The question-mark headline is a shoddy trick of the journalistic trade. It allows a writer to inject some concept into the minds of readers without requiring the least proof to back it up.

So I was suspicious when Smithsonian magazine -- a glossy travelogue for retirees with too much money -- took up Lancaster County's history in its recent edition under the cover headline, "Was James Buchanan our worst president?"

Suspicion confirmed. The article doesn't actually compare Buchanan to any other president. It does compare him to his Lancaster contemporary, Thaddeus Stevens, in an attempt to ramrod the grim Stevens' "moral clarity" into America's hearts, by contrasting the Congressman with the President, who emerges 800 words later slathered in insults to everything from his politics to his masculinity.

Specifically, writer Fergus Bordewich attacks Buchanan's leadership during the secession crisis of 1860-61. He relies on Goucher historian Jean Harvey Baker, who sniffs that, "Buchanan's vision was cemented in the past."

Which is to blame Buchanan for not being Lincoln. Yes, let's face the unpleasant facts. Buchanan was not Lincoln. If he had been Lincoln, he would have provoked the South, bypassed the constitution, suspended civil liberties, jailed thousands without charges, offered to guarantee slavery if the South returned, then turned around and abolished it -- but only in the places where he had no power over it.

Buchanan, arguably, could have done this, but I doubt it would have improved his historical reputation.

The Constitution, not Buchanan, kept Buchanan in the White House between Lincoln's victory and the new president's inauguration. And it was Lincoln's election victory, not Buchanan, that brought on the crisis of 1860. Buchanan was a lame-duck president from a broken political party, without a smidgen of popular backing, North or South. He lived amid swirling talk of coups. A GOP senator prayed that "some Brutus ... would arise and remove him from the scene of his earthly labors." A Chicago editor wrote that if Buchanan showed his face there, "he would be hung so quick that Satan would not know where to look for his tratorious soul."

So far from supporting the South, Buchanan denied its right to secede, especially if the pretext was nothing more than the election of a president who was likely to violate Southern rights. Yet Buchanan did not find in the Constitution as it was then written the power of the federal government to attack a state. And Congress, not the president, had the authority to levy troops, alter the Constitution, and revamp the relationship between the federal government and the states.

As it was, Buchanan defended the federal government's property where he was able to do so, principally at Fort Sumter. He made clear that he considered it his duty to collect revenues in Southern ports. He stared down the South Carolinans time after time when they demanded its surrender. At one point, Buchanan wrote to Gov. Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, "If South Carolina should attack any of these forts, she will then become the assailant in a war against the United States. It will not then be a question of coercing a State to remain in the Union, to which I am utterly opposed, ... but it will be a question of voluntarily precipitating a conflict of arms on her part ...."

He hardly had the resources to do more than hold the line: The entire U.S. Army numbered barely 16,000 men, mired in red tape, scattered across the Indian frontier and led by aged and infirm Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, who even before the election had published his opinion that the country ought to be divided into four separate confederacies.

The Constitution did not allow the president to call out a huge American army and impose his will on any place that displeased him. That is a modern view. It was invented, in part, by Lincoln.

To dismiss Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason, as the Smithsonian article does, is to write off the foundation of the American republic and the genius of the Founders. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their balanced government and its institutions.

During the crisis, Lincoln sat in Springfield and said nothing, baffling even his friends. The other Republican leaders, behind Seward, pursued a policy of "masterly inactivity," in a misplaced belief that Southern unionist could reign in the secessionists. The session of the 36th Congress that met in December merely made long speeches that nobody read. It voted no emergency measures, it raised no new troops.

In short, nobody with the opportunity did differently than Buchanan was doing. As for Thaddeus Stevens, he seems to have spent much of the crucial months killing off any efforts at a compromise to save the Union and jockeying for a cabinet post in the incoming administration (he didn't get it).

Any active step Buchanan might have taken would involve the incoming administration in inextricable complexities. Declare war on the Confederate States of America? Then that would acknowledge them as a sovereign power, and invoke international laws. Declare martial law? And throw Maryland and Virginia into turmoil, which would have made Lincoln's inauguration difficult, if not impossible? He had to sneak through Maryland after dark, as it was.

Baker damns Buchanan because he "continued to see the United States as a slaveholding republic." I'm hard-pressed to find any elected American, North or South, Lincoln included, who did not see the country as a slaveholding republic in 1860: because it was a slaveholding republic. Baker's forthcoming book on Buchanan -- her excuse for being in this article in the first place -- ought to be a real doozie.

Bordewich twists his facts to make his points. "On December 20, 1860," he writes, "South Carolina seceded; ten other Southern states followed." The piece then gallops off into a searing indictment of Buchanan for his "abyssmal" handing of the crisis and for not simply driving every Southerner out of Washington, D.C.

In fact, when Buchanan turned the government over to Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, only seven states had seceded. Virginia and Tennessee had confronted secession and rejected it at that time. Buchanan's policies let that happen. Together, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas represented half the future CSA's population and resources and held key military installations and armories. Thanks to Buchanan's touch, Lincoln still had a chance to hold them.

Even more important, Maryland, without which the North would have had to abandon Washington, D.C., remained in the Union. Secession sentiment ran strong there. Lincoln in his turn only managed to hold the state's loyalty by martial law.

But that was Lincoln's work, for which he earned his place on the national calendar and the national currency. Buchanan already has served as a stepping stone for Lincoln, a foil to reflect his successor's greatness. Now he's being asked to do the same for Stevens. Buchanan has his virtues, even if they are unfamiliar ones today. Old Buck wasn't the worst president. Far from it. Now, U.S. Grant, on the other hand ....


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© February 5, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"