A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution

By Harold M. Hyman | Go to book overview

Chapter III
The Shock of Weakness

S oon after Lincoln's election, the lame-duck President James Buchanan complained to a visitor at the White House: "I think it is very hard [that] they can not let me finish my term of office in peace, at my time of life."1 There was to be no peace, in the sense of stability, for which Buchanan yearned, and at the end of 1860 the close of his tenure stretched distantly ahead. The Constitution's curious rhythm required that he hold his office a third of a year after the election had chosen a successor whose policies differed markedly from his own. During this interregnum Buchanan had little power. But he might have influenced events in a constructive manner.

Tragically, Buchanan's limitations denied the nation the only possible effective national leadership. On Capitol Hill the Congress was caught up in contention. The Supreme Court was discredited in the North because of the Dred Scott decision and had nothing more to say to the South. If sectional reconciliation was to come forth its source had to be the White House. Lesser performance meant failure on the part of every institution the nation possessed to cope with the worst crisis the nation had ever faced. Resort to some extraordinary expedient--plebiscite, peace *

____________________
*
This chapter has appeared in essentially similar form in Freedom and Reform: Essays in Honor of Henry Steele Commager, ed. Harold M. Hyman and Leonard W. Levy ( New York, 1967), 149-66.
1
Ms. memorandum by John C. Ropes, Feb. 8, 1870, of conversation in Sept. 1869 with Edwin M. Stanton, H. Woodman Papers, MHS.

-34-

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