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  • The Worlds of James Buchanan and Thaddeus Stevens: Place, Personality, and Politics in the Civil War Era. ed. by Michael J. Birkner, Randall M. Miller and John W. Quist
  • David N. Gellman (bio)

James Buchanan, Thaddeus Stevens, Sectional crises, Politics

The Worlds of James Buchanan and Thaddeus Stevens: Place, Personality, and Politics in the Civil War Era. Edited by Michael J. Birkner, Randall M. Miller, and John W. Quist. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. 288. Cloth, $47.50.)

The instincts and alliances that propelled James Buchanan to the political apex also shredded the nation and his historical standing. Thaddeus Stevens left behind a more celebrated legacy by devoting his career not to sectional comity and white supremacy but to a new revolutionary foundation for the country’s future. Stephen A. Douglas, Buchanan’s Democratic Party rival and the third protagonist in this essay collection, lacked the imagination, moral or political, to find a viable path between the Democracy of the past and the Republicanism of the future. One of the striking takeaways from this compilation is how strongly conventional politicians clung to the assumption of continuity as the political world around them collapsed.

Buchanan’s reputation as a northern political striver ever willing to serve the interests of the slaveholding South corresponds with aspects of his social life explored in this volume. Thomas J. Balcerski’s essay on the “Domestic Politics of Doughfacery” correlates the bachelor senator’s Washington boardinghouse friendships with southern colleagues to the votes Buchanan cast between 1834 and 1841. He saw the gag rule and slavery through the eyes of his friends. Joan E. Cashin digs deeper into gender in a brief, intriguing essay on Buchanan’s platonic friendship with Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis’s not-so-happily-married wife. The unionist-inclined spouse of the future president of the Confederacy conveyed her fondness for Buchanan as she left Washington—a dying ember of the intersectional warmth the northerner had long cultivated. Yet abiding personal loyalty to those who undertook political missions on his behalf does not appear to be a hallmark of Buchanan’s style, as William P. Mackinnon seeks to illustrate in a case study of Thomas L. Kane’s service to resolve the 1857 Utah War.

The major crises of the 1850s revealed character and ideological commitments. Enter Douglas, whose presidential ambition matched Buchanan’s. The senator from Illinois shared not only a party with Buchanan but also the knowledge that a southern alliance required encouragement of territorial expansion. Managing to minimize political risk and sectional strife [End Page 519] was the tricky part. In an intriguing essay, Matthew Pinsker investigates an oft-cited 1857 exchange in which Douglas allegedly faced down Buchanan over the president’s accession to the proslavery Lecompton constitutional gambit in Kansas. When Buchanan claimed Andrew Jackson’s mantle of authority over the Democratic party, Douglas allegedly responded, “Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead, sir” (83). Pinsker believes historians have been too credulous. The story first emerged in 1858 and resurfaced during the waning days of the 1860 presidential campaign. Douglas wished to appear far more resolute in opposition to proslavery machinations in Kansas than he actually had been. If he could not win the presidency, he could at least inflict some rhetorical vengeance against his nemesis in the White House.

Known for their ambition-driven political acumen, these men struggled to navigate a rupturing national landscape. Douglas R. Egerton dis-mantles Stephen A. Douglas’s judgment by exposing popular sovereignty as a colossal miscalculation. The midwesterner-who-would-be-president “crafted a policy that was despised by both free-soilers and fire-eaters” (72). Politically speaking, the Illinois senator would have been better off embracing a racist, whites-only free-soil approach to the Kansas territory that would have preserved the Missouri Compromise. Instead, he paved the way for the Republican Party to flourish in the North. Buchanan’s comprehension of what was possible proved just as hopeless. Amy S. Greenberg describes how President Buchanan hewed to the old pro-southern Democratic script of Manifest Destiny, as if bullying and buying the United States’ way to...


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pp. 519-521
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