James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War ed. by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner (review)
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James Buchanan, Civil War

James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. Edited by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner. (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013. Pp. 300. Cloth, $69.95.)

The sesquicentennials of Bleeding Kansas, secession, and the Civil War have prompted scholars to revisit the life and policy decisions of the [End Page 525] nation’s fifteenth president, James Buchanan. Though historians often readily accept Buchanan’s ranking as one of the worst U.S. presidents, his life and administration have received relatively little sustained scholarly attention. Quist and Birkner’s collection of essays—which emerged from a 2008 symposium held at Buchanan’s Pennsylvania estate, Wheatland—aims to bring this presidency out of “the shadows” and illuminate “the complexity of the Buchanan years” (14). To be sure, Old Buck had a lot on his plate in the late 1850s: bitter discord over the expansion of slavery (particularly in Kansas), Dred Scott, a showdown between the federal government and Mormons in Utah Territory, the Panic of 1857, filibusters in Latin America, tensions with Great Britain in Central America and the Pacific Northwest, the implosion of the Democratic Party and the rise of the Republican Party, secession, and a standoff at Fort Sumter. The essays in this volume address these topics and more. While for the most part the assessment of Buchanan’s less-than-stellar leadership stands, the essays in this thought-provoking and enjoyable volume allow historians to “revisit familiar narratives” (5) and better understand the context of Buchanan’s decisions.

The editors open the volume with a helpful review of Buchanan scholarship produced since the Civil War. This introduction is indicative of the good editorial hand at work throughout: The chapters are nicely ordered, often reference each other, and (generally) avoid rehashing information covered in prior chapters. The eight essays composing the bulk of the book are from leading scholars of antebellum politics, the 1850s, and the fifteenth president. In the first essay, historian Paul Finkelman demonstrates how “in a breach of political and judicial ethics” Buchanan conspired with Supreme Court justices to influence the Dred Scott decision (39). Such unsavory actions began the Buchanan administration “with a series of lies” and “ended [it] with a nation careening toward Civil War” (42). Independent scholar William MacKinnon argues that unlike Buchanan’s handling of other crises, the president acted boldly during a confrontation with Brigham Young and other Mormons in “the Utah War”—even as he struggled to take advice from his cabinet, refused to learn from mistakes, and did nothing to curb corruption and mismanagement of federal finances. MacKinnon’s essay connects events often discussed in isolation: Mormons and the Utah War, federal authority over western territories, the Panic of 1857, Kansas, and the secession crisis.

Historian Nicole Etcheson examines how Buchanan went so wrong [End Page 526] with his Kansas policy, wherein his failure to take decisive action and his dogged dedication to the sham Lecompton Constitution became perhaps the greatest failure of his presidency. Etcheson untangles the complicated events surrounding Lecompton and deftly explains how Buchanan’s southern sympathies, “moral tone-deafness on the issue of slavery” (88), determination to ruin Stephen Douglas, and inability to recognize that the Democracy of the 1850s was not that of the Jacksonian era all “highlighted how out of touch the president was with the concerns of a new political generation” (90). Historian John Belohlavek finds more to admire, arguing historians should “grant ‘justice’ to Buchanan’s foreign policy” (129). The president’s efforts to defend the Monroe Doctrine; acquire Cuba; “hold the line” against the British in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the “Pig War” in the American Northwest; diffuse tensions with the French in Mexico and the Russians in Alaska; and expand trade with China and Japan “often benefited the nation” (112) and were in keeping with “established principles and goals of his party and his government” (128). Historian Michael Morrison compellingly shows how Buchanan exacerbated “sectional fractures long extant in the national [Democratic] party” (136). Between incurring southern Democrats’ disfavor and disappointment, engaging in infighting with Douglas that alienated northern Democrats, and heading up patronage battles and corruption...