What could President Buchanan have done differently?

In one of the other threads, there’s a discussion of where Trump will end up ranking amongst the presidents. Buchanan normally seems at the bottom of the heap, for letting the US drift towards the Civil war.

That ranking seems to me to assume that Buchanan could have done things differently to prevent the Civil War. But what, realistically, could he have done in his four years that might have averted the war?

Or was it almost inevitable, given all the tensions that had been building up for forty years, as Lincoln seemed to indicate in his First Inaugural: “And the War came.”

And if it was inevitable, is Buchanan getting a fair shake in the rankings? Did he just end up with the hot potato, and no bucket of cold water in sight?

Oops - typo - Second Inaugural.

Buchanan influenced SCOTUS to uphold slavery in particularly vile manner in the Dred Scott case. In my book it’s the #1 most evil action by any president so far, even worse than things like Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears. It’s a very high bar, and despite everything Trump has done, he’s not close.

ETA. Although there is no way to know for sure, had Dred Scott turned out the other way, my guess is that the Civil War would have still happened, but reconstruction might have been more successful.

South Carolina voted to secede in December 1860 and six more states seceded before Lincoln took office. Buchanan’s response was to say that states had no right to secede, but the Union had no right to stop them.

Buchanan believed that secession was unconstitutional, but at the same time stated that he did not believe that the Constitution permitted the feds from using force to bring seceding states back into the fold.

As mentioned, he interfered in Dred Scott and supported the Corwin Amendment.

Now, the 1st and 3rd of these occurred after Lincoln was elected and secession had occurred, but his weaselly leadership style didn’t give anyone any confidence. Plus Dred Scott had the effect of hardening northern positions against slavery, including that of Lincoln–and they basically said to hell with the Supreme Court, they have effectively made the entire United States slave territory, and we are not honoring the Fugitive Slave Act or doing anything to help the south keep slavery (See Ableman v. Booth–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableman_v._Booth where the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to recognize the authority of federal courts).

Buchanan made the horrendous judgment that Dred Scott would make the south happy and cause the north to submit. All it did was cause the rise of those like Lincoln and put the country on a path to war. Without a time machine, it is impossible to tell, but a world without Dred Scott probably drags everything on for 20 years and probably more peacefully.

So would it have been better for Buchanan to immediately raise the Union army and start hostilities at that point?

He could have sent the Navy to blockade Charleston harbor (a show of force), or he could have called Congress into session and let them debate it to death. Instead he did nothing.

Okay, some backstory.

Buchanan may have been a closeted gay man, was a foreign diplomat and, of course, oversaw the bleeding wound that was Kansas, Dred Scott, and the secession of SC itself. He was picked for president because he very conveniently had been out of the country while the compromise of 1850 was slowing coming apart. In other words, party bosses picked a guy because he dodged hard questions, the sort of reasoning that doesn’t work so well on the other side of things.

Buchanan is obviously a racist, proslavery person but is not so idiotic as to openly promote such. The problem is that racist gay president probably does get figured out and thrown into scandal with today’s omnipresent media. Buchanan would, given the times, admit that his opinions were misguided.

Buchanan was primarily a weak man, too easily made to follow majorities and powerful interests. This would put him comparably to GW Bush. Buchanan does not antagonize NATO, withdrawal from bargains made with Iran or the Paris climate accords, he’s more likely to sign TPP and do what powerful lobbies tell him to do. Ironically, these lobbies may very well not desire the ‘Trump Tax Cuts’ and they may not happen.

Donald Trump came to office with majorities in the House and Senate. Buchanan, who may very well have the same setup, may opt to simply fund infrastructure bills and unimaginatively keep the US going. At this point, Buchanan’s cabinet being wildly different from Trump (Buchanan would definitely count as a ‘Southern Democrat’ in his ideological thinking) is functionally competent and capable, if bland.

This does a lot of good in being forgettable, quietly doing their jobs, and not being a problem.

Eventually some idiot decides to kill a bunch of people in an act of deranged gun carnage. This country can not go more than 100 days without an act of deranged gun carnage. This is another faultline, and its one where Buchanan doesn’t really give a strong response.

This all puts Buchanan in December 2019 in a lousy spot. He’s not popular, he’s not the man for his time, the media is hostile. And then a Coronavirus emerges in Wuhan…

On one hand, this is the previous president who took little action as a pandemic of violence was ripping the nation apart. On the other, there is no powerful lobby looking for COVID to kill as many people as possible, and Buchanan is primarily the victim of, not the champion of conspiracy theories. It’s not his personal nature, but Buchanan is empowered to be bold, strong and decisive on action. Privately, he has zero medical training but he’s intelligent enough to let those people who do have their say.

The reality is Buchanan is screwed; with a media narrative against him, always playing catch up and damage control, and not having any hard base of people who love him, he is going down to defeat.

In Buchanan’s defense, the easy call is the right call. Masking is mandated immediately; delusions and conspiracy theories are already facing an administration hostile to their progress. With federal efforts behind it, some states (Texas, Florida) sulk about federal overreach but comply. Buchanan is also acutely aware that he needs some victories, and trying to moonshot a COVID Vaccine becomes the great mandate of his response. Indeed, in a series televised speeches, President Buchanan partially rehabilitates himself. A Covid Vaccine being found before election day is perhaps the best argument to vote for re-electing Buchanan, but a bland scandalprone gay man is a couple of bridges too far.

Buchanan instead opts not to run again.


So what’s the score?

The United States is still a superpower and respected around the world. Four Years of President Buchanan have made it stodgier and a little out of touch, but decades of civil servants have continued their duty in spite of far worse.

