Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker

President #34, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #8

It’s Been Said That People Liked This Guy

eisenhowerWhen I was a kid in the 1970s, the 1950s were considered a cool time. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” dominated television. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s (a decade glamorized in much different way from the 1950s), the 1950s were a time when America was strong, although tensions with the Soviet Union were high. People were happy.  Girls dressed in poodle skirts. All guys were pretty much like Fonzie. Annoying baseball historians (and I’m looking at you Ken Burns) sometimes refer to the 1950s as the best time of the sport because New York teams faced off in the World Series in five of the ten years.

The President for a good chunk of this period (1953-1961) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last President to make his way to the White House, almost exclusively on the basis of what he achieved on the battlefield. He was a solid, dependable leader. He was able to bring people together. He seemed like everybody’s grandfather.

However, the reality of the 1950s was that it was an incredibly divisive time. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas transformed the civil rights issue in such a way that it could no longer be ignored.

Additionally, the country became paranoid about a Communist takeover from within. This led to the rise of men like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Their career paths would take extraordinarily different paths.

The United States increasingly turned to covert activities to achieve foreign policy goals. Some would succeed in the short term, but others, such as the intervention in Iran, would affect the United States for decades to follow. There would be international crises in places like Vietnam, Hungary, and Egypt. They seemed to pop up all the time.

And, although the United States had the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the public grew increasingly fearful of tensions with the Soviet Union. Topping it off would be the USSR’s foray into space with Sputnik before the United States could even launch a small object into orbit.

The Dwight Eisenhower who had to deal with all of the above crises is the one that Tom Wicker, a longtime political columnist for the New York Times, writes about in his biography of the 34th President. Wicker presents a portrait of a man who wanted to lead, but didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Wicker’s Eisenhower is a much shrewder politician than people realize. But, in the end, you still aren’t sure just what Dwight Eisenhower was all about. What did he want to accomplish? What were his motivations? Why did he want to become President?

Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890 (and if you’re reading this on Wednesday wish Ike a happy 119th birthday!) His family moved to Abilene, Kansas when he was one. Eventually, Eisenhower made his way to the United States Military Academy in 1911, graduating in 1915.

This timing proved to be fortuitous for Eisenhower. The class of 1915 at West Point would eventually include 64 graduates who became generals, including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. In 1912, Eisenhower, while playing on the Army football team, played against Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian School team. (Carlisle won the game 27-6.)

Although Eisenhower was in the Army during World War I, he didn’t serve in any combat action during the brief American involvement in that bloody conflict. Eisenhower worked his way up the ranks as a career military man. He had married his wife, Mamie Doud, in 1916. They had two sons, one of whom died at age three of scarlet fever.

In 1926, Eisenhower found himself installed as the aide to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower learned the ways of Washington working under MacArthur. He also managed to endear himself to another Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.

When the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower quickly shot up the ranks to become chief of the War Plan Division. Then, he commanded Operation Torch in North Africa. His success there put Eisenhower in position to assume command of the Allied Forces in the D-Day Invasion of 1944. The success of that operation made Eisenhower made him the envy of politicians from both parties, who saw Eisenhower as the Presidential material. MacArthur may have garnered more headlines, but it was Eisenhower who seemed to be held in the highest esteem by politicians. (Wicker whizzes through the pre-Presidential part of Eisenhower’s life figuring that most people already know it.)

There was talk of the Democrats trying to draft Eisenhower to run for President in 1948 in place of the unpopular Harry Truman. Obviously, he didn’t take that job. Instead, he took a position as president of Columbia University in 1948. He left that job in 1950 to assume the lofty title of Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In 1952, Eisenhower realized that it was his time to become President (Wicker claims that Eisenhower first realized that he had a shot at becoming President as early as 1943). Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican, although he had worked behind the scenes to start lining up support for the nomination. Eisenhower wanted to avoid being labeled, although he would declare himself to be a “liberal Republican.”

