This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/
James Buchanan started his presidency under the shadow of the impending Dred Scott decision. The Dred Scott case involved a slave who had been brought to the free Wisconsin territory. Scott argued that he became free upon entering free states and territories. Buchanan stated that the territorial question was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally”, and proclaimed that when the decision came he would “cheerfully submit, whatever this may be”. Why was Buchanan so willing to accept the courts decision in the Dred Scott case? Because Buchanan had interfered in the decision as president elect. He had wrote Justice John Carton in January inquiring about the case, and suggesting that a broader decision should be returned. Carton had responded to Buchanan that the decision would be against Dred Scott, but it would be a narrow decision without northern support. Buchanan then went on to convince fellow Pennsylvanian Justice Robert Cooper Grier to allow the court to leverage the case into a much broader decision that would repeal the Missouri Compromise. Clearly Buchanan thought that by agreeing with the cases decision before it was handed down, would help to garner public support. This was very disingenuous, since Buchanan himself actually changed the scope of the case.
On the issue of slavery, and it’s extension, Buchanan believed in “popular sovereignty”, which would allow residents of a territory to decide for themselves whether a territory would become a free state or slave state by popular vote. While popular sovereignty may have sounded like the fairest way to decide the issue, it was basically a ruse by pro slavery forces as a way of spreading slavery. Having already filled up all the territory where slavery was allowed under the Missouri Compromise with existing states, popular sovereignty, or the introduction of new territory was the only way slavery could be expanded. New territory had been already added to the nation with the annexation of Texas, which expanded slavery, and the lands gained through the Mexican-American war, which ended up being unsuitable. There were a few attempts at adding Cuba, but those had been blocked. Seeing that territorial expansion had run it’s course, pro slavery forces had now turned to popular sovereignty as their only hope. In affect popular sovereignty would only apply to areas where slavery had been barred, making proslavery forces the only potential winners.
Buchanan showed his pro-slavery colors during the Kansas crisis. Ever since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the territory of Kansas had become a battleground between pro-slavery forces and abolitionist. Pro slavery forces felt that the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed with the idea that Kansas would enter the union as a slave state and Nebraska would enter as a free state. They saw this as a 50-50 compromise, and the abolitionist push into Kansas as an attack on their rights. The abolitionist seen slavery as a moral injustice that shouldn’t be allowed to spread, they in fact wanted it to be outlawed. Buchanan felt that sectional tensions would be eased if Kansas entered the union as a slave state brining back the 50-50 balance that had been upset when California became a state. The problem is that such a balance would not last long, eventually the larger numbers of people in Free states would have eventually settled more states. If Kansas had entered the union as a slave state, the free soil residents could have simply moved north to Nebraska and re-upset the balance. Once the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution was submitted to congress, Buchanan whole heartedly pursued his 50-50 policy. He made every effort to secure Congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments and even cash for votes. The fact that the Lecompton constitution had been approved through widespread voter fraud and against Buchanan’s beloved principle of popular sovereignty didn’t seem to bother him at all.
With the impending election of Abraham Lincoln as President, secession of southern states became a real possibility. As current president, James Buchanan sat idly by and did nothing. Once Lincoln was elected, and states stared to secede, Buchanan sent a message to congress stating, that secession was illegal, but that the government couldn’t do anything to stop them. Had Buchanan actually acted, as Milliard Fillmore did in 1850, by strengthening southern forts and moving military forces where they could be used to stop secession, war might have been averted. Instead Buchanan allowed the rebels time to strengthen their government and defenses, helping to lead to the bloodiest war in American history.
Oddly enough, in the face of another rebellion of sorts, Buchanan had no trouble with flexing military muscles, even though he had incomplete information. In March of 1857 Buchanan received conflicting information from federal judges, that Mormons had been disrupting their offices. Buchanan accepted the wildest rumors and sent the Army in, and disposed Brigham Young as governor replacing him with a non Mormon. Buchanan obviously had no trouble squashing a rebellion in Utah on scant, conflicting reports and little to no evidence. This is in direct opposition to his non reaction to southern secession, shows that his understanding of the office seems to have been molded by personal prejudices more than the law.
Buchanan also presided over the panic of 1857, which was brought on, in part by the Tariff of 1857. The revised tariff law lowered rates on manufactured goods, lowering demand for American built goods leading to a depression in the manufacturing sector. Buchanan further exuberated the problem by reducing the money supply, creating a credit crunch. Buchanan’s poor handling of the economy caused this recession to last until the outbreak of the civil war, and led to massive debt increases during his term.