- James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War Ed. by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner, and: 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year Ed. by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaugh Gabbard
James Buchanan suffers from the dual distinction of being one of the lesser discussed and least respected presidents in U.S. history. His proximity to the most iconic of chief executives exposes his shortcomings because it raises the inevitable question: what would Lincoln have done? Both of these volumes provide particular insight into the leadership styles of both Buchanan and Lincoln; taken together, they successfully outline the qualities that separated the two administrations.
Coedited by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner, James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War contains nine essays that seek to offer an inclusive overview of the bachelor president’s time in office. Topics include Buchanan’s dubious involvement in the Dred Scott case, his handling of the Utah War, and his foreign policy exploits. Collectively, these essays refute the popular image of Buchanan as an inactive president, idly sitting on his hands while the sectional crisis unfolded. On the contrary, while the essays differ in their overall assessments of Buchanan, they develop a theme around his activism in the controversies leading up to the Civil War.
In the first piece, Paul Finkelman argues that James Buchanan wielded the bully pulpit to redefine government’s role in the sectional crisis. Buchanan’s inaugural address epitomized this approach and contains remarkable elements [End Page 81] that are often overlooked. Most significantly, Buchanan outright endorsed the Supreme Court’s looming decision in the Dred Scott case. In doing so, he conceded the issue of slavery in the territories to the judgment of the judicial branch, a remarkable shift in executive policy for a number of reasons. First, dating back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress claimed the power over determining slavery in the territories. Additionally, Buchanan identified strongly with Andrew Jackson, certainly no advocate of bowing to the Supreme Court. Yet, as Finkelman explains, promising to support the as-then-unannounced decision was not the political gamble that it seems. In what today would be a breach of judicial ethics, Buchanan shared correspondence with members of the Supreme Court discussing the case and was therefore well aware of the outcome at the time of his inaugural address. The president’s informants shared “not only how the case would be decided but enlisted his support for lining up votes in favor of the majority opinion” (38). Thus, Buchanan’s inaugural address was not a call for unconditional reconciliation around the eventual decision, but instead a strategic framing exercise wherein the new president attempted to distance himself and his party from potential fallout. Unfortunately for Buchanan, his attempt at realpolitik backfired, as the Democratic Party found itself in the untenable position of reconciling Dred Scott with popular sovereignty.
For a complete portrait of the Buchanan presidency, this volume strives to focus on more than the sectional crisis. William P. MacKinnon’s contribution focuses on Buchanan’s leadership during the Utah War of 1857. Early in his presidency, Buchanan was faced with the problem of Brigham Young’s governorship in the Utah Territory. Young’s vision of Utah as a theocratic state was irreconcilable with the federal government’s expectation that it should be just another territory among many. MacKinnon argues that Buchanan deserves credit for taking the issue head-on in a way that his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, had not. Still, weak leadership hampered the installation of a new governor from the outset. The poor construction of Buchanan’s cabinet, overburdened with age, indifference, and incompetence, left Buchanan on his own to develop strategies with little relevant experience and limited information. Mackinnon suggests that the problem was not...