The Second Doughface: James Buchanan (1857-1861)

People are saying that if Pete Buttigieg is elected in 2020, he will become the first openly gay president, but they obviously don’t know about James Buchanan. The fifteenth president’s intimate friendship with William Rufus King of Alabama, plus his lifelong bachelorhood, have pegged him as gay in the eyes of many historians. So there’s my gossip for today.

Getting down to what matters, James Buchanan was a presidential disaster; one of the worst chief executives in American history, and indeed a complete failure. This is widely agreed on, and so this entry will hardly be seen as controversial by most people, save perhaps on a couple of points.

Buchanan has nothing going for him; nothing at all. His predecessor Franklin Pierce could at least boast a robust fiscal policy that kept the nation well off. Buchanan irresponsibly increased the federal budge by 15% over his term, and his administration was one of the most corrupt in American history. The Panic of 1857 began six months into his term, and Buchanan just made things worse and caused a four-year recession.

Dreadful Dred Scott

In all other ways, Buchanan was like Pierce — a northerner who went out of his way to accommodate, encourage, and inflame the southern cause — and even worse. When he took office, the Supreme Court was considering the famous case of the slave Dred Scott, who was suing for his freedom. His master had moved from Missouri (a slave state) to Illinois and Wisconsin (free regions), then back to Missouri again; Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois State and Wisconsin Territory for four years. The laws in those places stated that slaveholders gave up their rights to slaves if they stayed there for a long time. In a 7-2 decision — and one of the worst (if not the worst) Supreme Court decision of all time — the justices ruled that Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not emancipate him. In fact they declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional, as it would “improperly deprive slave owners of their legal property”. That ruling was bad enough, but Buchanan’s lobbying for this result was appalling. He violated the separation of powers by using his executive clout to sway the court.

Buchanan’s support for the South got so extreme that it divided the Democratic Party, and he made no effort to heal that rift. On the contrary, he inflamed it, choosing like-minded Democrats for his cabinet — four from the south, and three doughfaces from the north who approved the southern cause. Then came the next outrage.

The Lecompton Affair

Picking up where Franklin Pierce left off, Buchanan showed his doughface in the Kansas crisis. Ever since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Kansas Territory had become a battleground. Pro slavery forces and abolitionists were at each others’ throats. A pro-slavery faction in Lecompton, Kansas drafted a constitution that allowed slavery, and they encouraged pro-slavery residents of Missouri to state-hop and vote illegally in Kansas, while even denying Kansas residents a vote if they favored a free state. The Lecompton government adopted a slave code that allowed only pro-slavery people to be office holders, and made it a felony to criticize slavery. Anti-slave forces were bullshit with rage by this perversion of democracy and set up their own alternate government in Topeka. Buchanan (of course) favored Lecompton over Topeka, and sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress to be approved — using bribes and threatening jobs to get the thing passed. His bribes came in all forms: cash, commissions, even whores.

The Senate passed the Lecompton constitution in 1858, but the House voted it down. Buchanan refused to give up, and tried bribing Kansas, promising to get them their statehood fast if they accepted the Lecompton constitution. Kansas, utterly incensed with Buchanan by this point, said no and adopted instead the antislavery Wyandotte constitution, entering the union as a free state in 1861.

Thanks to Buchanan, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Pierce’s shenanigans had caused enough outrage that the Republican Party was born. Buchanan — by trying to ram through an admission of a slave-state Kansas against the wish of its own people, and by using every fraudulent means at hand — had enraged the northern Democrats to a breaking point.

It was Pierce and Buchanan’s appalling interventions in Kansas that pushed the nation to Civil War, not slavery per se. And at the end of Buchanan’s term, the South wanted out.

To secede or not to secede…

Buchanan took the worst of both worlds. Once Lincoln was elected, and southern states started to secede, Buchanan sent a message to congress stating (1) that secession was illegal, but (2) that the Constitution didn’t allow him to force a state to stay in the union. He was dead wrong on both counts.

If a president so chooses, he can act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence (and the Articles of Confederation) and allow states to secede. But he also has the authority, under the mildly centralizing powers of the Constitution, to put down secession attempts — again, if he so chooses. So Buchanan could have done either. He could have let the South go, or he could have done as Millard Fillmore did in 1850, by strengthening southern forts and sending in military forces to stop secession. Either option would have averted the imminent war. Instead, Buchanan sat on his laurels and said his hands were tied.

Hating on the Mormons

Of course, Buchanan knew very well that the had the right to put down secession if he so chose. His action against the Mormons in Utah proves it. Going on the flimsiest rumors, he assumed the Mormon government to be in revolt, and immediately dispatched a 2,500-man army and a federal governor to replace Brigham Young. He didn’t hesitate for a moment to crush (what he perceived to be) the “Mormon rebellion”. But then Buchanan hated the Mormons, and loved the South.

Aggressive foreign policies

Everyone hated Buchanan. He wanted Congress to give him the authority to gather a military force for a “preventive invasion of Mexico”, and to erect military posts across the border from Arizona. Republicans and northern Democrats — and even some southern Democrats — opposed this crass belligerence, and Congress refused him.

He tried to buy Alaska from Russia but failed, and he wanted Cuba too (to make both slave states). He negotiated a treaty with Nicaragua that would have allowed the U.S. to dispatch military forces as it saw fit, but the Senate rejected it. Buchanan was as bellicose as he was nefarious.


In sum, James Buchanan has the honor of being one of three presidents on my list (the other two being Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush) who was a complete failure.

Peace — 4/20
Prosperity — 3/20
Liberty — 0/20

TOTAL SCORE = 7/60 = Complete Failure

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