degree to which the Civil War was inevitable, and the degree to which it was brought on by blundering politicians like Buchanan.

My own sense of the matter is that both answers have merit. There’s no doubt, for example, that Buchanan’s patently unethical intervention with the justices deciding the Dred Scott case was a blunder that cost him political capital. His vindictiveness toward Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (who had campaigned faithfully for him in 1856) was another blunder.

Buchanan’s stubborn and misguided policy on Kansas, in which he sided with a small minority of slave-owners there on technical grounds as they sought to make Kansas a slave state, was probably his greatest mistake of all. It split the Democratic Party on sectional lines and thereby paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln’s election triggered southern states’ secession and made the war inevitable, given that Lincoln was not going to compromise on his fundamental principle of no slavery extension, period.

What if Buchanan had not blundered as he did? Would the war have happened anyway?

We cannot know that for sure, as there are no do-overs in history. However, it seems evident that if Buchanan had taken a more even-handed line on the slavery question, and had he accepted popular sovereignty in Kansas, he would have been assailed and rejected by southerners, just as Douglas was when he fought Buchanan’s pro-southern Kansas policy. Consequently, whatever Buchanan did, the Democratic Party would have divided, the Republicans would have gained the White House, and the war would have happened.

Did Buchanan make a good case for himself in his memoirs, published early in 1866?

Not by my reckoning. His refusal to see fault in anything he did, his legalisms, and his stinging attacks on abolitionists as the cause of sectional tensions (while letting slave-owners off the hook) do not pass a credibility test.

It seems fair to say that controversial presidents are wiser to follow George W. Bush’s approach than James Buchanan’s.  Self-justifying memoir or no, Buchanan has occupied the basement among presidents ever since he left office.  With Bush, time will tell.

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