The Republican Party nomination battle in 1952 pitted Eisenhower against Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was called “Mr. Republican.” The Republican nomination battle would between its “old guard” which was more isolationist against Eisenhower’s more internationalist wing. In a tight battle on the convention floor, Eisenhower prevailed on the first ballot. As a political compromise, Eisenhower allowed Taft’s faction to pick his running mate. This turned out to be California Senator Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower would face Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won the Democratic nomination. Although Stevenson appealed to intellectuals and even cultivated an image as “an egghead,” he had little chance against Eisenhower. The Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933. Americans wanted a change. Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, winning nearly 55% of the popular vote, along with 442 electoral votes. The Republicans also took control of both houses of Congress.

Wicker doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s domestic accomplishments (such as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway) with one exception: civil rights. Eisenhower, however, didn’t accomplish much in this area except to react to events.

In 1953, Eisenhower unexpectedly got a chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. And it was the Chief Justice position to boot. Eisenhower decided to appoint California Governor Earl Warren to the post. Warren had been Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and Eisenhower wanted to reward Warren for his support during the nomination battle.

This turned out to be a fateful appointment. A collection of school desegregation cases were before the Supreme Court and Warren served as a recess appointee and heard the cases being reargued. (The first set of arguments were deemed insufficient for the Court to make a decision.) After the arguments, Warren was confirmed by the Senate. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the desegregation cases. Warren, writing for a unanimous court, declared:

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Eisenhower was not expecting the decision to be so sweeping and he was slow to embrace it. He expressed only begrudging support for it. Eisenhower wouldn’t take any action in school desegregation until 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to follow a Federal court order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High. Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African-American students out. This proved to be provocative enough to get Eisenhower to act. He sent in the 101st Airborne to work on crowd control and Federalized the Arkansas National Guard. However, aside from these actions, Eisenhower’s actions in civil rights were few and far between. (A very weak civil rights bill was passed in 1957, in part to Democratic Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson, who worked very closely with Eisenhower.)

One of Eisenhower’s biggest domestic problem was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was determined to unearth the great Communist spy network that was going to ruin America. While many of McCarthy’s targets were Communists at some point in their lives, few were spies or disloyal to the United States. (The actual spies were too clever to get caught and most weren’t revealed until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.)

Eisenhower had to pay some lip service to McCarthy and his smear tactics during the 1952 campaign, but he quickly tired of the Senator. McCarthy finally overreached when he decided to take on the Army, an institution that Eisenhower was understandably quite proud of. McCarthy blamed George Marshall for harboring Communists in the military, an accusation that rankled Eisenhower. McCarthy even suggested in a speech that Eisenhower failed to occupy Berlin before the Soviet Army did in 1945, further endangering the country.

McCarthy was given televised hearings to investigate the Army. But, Eisenhower and his aides had developed a strategy to thwart McCarthy. If McCarthy asked for any White House documents involving the Army, Eisenhower would cite “executive privilege” and claim that he could not disclose certain activities to Congress. McCarthy began to become increasingly frustrated.

The hearings went poorly for McCarthy. He began to look more like a bully picking on defenseless people than a man thwarting the Red Menace. Eventually, McCarthy was dressed down on national TV by Army lawyer Joseph Welch. McCarthy would soon be condemned in the Senate for his behavior soon after. He would pass away in 1957 from the effects of alcoholism, which was one weakness Eisenhower and his staff tried to exploit.

Eisenhower had early successes in foreign policy. He was able to negotiate an armistice in Korea in July of 1953. That armistice lasts until this day. A covert revolution sponsored by the CIA overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and consolidated power in the Shah. This seemed like a good idea at the time as the U.S. gained a steady ally in the Middle East. But, eventually, there would be … complications.

In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat in Vietnam at the hands of Communist revolutionaries at a fortress called Dienbienphu. After the French withdrew, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist north a non-Communist south. Elections to unify the country were scheduled for 1956. But, the elections never came to pass. Eisenhower spoke of how the U.S. had to support Vietnam because if it fell into Communist hands other parts of Asia would do so as well. This gave birth to the “Domino Theory,” which became a centerpiece of American policy in Southeast Asia until the 1970s.

