Everyone knows that 2009 marked the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Also common knowledge is the fact that Lincoln consistently ranks first among scholars, pundits, and members of the general population when it comes to US presidents. His two inaugural addresses, meanwhile, are rated among the best in American history. Indeed, the text of the second inaugural address adorns the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Nothing similar can be said about Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, however. Buchanan is usually placed at the very bottom of the list of presidents, and his inaugural address is widely regarded as one of the least effectual of all those delivered by the nation's chief executives.1
Whereas Lincoln's speeches have rightly received much attention from scholars, relatively little attention has been paid to the address delivered by Buchanan that cold yet sunny day in March, 1857. Buchanan's most sympathetic modern biographer devotes barely two lines to it.2 Even those writing in the late nineteenth century who attempted to explain and justify the many failures of Buchanan's tempestuous four years in office had little to say about his speech.3 The reasons for such oversights appear to be obvious: Buchanan was no Lincoln to be sure; the fruits of secession, civil war, followed in Buchanan's wake; Buchanan never had a reputation as a keen wordsmith or as an accomplished public speaker; the inaugural address itself appears insignificant given the events of 1857-61, let alone 1861-65; Buchanan was almost universally reviled at the time of his death in 1868. Like the man and his term in office, the fifteenth president's inaugural address has for the most part been consigned to the relics of history.
In the 1990s, however, a group of eminent antebellum historians declared that much more work needed to be done on Buchanan and his presidency. History's verdict on Buchanan, they said, cannot merely be that he was the antithesis of Lincoln. They suggested a number of questions on Buchanan that remained to be answered including "How did he define his presidential role?" and "What was his concept, his view, of the power of the presidency?"4 In addition, there are other recurring questions concerning the Buchanan presidency such as "Why did Buchanan assemble such a weak cabinet?"; "What were his real views of the institution of slavery?"; "And how could he have believed that the Supreme Court through the Dred Scott decision would provide a definitive settlement to the slavery issue?" All these questions remain, with nothing having come along to surpass Philip Klein's analysis of Buchanan written nearly a half a century ago.5
This article suggests that an examination of the content and background of Buchanan's inaugural address goes a long way towards answering these lingering questions. The speech demonstrates conclusively that James Buchanan was first and foremost a diplomat. As such, he was both unprepared and temperamentally incapable of providing the kind of strong presidential leadership that the nation so desperately needed at this critical juncture in its history. Simply put: James Buchanan was tragically ill equipped to become the nation's chief executive at a time of burgeoning crises.
The inaugural ceremony that took place on March 4, 1857 was in many ways one of the most momentous in American history. It contained a number of significant firsts and lasts. The ceremony was the first to be photographed and the first to take place after the formation of the Republican Party. On the other hand, it was the last that included the participation of all states before secession, and it marked the last time a Democratic president would take the oath for more than a generation, or until 1885, to be exact. Few inaugurations have been as portentous or as different in tone and substance from the subsequent ceremony held four years later.
The James Buchanan Inaugural, March 4, 1857. Photograph attributed to John Wood. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Treasures Collection.
Buchanan's speech that day consisted of four major components, with the most striking contrast being between the section on slavery and the section...