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“James Buchanan.” Atlantic Monthly 52 (November 1883): 707-711.

Mr. Curtis has undertaken in these two goodly volumes to rehabilitate James Buchanan. Such a task was probably more congenial to Mr. Curtis than it would be to most American writers; but even a large measure of sympathy could not have made the labor easy. James Buchanan has rested, and still rests, under a heavy weight of obloquy. At the crisis of his own and the nation’s fate, men on both sides lost all faith in him, and the clouds of popular contempt and distrust hung darkly over his declining years. He failed to disperse these clouds himself, and the effort has now been renewed by Mr. Curtis, under more favorable auspices and with better opportunities. The only point worth considering in the limited space at our command is how far Mr. Curtis has succeeded in his attempt.

At the outset it may be said that the biography is entirely worthy of its author’s well-known abilities. It is neither brilliant nor picturesque, but it is cool and clear, admirably reasoned in the argumentative portions, thorough, careful, and exact. We have noted only one error, so trifling in importance as hardly to deserve reference, but singular in the work of a writer so thoroughly well informed and so painstaking as Mr. Curtis. On page 38 (vol. i.) Mr. Curtis says, speaking of the presidential candidates, that in the year 1824, “Mr. Crawford, who had formerly been a senator from Georgia, was not in any public position.” Mr. Crawford was at that time Secretary of the Treasury, an office which he had held since 1816, and which he continued to hold, despite his partial paralysis, until the inauguration of Mr. Adams in March, 1825. Indeed, it was the possession of the Treasury Department which was Mr. Crawford’s chief source of strength as a candidate for the presidency.

It may be admitted at the outset that Mr. Curtis has shown that Mr. Buchanan was a man of much more intellectual force than has been popularly supposed of late years. This in one sense gives Mr. Buchanan a better standing historically. At the same time the proof of superior ability enhances the responsibility of its possessor, and justly subjects him to a severer judgment.

James Buchanan sprang from the vigorous Scotch-Irish race which flourished so extensively in Pennsylvania, and he was a strange scion to come from such a stock. It is well known that among certain virgin tribes of Africa perfectly white children have been born. These freaks of nature are commonly known as albinos, and we cannot describe Buchanan better than by saying that he was the Albino child of his tribe. The Scotch-Irish have in their veins the blood of Scotland and of Puritan England. Transplanted to Ireland, they found themselves in the midst of a people alien in blood and religion, and intensely hostile. They lived in their new home surrounded by danger, and engaged in constantly recurring wars. By nature hard and strong, such conditions intensified all their most salient qualities. They became a hot-headed, vindictive, unreasonable, and at the same time a singularly brave, reckless, and determined people. They were essentially fighters in every nerve and fibre of their being. From such a strongly marked race, whose normal outcome and highest types in our own country were Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun, came James Buchanan. His people were quick in quarrel and heavy of hand. He never quarreled with anybody, and was above all things a man of peace. They were reckless, daring, impatient. He was cool, cautious, timid, enduring. He had no characteristics of his race except a quiet tenacity of purpose, a religious temperament, and a certain austerity of life and thought, the traces of a vigorous blood lingering amid a mass of wholly alien and different qualities. Above all, James Buchanan was smooth, sleek, and plausible, – traits as foreign to his ancestry as pink eyes to that of the dwellers by the Congo.

At the same time, this Scotch-Irish Albino was admirably adapted for success in politics when everything was calm, or when there were no more than the ordinary fluctuations of party strife. An agreeable story-teller and talker, with pleasant, affable manners, Mr. Buchanan was invariably liked in society, and always obtained an easy popularity. His most attractive side was toward his family and immediate friends. He had a deep vein of real sentiment, as shown by his luckless love affair, which shadowed and darkened his whole life. This and a very kindly nature, and an amiable and even temper, made him beloved by all who were closest to him. With an unusual warmth Mr. Curtis extols Mr. Buchanan’s letters to Miss Lane. He seems to us to have greatly exaggerated the merit of these productions. They are clear and sensible, but perfectly commonplace, exhibiting little humor and not great depth or acuteness of observation. Nevertheless they are thoroughly kind and affectionate, and together with his generous conduct toward his favorite niece, and indeed toward all his relatives, show a gentle and lovable nature in private life.