The nation was shaken up in September of 1955, when news that the President had suffered a heart attack while traveling in Colorado. Vice President Nixon never formally took over the Presidency while Eisenhower recovered. Fortunately, Eisenhower made a fairly rapid recovery. However, Eisenhower’s mortality would now be a campaign issue in 1956 if he chose to run for a second term. (Eisenhower would also suffer a small stroke in November of 1957, but recovered quickly with no noticeable side effects.)

As it turned out, most Americans weren’t too worried about Eisenhower’s heart. They wanted him around to look after the troubled world situation. 1956 brought about two crises, both of which the U.S. could only act as a spectator. In Egypt, President Gamel Adbul Nassar, blocked in an attempt to get financing to build the Aswan Dam, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. This brought about the ire of Britain and France, who didn’t trust Nasser and Egypt to operate the vital waterway.

The British and French, along with Israel, mobilized forces in Egypt. Israel attacked the Sinai Peninsula. The British and French moved forces in toward the Canal. This all happened very close to Election Day on November 5, 1956. U.N. peacekeepers would be called in to settle down the situation.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, dissatisfaction with the Soviet-backed leadership exploded in wide scale protests. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy returned to power, and it appeared that Hungary would throw off Communism and return to some form of a multiparty democracy. Nagy said that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

But, the Soviet Union would not accept this. On November 3, 1956, the Soviet Union, which now had Nikita Khrushchev in charge, sent troops into Hungary. Nagy and many members of his government were arrested and later executed. By November 10, a new regime, one sympathetic to the Soviet Union, was in place.

Eisenhower was caught unaware by the Suez Crisis and could only react to it and try to contain it the best he could. The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed which stated that any country could request economic or militar aid from the U.S. if it felt threatened. (This policy would be invoked in 1958 when American forces intervened in Lebanon.) As for Hungary, it was impossible for Eisenhower to take any action to support the Nagy regime in Hungary without triggering World War III.

Election Day in 1956 was November 6. Eisenhower, still running with Nixon, a man he didn’t trust very much, easily won reelection in a rematch against Stevenson. Eisenhower won 57% of the vote and 457 electoral votes.

Under the terms of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower couldn’t run for reelection. He was the first President to face this dilemma. Some thought he would be hamstrung in his ability to accomplish anything. As it turned out, Eisenhower’s problems in his second term would mostly come from events not in this world.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik. It was the first successful launching of an earth-orbiting satellite. It would make one orbit of the earth every 96 minutes, beeping along happily.

The American public was stunned that the Soviet Union had seemingly pulled so far ahead of the United States in technology. There were fears that the Soviets would be able to exploit space to send nuclear weapons at the United States. The educational system was blamed for poor math and science education. Fingers were pointed among various branches of the military over who was responsible for developing rockets.

Eisenhower, to his credit, realized that the problem with Sputnik was a political one, not a military one. Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would get the fame for the space program, but it was under Eisenhower that it began.

Wicker spends a fair amount of time in the book on one of the last big crises of Eisenhower’s administration. One of Eisenhower’s goals was to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Before Eisenhower would go to meet with Khrushchev in Paris of May of 1960, the President possibly overreached in his attempt to gather intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities.

The main instrument of intelligence gathering in the era before satellites was the U-2 aircraft. Eisenhower continued to order flights over Soviet airspace in the days preceding the summit. One plane, that took flight on May 1, 1960, was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured in the Soviet Union. On May 5, Khrushchev announced to the world that an American pilot had been captured and that Soviet airspace had been violated. Eventually, Eisenhower had to admit that he had ordered the spy flights. The summit meeting that would start on May 14, accomplished nothing.

Wicker holds Eisenhower’s feet to the fire for this, feeling that Eisenhower wasted the best chance to negotiate a test ban treaty and greatly reduce the threat of nuclear war. Wicker believes that many of the U-2 flights that Eisenhower had ordered were needless. They were inviting disaster. And a disaster occurred.

