When James Buchanan gave his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, he was remarkably optimistic about the end of the United States debate on slavery. Knowing the Supreme Court would soon rule against Dred Scott — a man who had escaped slavery in the south only to be recaptured in the north — he believed the ruling would settle the slavery debate and urge white Americans to stop. to argue about it. .
“It will be very fortunate for the country when the public mind is diverted from this matter to others of more pressing and practical importance,” he said in his speech.
Yet for many people, especially those who were enslaved, the abolition of slavery was the more urgent question of great practical importance. Buchanan’s attempts to appease white Americans by at times claiming to take no sides on slavery, and at others explicitly siding with slaveholders, inflamed divisions within the country and his own left with the approach of the civil war. For this, historians consistently rank him among the worst American presidents.
Buchanan underestimated Northern opposition to Dred Scott decision
Buchanan was a Pennsylvania Democrat who critics called him “doughface” — meaning he was a northerner with southern sympathies.
“He had very deep and intimate personal relationships with the people of the South,” says Thomas J. Balcerski, professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University and author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King. “It’s arguable that those very relationships shaped his views during the presidency.”
Besides being sympathetic to southern slaveholders, Buchanan was not very much in tune with popular northern opinion. This may explain why he was so sure that Dred Scott vs. Sandford decision, which denied citizenship to blacks and allowed southern states to enforce slavery in free states, would end white Americans’ debate on slavery, says Michael J. Birkner, a history professor at Gettysburg College and co-editor of James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War.
While it was true that many white northerners were not concerned about slavery or black rights, they were, he said, “increasingly hostile to southern assertions of its rights at the expense of rights of the north” – this is how many northerners viewed the Dr Scott decision.
Buchanan missed his response to the Kansas slavery debate
Just as Buchanan failed to understand that the slavery debate would continue after Dr Scottnor did he anticipate how the expansion of slavery in western territories remained a divisive issue and who would define his presidency.
As the United States violently displaced Native Americans in the western territories, white Americans moved to these territories in hopes of finding work. Many feared that if slavery became legal in these territories, there would be fewer paid jobs available for white men.
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The debate over the expansion of slavery was particularly fierce in the Kansas Territory, where there were two competing governments: one in Topeka wanted Kansas to be admitted into the Union as a free state ( while also preventing free blacks from living there), while one in Lecompton wanted Kansas admitted as a slave state.
Debates between these two parties erupted into violence during a period known as Bleeding Kansas. In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Buchanan sent Lecompton’s Constitution to Congress for approval, even though it represented the will of a minority of Americans in Kansas over the competing Topeka Constitution.
“Buchanan pushed for Kansas to become a slave state, thinking that if Kansas became a slave state, the problem would go away,” says John W. Quist, professor of history at the University of Shippensburg and co-editor with Birkner of James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War.
Yet siding with the pro-slavery government did not resolve the crisis. In fact, it angered Northern Democrats like Stephen A. Douglas, who opposed Lecompton’s Constitution because it did not represent the majority of Americans in Kansas.
The Kansas debate split the Democratic Party, leading the two wings to field separate presidential candidates against Republican Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election. Kansas remained a territory until 1861, when it was entered the Union as a Free State during the Civil War.
Buchanan’s response to secession draws criticism
The first southern secessions occurred during the “lame duck” period of Buchanan’s presidency, in the months between Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the November 1860 election and Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861. The first to to secede was South Carolina in December 1860. By February, six more states had seceded, and many members of Buchanan’s southern cabinet had resigned.
Buchanan did not believe that the breakaway states had the right to leave the Union, but neither did he want to use military force to make them stay. As a result, Buchanan’s critics accused him of doing nothing to stop the crisis of secession.
Although the Civil War was a conflict that built over decades – and culminated in the necessary abolition of slavery – many historians agree that Buchanan was not the right person to lead the country in the years before him.
As Birkner puts it simply, “He’s not the right person at the right time to be President of the United States.”