James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War
Publication Year: 2013
As James Buchanan took office in 1857, the United States found itself at a crossroads. Dissolution of the Union had been averted and the Democratic Party maintained control of the federal government, but the nation watched to see if Pennsylvania's first president could make good on his promise to calm sectional tensions.
Despite Buchanan's central role in a crucial hour in U.S. history, few presidents have been more ignored by historians. In assembling the essays for this volume, Michael Birkner and John Quist have asked leading scholars to reconsider whether Buchanan’s failures stemmed from his own mistakes or from circumstances that no president could have overcome.
Buchanan's dealings with Utah shed light on his handling of the secession crisis. His approach to Dred Scott reinforces the image of a president whose doughface views were less a matter of hypocrisy than a thorough identification with southern interests. Essays on the secession crisis provide fodder for debate about the strengths and limitations of presidential authority in an existential moment for the young nation.
Although the essays in this collection offer widely differing interpretations of Buchanan's presidency, they all grapple honestly with the complexities of the issues faced by the man who sat in the White House prior to the towering figure of Lincoln, and contribute to a deeper understanding of a turbulent and formative era.
Published by: University Press of Florida
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List of Figures
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This book owes its gestation to the vision of individuals associated with James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, now incorporated into a campus of history at Lancasterhistory.org. Thomas R. Ryan, executive director of Lancasterhistory.org, and Patrick Clarke, director of James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, believe strongly...
Introduction: Bum Rap or Bad Leadership?
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The nation’s fifteenth president—voted into office as the candidate most likely to keep the nation prosperous and peaceful—departed the White House in March 1861 with a broken union and the nation on the brink of civil war. Not good for one’s reputation. With a few notable exceptions, among them biographers...
1. James Buchanan, Dred Scott, and the Whisper of Conspiracy
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The president-elect stood up to give his inaugural address. As he walked to the podium, the sixty-five-year-old Buchanan stopped to chat briefly with Roger B. Taney, the nearly eighty-year-old chief justice. The two men had much in common. They had grown up in adjoining states—Maryland and Pennsylvania—and come of age in the wake of the American...
2. Prelude to Armageddon: James Buchanan, Brigham Young, and a President’s Initiation to Bloodshed
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As James Buchanan became president on March 4, 1857, his major priorities were a mixture of the crucial and the prosaic: preserving the Union, curbing civil disorders in Kansas, advancing an expansionist foreign policy, completing his cabinet appointments, dispensing the federal patronage, and recovering from the gastrointestinal...
3. General Jackson is Dead: James Buchanan, Stephen A. Douglas, and Kansas Policy
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In the winter of 1857, a controversy arising out of Kansas Territory once again convulsed Congress and the nation. A constitutional convention sitting in the territorial capital, Lecompton, had submitted a proslavery constitution to Congress, requesting admission to the Union as a slave state. Despite serious problems with how the convention...
4. In Defense of Doughface Diplomacy: A Reevaluation of the Foreign Policy of James Buchanan
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In his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the early American republic, What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe easily distinguishes the forces of good from the forces of evil. Two visions contested each other for the heart, mind, and future of nineteenth-century America. The Whig view embodied technology, factories...
5. President James Buchanan: Executive Leadership and the Crisis of the Democracy
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When James Buchanan died in June 1868, the New-York Times obituary scorned that he met “the crisis of secession in a timid and vacillating spirit, temporizing with both parties, and studiously avoiding the adoption of a decided policy.” Following Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the paper sniffed, he “retired to the privacy...
6. The South has been Wronged: James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis
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This essay considers President James Buchanan’s words and actions during the secession crisis, specifically the period from Abraham Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860, until Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. During these final four months of Buchanan’s presidency, seven Southern states left the Union and in February...
7. "In the Midst of a Great Revolution": The Northern Response to the Secession Crisis
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In the judgment of the wife of California Democratic senator William M. Gwin, James Buchanan was “a better man than the world gives him credit for.”1 Buchanan is often given low marks by historians for his handling of secession, with the implication that had he acted differently there would have been no Civil War. My intention...
8. Joseph Holt, James Buchanan, and the Secession Crisis
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Nothing is likely to rehabilitate President James Buchanan’s reputation. At best, we recall an inept chief who dithered ineffectually while blindly allowing disloyal underlings to betray his trust and imperil the very integrity of the nation. A more scathing version sees the president himself as a knowing ally of those who conspired...
9. A Conversation with William W. Freehling and Michael F. Holt, September 19, 2008
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John W. Quist: Tonight we are pleased to have with us two of the most distinguished and influential historians of the Civil War era: William W. Freehling and Michael F. Holt. After Professors Freehling and Holt make a few introductory remarks, in which they will offer some reflections on the 1850s from the...
Epilogue: Buchanan’s Civil War
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If James Buchanan uttered any memorable line during the Civil War era, it was doubtless the one he purportedly expressed to Abraham Lincoln on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861. “My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”1 Like other retired presidents...
List of Contributors
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Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2013