In 1960, Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines for most of the campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon did not seek out Eisenhower’s help during the campaign. Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter for a major decision that Nixon took part in, replied “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

Eisenhower’s most famous speech as President was his Farewell Address. In it, Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry as part of the American economy. He most notably came up with the phrase “the military-industrial complex” to describe the situation.

After leaving the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired to his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from a speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Eisenhower spent much of his retirement out of the public eye. On March 28, 1969, Dwight Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was now in the White House.

Wicker’s book is not one of the better efforts. The book needed some editing and several events are listed as taking place in the wrong year. You don’t get a feel of just what Dwight Eisenhower was about. What made him tick? What was his political philosophy? Why did people like him so much? There aren’t enough answers here. Just a lot of questions.

Other stuff: The Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is located in Abilene, Kansas. The Eisenhower National Historic Site is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. You can also find Eisenhower’s face on some of the older one dollar coins. They aren’t in circulation in any more.

The National Archives lists Dwight Eisenhower as a New York resident when he ran for President, but others contend he was a native of Pennsylvania at the time.

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James Buchanan by Jean Baker

President #15, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #42

You know my successor and I average a ranking of 21.5!

jamesbuchananAs I careen through the roster of American presidents, I knew that eventually I would hit bottom. There had to be someone whom historians considered to be THE WORST President ever. Historian Jean H. Baker of Goucher College lays out the case for why James Buchanan is as bad as they get. And it’s not a pretty sight.

Baker not only believes that Buchanan was just guilty of violating his oath of office by failing to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. She also believes that he may have committed treason against the United States.

Why did America’s only bachelor (and the only Pennsylvanian) President end up as such a colossal failure? Was Buchanan incompetent? Was he in over his head? According to Baker, Buchanan’s main sin was that he was so pro-Southern and pro-slavery that he would do whatever it took to appease that section of the Democratic Party. Buchanan said he believed in the Constitution; but, he only believed in his very narrow interpretation of it. Buchanan would rather have been right, than to have done right.

But, even more than Buchanan’s belief that he was right, his biggest problem, according to Baker, was his pro-Southern attitude. Buchanan may have grown up in Pennsylvania, but his closest friends and advisers were Southerners. He also believed that slavery was an institution that the Federal government had a duty to protect. His ideas on how to patch up the deepening sectional divide over the expansion of slavery served only to make matters worse.

Baker explains in an introduction that not many people want to examine the life of Buchanan. People want to believe that Presidents are heroes. And almost everyone thinks that Buchanan’s successor was the greatest President ever. But, Baker explains, there is value in learning about how someone like Buchanan, who had one of the most distinguished resumes of any person elected President, could be so bad.

Buchanan was born into a well-to-do family in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father sent him to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Buchanan wasn’t a great student, and was briefly expelled from school for bad behavior, but managed to graduate. He never spoke well of his alma mater. (The school website’s history section doesn’t mention that Buchanan attended. Baker did speak about this book at Dickinson.)

Upon graduation, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to study law as an apprentice. Buchanan felt that working in Pennsylvania’s capital would be beneficial to his practice. He passed the bar in 1812, the same year Pennsylvania moved its capital to Harrisburg. (I once got lost in Harrisburg after pulling off the highway too early. Don’t ever do that. Take my word for it. No one needs to see that much of Harrisburg.)

However, Buchanan kept his practice in Lancaster, which still was one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities. Apparently, he did a good job because he earned a sizable income and was pulling in what would be a six figure income today by the time he was 30.

Buchanan also became involved with a woman name Ann Coleman. They became engaged in 1819.  But, the marriage was called off. No one knows for sure why it happened. Baker believes that Coleman tired of Buchanan’s lack of affection for her. Also, Buchanan was seen in the company of another woman while they were engaged. Coleman died soon after (of an unknown cause, although she was extremely distraught) the engagement ended. Coleman’s father refused to let Buchanan come to his daughter’s funeral. Buchanan would never marry.