These same qualities which made Mr. Buchanan beloved at home made him popular abroad. He offended no one, and every one was glad to help him forward. Moreover, Mr. Buchanan had many admirable qualifications for a public servant and practical statesman. He was very industrious and thorough. He always was a master of the subject in hand. He was a clear, smooth, plausible speaker, and a close and lucid reasoner. He was a sound lawyer, and remarkably learned and able as an expounder of the constitution. He would have made an excellent judge, and it was a cruel fate which kept him from the supreme bench in 1845, to raise him to the presidency in 1857.

Starting as a Federalist and rising rapidly in politics during the era of good feeling, Mr. Buchanan, with that unerring instinct for the winning side which is a characteristic of such natures as his, attached himself to the fortunes of General Jackson. Any other man would have failed in this alliance if he had had the experience which befell Buchanan. General Jackson was engaged in reiterating the proved falsehood of bargain and corruption against Mr. Clay, and finally cited Mr. Buchanan as his witness to Mr. Clay’s efforts to make a trade in 1824, first with one candidate, and then with another. Buchanan, never having attempted to negotiate in Mr. Clay’s behalf, utterly failed to sustain Jackson’s statement. So far as pressing and repeating the charge was concerned, this offered no let or hindrance to the hero of New Orleans; but at the same time Buchanan’s failure to support him was a serious offense in the eyes of Jackson. It would have been the ruin of any other man. Buchanan, however, soon effaced it from the general’s memory, and such a feat shows a power for conciliation which is rarely to be met with. The way in which he had been mollified ought to have convinced Jackson that the man capable of such dexterous management had a genius for diplomacy. Whether he thought so or not, he sent Mr. Buchanan as Minister to Russia, and both there and at a later period in London Mr. Buchanan showed the greatest aptitude for the highest diplomacy. Inoffensive and yet persistent, adroit, patient, determined, he almost always succeeded in carrying his point, and he was thoroughly informed as to all questions of our foreign relations. Above all, he was an uncompromising American in all his thoughts and feelings, and he never appears to greater advantage than in the many complicated affairs with which he dealt as Secretary of State and as Minister to Russia and England.

Gradually Mr. Buchanan rose in the political world. His industry, capacity, and even temper all helped his elevation. He was also a thorough party man. He swallowed every doctrine of his party, and was an unflinching adherent of every notion originated by Jackson, including the spoils system and the theory of rotation in office. He never hesitated at anything, and in some of the speeches quoted by Mr. Curtis there is a cheap partisanship of tone and statement unworthy of a man who had as much statesman-like ability as Mr. Buchanan. But this very partisanship was a recommendation in the right quarter. It required no great perspicacity to perceive that the South ruled the democratic party, and that whoever would rise in that party was obliged to serve the South. From this Mr. Buchanan did not shrink. He was the faithful servant of the South for years. He supported all the Southern measures. He was in favor of the annexation of Texas, and he helped on the infamy of the Mexican war, covering the progress of the slavery movement with all sorts of smooth and specious pretexts and excuses, while he kept strictly for home consumption a very mild disapproval of the system of slavery as an abstract theory.

As he prosperously advanced in his public career, the great prize of the presidency came nearer and nearer. But Mr. Buchanan was above all things patient. He knew how to wait. He put by the crown more than once, and judiciously withdrew from struggles which appeared premature. At last, in 1852, it seemed as if his time had come, and then the master whom he had served set him aside and selected Franklin Pierce, a man in every way inferior, and therefore likely to be even more subservient than Buchanan. The rejected candidate resigned himself to his disappointment, and was consoled by the mission to England. Thence he returned to receive the nomination for which he had waited, and to be triumphantly elected to the highest office in the gift of the people.

Three years glided by. There was another election, and the Republican party was victorious. In 1856 Mr. Buchanan had preached with great zeal the duty of the North to abide by the decision of the ballot-box. In 1860 the North succeeded, but the President’s beloved South, while firmly convinced that the North ought always to accept the will of the majority, now hastened to perpetrate one of the greatest crimes in history by dissolving the Union and plunging the country into the horrors of civil war, solely because they had lost an election and with it the control of the government.

