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.