The bachelorhood of Buchanan has often been shown as “proof” that Buchanan was homosexual. Baker doesn’t believe there is any proof of it. First of all, Baker points out, no one in Buchanan’s time would have identified himself as homosexual. There were just men who sometimes had sex with other men. Denial was prevalent. Buchanan likely was involved in criminal cases as a lawyer where men were accused of homosexual acts that were deemed illegal at that time.

Also, Buchanan may have just been not interested in sex. Baker tells us that Buchanan never had to shave in his life. He couldn’t grow facial hair. She posits the idea that Buchanan may have suffered from a hormonal imbalance that left him generally uninterested in sex with anyone.

In his writings, Buchanan would mention his desire to get married, but only for career reasons. Buchanan liked the idea of a woman who would cook for him and take care of him, but he certainly didn’t want to have to be affectionate or caring or chatty.

According to Baker, Buchanan’s lack of a spouse was an important part of his Presidency. Because Buchanan had no wife and family to rely on for support, his closest friends became other government officials. And the people who tended to be the friendliest toward Buchanan were Southerners. Buchanan would, for a time, share a room (and a bed) with Alabama Senator William King. The two men were very close and Andrew Jackson dubbed them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” (Buchanan was actually a big supporter of Jackson.)

Despite his personal setbacks, Buchanan’s political career moved along well. He worked his way through Pennsylvania state government and on to the House of Representatives, and later a position as Minister to Russia.

Upon his return from Russia, Buchanan set his sights on the Senate. He lost in his first try, but the Pennsylvania Legislature elected him in 1834 to fill a vacant term. Buchanan worked his way up to the Chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

In 1844, Buchanan felt that his time had come to run for President. However, James Polk took the nomination and won the election. Polk showed his appreciation for Buchanan’s work in the campaign by naming him Secretary of State. However, Buchanan thought that he might want to serve on the Supreme Court. He vacillated between the two. Polk decided to leave Buchanan at State, tiring of Buchanan’s indecision.

Buchanan served as Secretary of State during the Mexican War, an early demonstration of America’s desire to acquire territory by any means necessary. The new territory added by the Mexican War would almost prove to be the nation’s undoing as heated debates sprung up over whether the new territory would be free or slave. Buchanan sided with pro-slavery forces; but, the matter was not decided before Polk’s term had ended.

Denied the nomination again in 1848 by the Democrats (Lewis Cass was the nominee and he lost to Whig party candidate Zachary Taylor), Buchanan found himself without a position in government. He spent time back at his Lancaster estate, Wheatland, where he kept an eye on the political scene with hope for a run for the White House again in 1852.

Buchanan was certain that 1852 was his year. But, the Democratic Convention was deadlocked for 49 ballots until Franklin Pierce, a man who would later look great compared to Buchanan, won the nomination and the election. Buchanan was given a post as Minister to the Court of St. James in London.

While it may have seemed like political exile for Buchanan to serve in London, it actually worked out to his benefit. The debate over the expansion of slavery into the new territories became even more heated. The flash point was in Kansas, which was believed to be the last part of the country that could operate with a slave-based economy. Congress, behind the efforts of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed the residents of each of those territories to decide for themselves whether or not slavery would be allowed in their borders.

Instead of this turning out to be a peaceful triumph of popular democracy, “popular sovereignity” (as Douglas’ plan was called) led to pro- and antislavery forces flooding into Kansas. Eventually, two governments were established in Kansas. Deciding which one was legitimate proved to be Pierce’s undoing. Pierce backed the proslavery Lecompton government, and disavowed the antislavery Topeka government. (The relative locations of the two Kansas cities can be seen at this link.) By the end of Pierce’s term, the matter still had not been settled. Pierce was denied renomination by the Democrats because of the uproar.