There is something very pitiable – something almost tragic – in the figure of James Buchanan during those last months of his administration. The smooth, plausible, wary politician, having touched the summit of his ambition, was caught at the last moment between two great factions, bitterly excited and just ready to spring at each other’s throat. The Southerners turned against Buchanan when they found that there was a point at which even he stopped, and that he would not openly aid secession. They had no reason to be indignant with the President, for they had no right to suppose for a moment that a Northern man capable of bending to them as Buchanan had always done should also possess the daring and reckless courage needed to commit a great crime. At bottom Buchanan was weak and timeserving, but he was not a villain, and he recoiled with horror from the pit which the Southern leaders opened in his path. Mr. Curtis shows very clearly that Buchanan was opposed to secession. It is a significant commentary that argument and proof on such a point in regard to a President of the United States should be considered necessary, and at the same time it does not touch the heart of the matter at all. That Mr. Buchanan was opposed in opinion to secession is wholly secondary. The real question is, How did he meet secession when it confronted him? Mr. Curtis devotes nearly a volume to the consideration of the last few months of Mr. Buchanan’s presidential term, and it is of course impossible in a brief notice to take up in detail such an elaborate defense. But the general result can be easily stated. On Mr. Curtis’s own showing, presumably the best that can be made, Buchanan failed miserably at the great crisis in the nation’s life. He took the ground that he would not precipitate war by applying force to prevent a State from seceding, but that he would defend the flag and property of the United States. With this seemingly vigorous and magnanimous policy upon his lips he suffered one public building after another to be seized, and never struck a blow. All that he retained were the two forts, Sumter and Pickens. Treason was rife in his cabinet, and he allowed the traitors to depart without a word. He drafted an answer to the Southern commissioners which was so weak and vacillating that his cabinet felt obliged to protest and stop it. General Dix sent his famous order, and says he did not show it to the President because he knew the latter would not have allowed it to go forth. In other words, the President of the United States would have refused to order an officer of the government to defend the national flag. It seems hardly worth while to write a volume in defense of a man who was in such a state of cowardly panic as that. Mr. Curtis says that Mr. Buchanan had no troops, and that Congress would not do anything to help him. He had enough troops to have fought on the instant, and at the first moment the flag was touched or a public building seized. The moment a move was made by the South he should have struck hard, and whether defeated or victorious the “next breeze that swept from the North would have brought to his ears the clash of resounding arms.” Congress did nothing for him for the obvious reason that they did not trust him. They knew that he was timid and timeserving, and they then thought him a traitor. Many people in the North could not believe that the South would really secede, and the leaders who saw what was coming were simply playing for time and waiting until they could get a President in whom they could confide.

The fact was that Buchanan was a very weak man, who had been a tool of stronger forces all his life. He suddenly found himself in the midst of a terrible crisis, calculated to try the nerve and courage of a man of iron mould. The South, which had owned and supported him, flung him aside and trampled on him when he had served his turn. The ruling party at the North despised and distrusted him and turned coldly away from him. The firm rock on which he had always rested had crumbled beneath him, and he found himself drifting helpless and alone on the seething waters of secession and civil war. He quivered and shook and made some constitutional arguments, and failed utterly, hopelessly, miserably. He had served slavery all his life, and when the crash came he had no courage and no convictions to fall back upon. He sank out of sight, and the great national movement swept over him and all his kind. He fills a place in history, because for many years he was a faithful public servant and finally President; but no art or argument can rehabilitate him, or make him other than he was. He was not even a great failure, for he showed in his downfall that with all his ability, adroitness, and industry, the essential qualities of greatness were wholly lacking.

One word more and we have done. It has been the fashion in certain quarters for many years to openly avow or covertly suggest that if a sectional party had not been built up in the North, secession and civil war would not have come to pass. Mr. Curtis indulges in this talk a little, and it is high time that nonsense of this sort should cease or be left exclusively to such conservative gentlemen as Bob Toombs and Jeff Davis. There was a sectional party from the foundation of the government, the party of slavery. However the South might divide on other questions, on slavery it was solid. After many years the sectional party of the South bred an opposition in the North, and then the Southerners and all their friends began to moan over Northern sectionalism, and have kept it up ever since. All sectional parties are bad things, and the blame for them rests with the South, who paid the penalty, and is nevertheless solid and sectional at this very moment. In view of these simple facts, it seems hardly worth while for anybody to continue to lay the blame for secession openly or by implication upon the North and the Republican party. The heavy burden, the burden of a gigantic and unsuccessful crime, lies upon the South and her Northern sympathizers and servants, of whom James Buchanan was a type. It belongs to them in about equal proportions, the only difference being that the South expiated her fault in defeat and ruin after a gallant fight, while her Northern allies got off scot free. There has been enough said, therefore, by the latter class about Northern sectionalism being the cause of the war, and it is time that such false and miserable cant ceased to find a place in any historical work.