Monday, December 26, 2005

James Buchanan

This is the first biography that actually made me mad. Not necessarily at the author, but at the culture as a whole. James Buchanan, by Jean Baker is a decent short biography. It is part of the American Presidents Series, which simply introduces us to each President. It has almost nothing about his personal life, only a brief discussion of why many consider the only bachelor president to be the first homosexual president, and is much too short to be considered scholarly, but it does review his public life and make comments.

The book begins by asking in the introduction how can the most qualified man in American History to be President fail so badly at it when he finally achieved it. Buchanan had served in the state legislature with great distinction, had shown himself competent in the House, made a name for himself in the Senate, and declined invitations to sit on the Supreme Court from two separate Presidents. He also served as the Secretary of State for James K. Polk, and arguably had the most work and most success of any Secretary of State to date. He negotiated for Oregon and a peace treaty with Mexico during his four year stint in that position. He later came out of retirement to be successful as a minister to England. Yet, Buchanan is always in the bottom five Presidents of all time, and usually at the bottom as the worst President in history.

Yet, the author concludes he was a failure as a President because of his "legalistic, strict constructionist approach to the executive powers in Article 2 of the US Constitution." She goes on to state that while Buchanan prided himself that the Civil War did not break out on his watch, he was wrong. That war broke out with secession in 1860, not firing the first shot at Fort Sumter. A view that the Supreme Court confirmed in a later decision by the way.

Now, I have to admit that I am a Southerner, and that when people ask me who was right in the Civil War, I usually reply, James Buchanan. Davis and the Deep South were wrong, Lincoln and the North were wrong. Only Buchanan got it right. While the author of the book chastises Buchanan for his literal adherence to the Constitution when the great Presidents saw room for expansion of powers and did whatever it took to get the job done. Of course, Lincoln, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt are the examples usually referenced. But what makes me so mad is that maybe we should not be so results oriented. Lincoln, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt all violated the Constitution to get what they wanted. Buchanan refused to do it. He would not take to himself more power so that he could preserve the Union. He felt the Constitution gave him no ability to take an army into a rebellious state. He defended himself by pointing out that the Constitutional Convention suggested a clause that gave the President the right to correct delinquent states, and it was rejected, even Madison voted against it. Thus, he would not take that power to himself. It had been rejected explicitly. Lincoln did without care or concern, but Buchanan took his oath to uphold the Constitution a little more seriously.

Today’s culture has put results ahead of principles. Lincoln is looked upon as a great President because he ended slavery (actually the 13th Amendment ended slavery), so the Civil War is seen as the correct path and deemed right. Franklin Roosevelt is deemed a good president because they ended the Depression, and thus his New Deal must be a good thing. Harry Truman is deemed a good president because he won WWII, therefore, the Atomic Bomb is usually seen as acceptable military strategy. It is high time that we stop using the results to approve the method, and start judging presidents by the Constitution. Maybe then we would have a different view of James Buchanan.