Lincoln’s Bookends

Nearly all presidential performance polls rank Abraham Lincoln as one of the top two presidents in American history (his current competition happens to be George Washington, with FDR usually claiming the bronze).  While Lincoln is impressive on his own merits, it does not hurt that both his predecessor and successor currently dwell at the bottom of the same polls.  Yet something can be learned from comparing the presidential performances of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.  Such was in the back of historian Glenn LaFantasie’s mind yesterday, in which he explained why at this moment he thinks that Buchanan should bring up the rear (let’s set aside his estimate of George W. Bush for the moment).

LaFantaise’s essay focuses on Buchanan’s behavior during the secession crisis, where he describes how the president was largely ineffectual in preventing things from getting out of hand.  He should have done something, LaFantasie concludes.  But what exactly should Buchanan have done?  What could he have done?  Indeed, if one is going to go after Buchanan’s presidency, I’d focus on his first two years in office, where he embraced the Dred Scott decision (and may have helped influence it … surely he had early notice of what the Court would decide), tried to force the Lecompton farce down the throats of northern Democrats by whatever means were at hand, went after Stephen A. Douglas (and thus divided his party), and proved unable to address the political and economic fallout resulting from the Panic of 1857.  Republican gains in 1858 set the stage for Lincoln’s victory in 1860, and Buchanan bears a great deal of responsibility for the sinking fortunes of his party in the North.

As Douglas once pointed out, Buchanan was no Andrew Jackson.  During the early part of the secession crisis he waffled, unable to figure out what to do.  In the end, however, he held on to what federal installations were still under his control, limited secession to the seven Deep South states, and left his successor with at least a few cards to play when a premature response with insufficient resources might have made things worse.  No one can confuse this with presidential greatness, but when I hear a historian say someone should have done something, I inevitably respond, “Like what?”

In contrast, take Andrew Johnson.  Please.  Here’s a man who stomped all over the promise of freedom for African Americans, did everything he could to overlook or excuse terrorist violence, and who welcomed back into the Union former Confederates who were intent on destroying the fruits of Union victory, thus making sure that those Union dead (white and black) would have died in vain.  Johnson spoke about driving Congress away by force, tampered with official correspondence for partisan gain, did all he could to obstruct the law of the land, and made a fool of himself as a public speaker while humiliating the office that he held.

And that’s just for starters.  Had he not benefited from the timidity of Republican lawmakers who decided to hide behind the frail reed that was the Tenure of Office Act instead of going after Johnson for failure to perform the responsibilities of his office (as in to execute, not obstruct, the law) and who time after time left loopholes in legislation that Johnson skillfully exploited, he would have found himself out of office.  Impeachment became a bungled procedure, and yet it would have resulted in conviction had not several moderate Republicans calculated the political costs of that act and decided that it was better to take back the White House through the usual process of winning an election.  Johnson survived despite himself (although he managed to assume a relatively profile during the time of the impeachment trial after first declaring that he wanted to defend himself before the Senate, which surely would have resulted in a quick conviction).   Those Johnson apologists who claim that their hero fought to preserve presidential powers from a rapacious Radical Republican Congress simply don’t know what they are talking about.  After all, it was Johnson who so misused those powers as to place the office in danger in the first place: to reward him for that is akin to giving someone a lifesaving medal for his failure to drown someone.

There’s a difference between incompetence and evil, maladroit acts and malevolent ones, and those distinctions mark the difference between James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, who remains in my book the worst president we have ever had … by a substantial margin.

2 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Bookends

  1. Mark February 22, 2011 / 8:54 am

    I don’t think you have this right, in all respects. Buchanan was the evil one, who went far beyond any rational or moral boundaries, if only by siding behind the scenes with the most corrupt, vile, and violent group in US history – the slavers.

    First of all, Buchanan was part of the Dred Scott corruption, AND was eager to accept Kansas as a slave state after the murderous insaninty of Lecompton.

