- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Few historians question that James Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln in the White House, was one of the nation’s worst presidents.

Although a native of Pennsylvania, he was a friend of slavery. The traditional picture of Buchanan on the eve of the Civil War is that of a timid, vacillating president unwilling to deal with the secession crisis.

A lifelong Democrat, Buchanan viewed his party as the protector of an increasingly polarized Union. As leader of a party whose strength lay in the slaveholding South, he discounted the moral opposition to slavery in the North that grew rapidly during his term of office.

For all his shortcomings, Buchanan holds two distinctions. As many will recall, he was the country’s only bachelor president. More interesting, he was the first president to write his memoirs.

Earlier presidents, including John Quincy Adams and James K. Polk, kept diaries that have become important historical resources. Other presidents assured that their important speeches and political letters appeared in print and thus reached the public. Buchanan, however, was the first president to write a book designed solely to put his administration in the best possible light.

The book is not an autobiography — we learn nothing of Mr. Buchanan’s early years — but a defense of his character and his much-maligned administration in the critical years between 1857 and 1861. He did not believe, as many Democrats did, that the Civil War had been unconstitutional; indeed, he had supported the war since the attack on Fort Sumter. The charge that he had been a weak president was galling.

His ponderous rebuttal, “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion,” was completed in 1862 but was not published until 1866. (Reprints in both hardcover and paperback formats are available.) The author explained in his preface that publication was delayed to avoid any embarrassment to the Lincoln administration in time of war. Indeed, Buchanan’s tome rarely mentions Lincoln, who was still being mourned by his countrymen when it appeared.

The book, to a greater extent than any other presidential memoir, is a relentless defense of Buchanan’s actions as president. Writing in the third person, the author contends, “Both before and after he became President [Buchanan] was an earnest advocate of compromise between the parties to save the Union, but Congress disregarded his recommendations.”

So did most of the North, and with good reason. In 1857, Buchanan urged compliance with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared that any restriction of slavery in the Western territories was unconstitutional. In his memoir, Buchanan appears pained that the court’s decision did not lay the slavery issue to rest. Instead of accepting the wisdom of the court’s decision, he wrote, the Republicans “denounced and repudiated it in every possible form from the first moment.”

The former president deplored the failure of Northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, an integral part of the Compromise of 1850. He insisted that his administration had sought to implement the law in good faith, despite “great loss and inconvenience to the master, and with considerable expense to the Government.” One must not inconvenience those slave masters.

One of Buchanan’s prime villains is Sen. William H. Seward of New York, who, according to the author, “raised a storm which, like others of whom we read in history, he wanted both the courage and the power to quell.” Another of the president’s targets is Stephen A. Douglas, the senator from Illinois. Douglas was the only Democrat capable of maintaining the coalition of the South and the Northwest, but he offended Buchanan, who chose to support the senator’s pro-slavery rivals.

The ex-president reflected on the nature of the Constitution and the legality of secession. The framers of that document “never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were they at its creation guilty of the absurdity of providing for its own destruction,” he wrote. At the same time, he found no legal justification for coercing a state. He quoted approvingly from his annual message of 1861:

“After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such [coercive] power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the Federal Government. It is manifest, upon an inspection of the Constitution, that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress.”

Also, because the responsibility of the president was solely to implement the laws of Congress, the president was powerless to act against secession.

The book reflects the distant, legalistic approach Buchanan brought to the presidency. In the words of one biographer, Philip Klein, “The book, like its author, was dignified, restrained, and rather dull.”

Though not without historical interest, “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion” is not the best choice for your next flight.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War topics.

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