At home, the economy is not going great, as COVID would indicate. True, the Vaccine is out, although the hurdles of getting hundreds of millions of doses take time. Buchanan would not like the structural deficits the US has as of 2017, so I imagine he’d get a moderate set of tax hikes. This doesn’t do much to hurt the economy, and ironically means the US has a bit more resources to try to address the economic impact of COVID, but moderate tax hikes aren’t panaceas.

James Buchanan ultimately does find a few hard supporters of what he did, probably because of the success of finding a COVID vaccine. This could be very far afield of where he lived (Pennsylvania) and builds a presidential library. In a scene that he’d never thought he’d know, he marries another man and becomes an improbable advocate of LGBT causes.

History probably decides to put Alt-Buchanan above presidents Harding and Nixon, mostly given that he wasn’t abjectly terrible.

Interesting, but what i meant was, “What could Buchanan have done differently during his term, 1857-1861, to try to keep the US from drifting into Civil War?”

Why is preventing the Civil War a good thing? I don’t see slavery ending any other way.

Then why is Buchanan rated poorly? If the War was inevitable, why does he get a poor rating for not stopping it?

The assumption in the poor rating he gets is that he could have done something differently. But if there was nothing different he could have done, and perhaps the War was inevitable, why blame him for it?

Because he supported the southern side. He claimed that secession was wrong but that he couldn’t do anything about it. Lincoln obviously proved that theory wrong. In reality he was sympathetic to the confederacy.

It’s more complicated, and frankly, much worse, than merely “being was on the wrong side.” Frankly, Buchanan was a weak man and a weak President. Despite his long service, many historians point to some astounding episodes of bad judgment, which, for various reasons, just didn’t give him a poor reputation.

Buchanan also exercised little control while in office, allowing corrupt subordinates to run rampant. Worse yet, the influence he did use was either improper (as in the Dred Scott decision) or had awful long-term consequences. For example, rather than try to forge the Democrats back into a cohesive party - which from a pragmatic angle was the rational choice - he acted in such a way as to split the party and damage the northern wing of it. All this helped the Republicans rise to power. At the same time, Buchanan not only didn’t pull back on extremists but fed their willing delusions. He was out there effectively telling Secessionists they had a right to everything they wanted. It’s no great surprise they took him at his word.

In the final year of Buchanan’s administration, government officials from southern states transferred a lot of gold and military supplies to storage sites in the south. When the southern states declared their independence, they seized all of it.

Buchanan should have stopped that. First, it was his duty as President to protect valuable assets that belonged to the United States. Even if you think the southern states had a right to secede, they didn’t have a right to loot American property when they did it. Second, if the southern states didn’t have all that stolen gold and military supplies, some of them might have wavered in the decision to secede.

The Republican plan was that they were going to withdraw national support of slavery. They would not act against slavery in the states but they would not support it either. Their belief was that slavery could not continue without support from the national government and would start to decline economically. As this happened, they would offer compensation and resettlement plans to states that voluntarily chose to abolish slavery. Their hope was that slavery would be gradually eliminated in the southern states by peaceful and legal means as it had been in the northern states.

Only because Trump didn’t have the same opportunities. Had he been in Buchanan’s shoes I doubt that he would have done any differently.

On this I agree. I have no doubt the opposite would also be true. Take the 1856 version of Buchanan and have him time travel to 2016, and my guess is he would do much the same as Trump has, with the possible exception of gay rights, since Buchanan would likely feel more comfortable coming out of the closet in the current climate.

ETA. Even before doing that, however, he’d drop the D and pick up the R very quickly.

Buchanan begins his term with a divided nation. Kansas is essentially in a state of civil war, while the failure of popular sovereignty to resolve the slavery situation has left the question of territories being slave or free becoming an urgent crisis.

The times called for a stronger leader to defend institutions, perhaps starting with federal peacekeeping in Kansas to avert loss of life and castigate extremists. This particular point - intervene against extremists, dialogue with moderates still had great force in the 1860 election. Some kind of confrontation over slavery is coming, but trying to get the rebellion to be smaller and weaker ultimately saves lives.

I will posit that it would probably have best for the United States to have a negotiated buyout of all slaves instead of a civil war; abolish slavery, pay off slave owners, save a large deal of money compared to the cost of waging the war, but a logical point of departure of this would probably have been the 1830s effort in Virginia passing.

Buchanan still has to keep Douglas and Breckinridge in line. A hard line against violence, some kind of due process for fugitive slave retrieval, internal improvements, and most importantly, making clear that discussion is warranted, but violence will be ruthlessly stamped out might make the South think twice about attempting to secede. Certainly, attempting to pilfer federal arsenals is an act of war and should be openly declared as such.

Buchanan’s only real shot of winning re-election is this solid, institutionalist style of governing giving him some merit in both North and South. Compromises are made, past compromises renegotiated, but the discussion continues; ironically this also favors the industrializing northern states. A Civil War in 1864, perhaps over the election of Salmon Chase as the 16th President of the United States and his uncompromising attitudes about slavery would start with a stronger north, less armed south, and probably a shorter war. Not that Chase would be a better executive than Lincoln, but Buchanan’s weakness definitely empowered the South and gave it more chances than it deserved to prevail.

I don’t think Trump could successfully carry out the political maneuvers that Buchanan did in influencing the outcome of the Dred Scott case.

All Trump would have done back in 1857 was send out a telegram saying “Slave thinks he has rights. Sad. #supporttaney

Is it possible that he was actually right about this from a legal/constitutional standpoint, or at least that this was a legitimate viewpoint?

Was anyone actually advocating this at the time? If not, then it’s a moot point in the context of judging Buchanan.

Or might have made them secede even faster.

The possibility of Southern secession had been on the table for decades by the time Buchanan became president. The policies of governments of all types had been to muddle through with compromises. No one had taken a hard line to that point, and it had “worked”, sort of.