    If there are two evil deeds in US history (other than slavery itself) it is the Dred Scott corruption, and Lecompton. Buchanan was an eager part of both. He was like a policeman who drove the the killers and psychopaths to the bank, unlocked the door, and made sure no real cops came by to stop the robbery.

    I don’t give him a lot of credit for later saying he wished the bad guys wouldnt do bad stuff, which is about all Buchanan ever did, and he did that late.

    It’s long been disputed what role Buchanan had in Dred Scott corruption, but since most people — even most “history” teachers –have no idea what Dred Scott corruption was about, it’s hard to imagine they know Buchanan’s duplicity in it.

    Dred Scott was the decision that said blacks were not even human in eyes of the law – and not only that, blacks could not be MADE into human by any Congress or state. The corruption even said blacks were so “inferior” than no reasonable man could possibly assume they had any rights from God, any rights that white man had to obey.

    Naturally, when we teach our children about Dred Scott, 90% of the text talks idiotically about Dred Scott’s geographic history. Not one WORD about Dred Scott being found to be not a human, which was the fundamental ruling, and the desired effect, of the corruption. It took a war to undo this nonsense.

    To the extent we mention Dred Scott to our children, we say it was about “citizenship”.

    Citizenship? Lincoln had it right – he said Dred Scott corruption was to make blacks into property (non-human) and “nothing but property”. Lincoln knew what he was talking about.

    Lincoln also pegged Buchanan for being part of this corruption. And he pegged Davis for being part of it. There is no known evidence that Buchanan participated with the Dred Scott “deciders” on the Court, but there is no question Buchanan tried to validate and give support to the most corrupt decision in US history. All Buchanan’s actions are consistent with his participation and knowledge of the decision before it was announced.

    Some say, well Buchanan was just trying to keep the peace. Actually Jefferson Davis said that if Dred Scott had gone the OTHER way, if the Court had ruled slavery was wrong, the South would have stopped slavery. I kid you not – -go read his book, that is what the man said. Davis wrote that the whole nation was going to abide by Dred Scott decision, no matter what it was! Funny stuff. The truth was, Davis, Buchanan, and slave power had arranged for this corruption.

    So by Davis own logic, Dred Scott corruption was the deciding factor . Anyway, Buchanan went along (and probably was in on it before it was announced). That alone makes him the worst president in US history.

    Of course Buchanan also supported the Lecompton corruption — an absurdity so foul, even Stephen A Douglas was offended by it. Thugs had created their own “government” in Lecompton and announced their new state would be a slave state. The absurdity of this is revealed when later, in a real election, slavery was rejected 98% to 2%. Kansas was probably the most anti-slavery place on earth, yet Southern thugs (that’s what they were) had tried to distort, lie, and kill, to spread their slavery there.

    Buchanan was part of that too.

    Buchanan could have stood up AT ANY TIME –he could have announced, as Lincoln did, that it was illegally and fraudulently decided, that it was vile, repugnant, over reaching, and corrupt. That it was a tool by slavers to force the spread of slavery by deception because they could not spread slavery by honorable means (as if that’s possible).

    Buchannan could have done the same thing to Lecompton debacle. Buchanan went along with both, enthusiastically. Both these things were greasing the skids for the Civil War, and both were opportunities to stand up and make a difference. Buchanan not only backed the wrong horse, he fed it, enouraged it, and was the lackey of the owner.

  2. Mike Stone, Peterborough, England January 20, 2015 / 2:26 pm

    Interesting to speculate on how they’d be regarded had they held office the other way round.

    As a Democrat, Johnson would no doubt have been proslavery, but he would have supported the Homestead Act (a pet project of his) which would have improved the Democrats’ chances in 1860.

    Had Lincoln won, Johnson would have been fiercely anti-secession, and I could imagine him sending troops into South Carolina when it seceded, ie before the Confederate Army was properly organised. Could have shortened the war.

    As for Buchanan, had be been President after Lincoln, he was a Northerner and would have no particular reason to favour the South, so he probably wouldn’t have collided with Congress the way Johnson did. In short, they might both be quite well remembered. Timing is all..

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