So, who did the Democrats turn to in 1856? They turned to a man who hadn’t been in the country while the debate over Kansas inflamed the people. Buchanan would finally get his chance to run for President.

Buchanan had spent his time concentrating on European affairs; although, he did participate in crafting a memorandum along with two other Southern diplomats serving in Europe called the Ostend Manifesto. This manifesto stated that the United States should use whatever means necessary to acquire Cuba from Spain. Buchanan saw Cuba as crucial to American interests, as well as a place where a slave-based economy could be put in place. The Ostend Manifesto was widely denounced in the North by antislavery forces. These antislavery politicians had formed a new political party: the Republicans.

The Republicans first nominee for President was John C. Fremont, an explorer and military hero (of sorts) from the Mexican War. Although born in Georgia and married to the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Fremont had actually served in the Senate representing California.

In a modern day campaign, the 65-year old Buchanan, a bachelor as well as a man who had to always tilt his head at an angle because his eyes didn’t always point the same direction along with being farsighted and nearsighted in different eyes, would have been no match against the dashing Fremont.  But, this was 1856. Few people saw the candidates in person. And the South dominated the Electoral College. Buchanan won election fairly easily. It also helped that the Republicans weren’t even on the ballot in Southern states.

James Buchanan now had won the job that he had sought since 1844. He filled his Cabinet with Southerners, with the exception of Lewis Cass, who was the Secretary of State. Buchanan didn’t have much use for Cass and intended to carry out foreign policy on his own, with the goal of acquiring Cuba.

In his inaugural address, Buchanan spoke of how the issue of the expansion of slavery in the territories would soon be decided by the Supreme Court. The famous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford would be decided soon after the inauguration. Scott, a slave, was suing for his freedom in Federal court on the basis that he gained his freedom when his owner moved with him to a free territory.

Buchanan had made inquiries before the March 4 inaugural to determine the status of the case. One of the justices, John Catron of Tennessee told Buchanan that the Court would rule against Scott, but only on narrow grounds.

Catron suggested that Buchanan speak with the court’s Pennsylvanian justice, Robert Grier, to get him to go along with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s broader opinion. Buchanan did so, and Taney handed down an opinion, with Grier’s concurrence, that stated that Congress had no power whatsoever to regulate slavery in the territories.

Furthermore, Taney ruled that a slaveowner held on to his slaves as his personal property in perpetuity. It was not a right that could be infringed upon by Congress. Buchanan thought that the decision settled the matter, which was naive. The Dred Scott decision only served to draw more people over to the antislavery side. Increasingly, Northerners believed that the Federal government was nothing but a tool for Southern slave owners.

More bad news came for Buchanan in the form of a financial panic. The Panic of 1857 hit the United States soon after Buchanan took office. There had been much land speculation in the West in the years prior to 1857. That market collapsed and set off a financial downturn. Buchanan, in his message to Congress about the Panic, stated that the Federal government was not empowered to give individuals any relief. Buchanan just waited for the problem to fix itself. It didn’t bother Buchanan much that Northern states were more affected by the Panic than Southern states.

But, Buchanan had more ways to screw up. And with the Kansas situation, Buchanan displayed his inability to lead in many different ways.

The problem of the two competing governments in Kansas had not been resolved when Buchanan took office. Buchanan decided to accept the proslavery Lecompton government as the legitimate one in the territory, even though it represented a minority of the residents. The Lecompton government submitted a proposed constitution to Congress. If Congress approved it, statehood would follow.

The Senate, with enough pro-slavery Southerners in office, approved the constitution. But, the House would be a different matter. The population of the free states greatly outnumbered the slave states. (Baker says it was about 80% to 20%; although, Buchanan insisted in public that it was closer to 50-50.)

Buchanan undertook an aggressive lobbying effort of House members to get them to vote in favor of the Lecompton pact. Baker writes of how Buchanan promised to use his patronage power to reward compliant House members. There was even talk that some members of the House were bribed (through intermediaries) either with money or prostitutes.

