At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

8 President Buchanan, the Crittenden Compromise,
President Lincoln, and Fort Sumter

Age sixty-six at his election in 1856, James Buchanan was, in the words of Jean H. Baker, “almost as old as the United States, a point of pride throughout his life.” Few presidents in American history have drawn on such long and varied experience in Washington—certainly not his Republican successor, Abraham Lincoln, whose experience in national government encompassed but a single term in the lower house of Congress during the late 1840s. Yet Buchanan was deficient in the qualities of political shrewdness and capacity for personal growth that distinguished Lincoln. The Pennsylvania Democrat had repeatedly sought his party’s nomination for the presidency since 1844, when he helped derail former president Martin Van Buren’s attempt to win a third nomination after his failed reelection bid in 1840. Despite Buchanan’s courtly manners, fastidious dress, and rather distinguished appearance, concludes historian William Gienapp, the fifteenth president proved “plodding and unimaginative” and “isolated himself from dissenting views.” At the same time, “Old Buck” impressed others as “a kind man, firmly religious, decent, and extraordinarily courteous.”1

In early 1857, as Buchanan prepared for his inauguration, he wrote to Virginia senator John Y. Mason, a fellow Democrat, that the new administration’s “great object” would be “to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties.” In other words, he would seek to weaken the popularity of free-soilism in the North and the clamor of abolitionists against southern slavery and slaveholders. Yet the fires of northern antislavery continued to be fanned by high winds from what many knew as Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner. Buchanan paid the conventional if genuine tribute to dependence on God’s will by adding, “Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain.” Nonetheless, God’s favor did not shine on his efforts, which more often than not exacerbated the sectional tensions he intended to abate. Indeed, his first ten months in the White House, beginning with the Supreme Court’s announcement of its decision in the Dred Scott

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