Despite Buchanan’s efforts, the House voted down the Lecompton constitution. But, Buchanan would not give up. He suggested a new bill that would have granted Kansas immediate statehood (instead of waiting to reach the recommended minimum population of 93,000) if it adopted the Lecompton constitution. Congress passed the bill, but the voters of Kansas (all of them this time as there had been earlier disputed elections), voted to not accept the pro-slavery constitution. It was rejected by a margin of 11,000 to 1,800.

In the wake of this political fiasco, the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1858 elections. An investigation was started to examine Buchanan’s actions during the Kansas constitution votes. Buchanan refused to cooperate with the investigation. He believed that Congress had no right to investigate any wrongdoing by him. (If Congress had kept looking, evidence that Buchanan’s Secretary of War received kickbacks from contractors would have turned up also.)

Buchanan had promised to serve only one term. The Democrats were happy to be rid of him. However, the Democrats split into two over the slavery issue, nominating two candidates: Stephen Douglas (whom Buchanan hated) and John Breckinridge (whom Buchanan disliked also and he was the Vice President.) John Bell of Tennessee ran as the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, a nativist faction. And, there was a fourth candidate: a Republican from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won easily despite not appearing on the ballot in any Southern state.

Faced with the prospect of an antislavery President, the state of South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede from the United States. During the final four months of Buchanan’s administration, Buchanan showed himself to be unable to deal with the problem of secession.

Buchanan believed that: 1) no state had the right to secede and 2) the Federal government had no authority to force a state to stay in the Union. So Buchanan did very little to stop the secession movement, which soon spread to other states.

Baker, and other historians of this time period, believed that Buchanan, at least, could have tried to politically isolate the more radical secessionists. This could have isolated the problem to South Carolina or a few neighboring states. But, left unchecked, almost the entire South had seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated. And, the Confederate States of America had become organized.

Buchanan compounded the problems by having so many Southerners in his administration. This gave the Confederate states intimate knowledge of the strengths of the U.S. Army, as well as Federal properties throughout the South. Baker goes as far as to accuse Buchanan of treason in the amount of assistance he gave to the Confederacy.

Eventually, Buchanan would take a stand at an Army fort in Charleston called Fort Sumter. The state of South Carolina wanted the fort surrendered. Buchanan could not accept “surrendering” a Federal facility to a state. This didn’t prevent Buchanan from entering into negotiations with South Carolina officials about the fort, granting the secessionists an air of legitimacy.

In the final two months of his Presidency, Buchanan’s Southern cabinet members resigned. Northerners were appointed to take their place. Buchanan was starting to stay up late hours and asking Cabinet members to sleep over at the White House to keep him company.

Buchanan decided that he would try to send supplies to Fort Sumter to help defend it. However, the supply ship was never able to get to the fort and offload its cargo. Eventually, Fort Sumter’s supplies would run out, but that would be after March 4, 1861. That would be Abraham Lincoln’s problem.

Of all the presidential biographies I’ve read so far, this is the first one where the author had absolutely no regard for the subject. Jean Baker found nothing redeeming in Buchanan’s life. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, if only to see just what Lincoln had to follow. No President ever took office in more trying circumstances than Lincoln. It’s quite possible that James Buchanan would be second in that category. But, only one of them succeeded at his job.

Other stuff: James Buchanan’s estate, Wheatland, is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is operated by the James Buchanan Foundation. The bibliography of suggested readings about Buchanan on the estate’s website includes Baker’s book.

James Buchanan’s birthplace is a Pennsylvania state park called, Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. It is near Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. Or Fort Loudon. Or Cowan’s Gap. Or Mercersburg. Here’s a map.

There is also a memorial to James Buchanan in Meridian Hill Park (part of Rock Creek Park) in Washington, DC.

Buchanan’s Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, was just 36 years old when inaugurated. He remains the youngest Vice President ever. Breckenridge was the SECOND Vice President to be indicted for treason (the other being Aaron Burr). Breckenridge, who served in the Confederate government, was not tried.

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