Tuesday, April 23, 2013


[James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War edited by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner (University Press of Florida, 2013). Hardcover, notes, index. 299 pp. ISBN:9780813044262 $69.95]

The man many historians rate as the worst American president isn't the object of much genuine reflection in the modern Civil War era historiography. This certainly isn't the case in editors John Quist and Michael Birkner's James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, a compilation of meaty essays dealing with the entirety of Old Buck's time in office. The nine chapters [8 essays by eight different scholars and an interview with William Freehling and Michael Holt] range in tone from partly sympathetic to downright hostile. As one might guess, none attempt a complete rehabilitation of the image of Buchanan but several offer compelling reasons to temper popular disdain for the Pennsylvanian Democrat.

Historian Jean Baker and legal scholar Paul Finkelman author the two most fervently condemnatory articles. Finkelman is critical of Buchanan's support for the Dred Scott decision and expresses considerable dismay at the unethical lengths Buchanan was willing to go to pressure wavering justices. The writer presents the latter as an extraordinary breach of the separation of powers, but undermines his own case by admitting in the notes what the more cynical reader already suspected, namely that politicians meddling with court cases was not unprecedented in the history of nineteenth century American governance. Finkelman's view that an early demonstration of Jacksonian resolve could have headed off the spread of secession strikes one as both a misreading of the Nullification Crisis and a misjudgment of the political realities of 1860. Baker is alone among the writers in considering Buchanan to be quasi-disunionist, a man with such deeply ingrained pro-Southern sympathies that every decision, whether consciously or unconsciously made, furthered secessionist interests. More persuasive are those that paint a picture of a solid unionist whose ideas of limited government could not countenance the type of executive action that might precipitate sectional warfare. Buchanan's essential determination that secession was illegal but the president lacked the constitutional means to prevent any state from doing it is an intellectually confounding construct for sure, but one wishes the view had been treated with enough seriousness to at least inspire a detailed critique of it somewhere in the volume.

Of course, there was more to Buchanan's presidency than the secession crisis and several essays address these topics. Nicole Etcheson applies her considerable "Bleeding Kansas" expertise to Buchanan's handling of the Lecompton Constitution, the legacy of which was a deep wedge driven between northern and southern Democrats and political enmity between the president and 1860 election hopeful Stephen Douglas. John Belohlavek's contribution reminds readers of the foreign policy successes of the Buchanan administration, those that advanced American security and/or business interests in Asia, the Pacific Northwest, Central America, and the Caribbean. One of the better articles is William MacKinnon's analysis of the Utah crisis and military expedition. MacKinnon credits the president with finally addressing the problem of Brigham Young's theocratic governorship of Utah Territory, a thorny issue sidestepped by predecessor Franklin Pierce. On the other hand, the writer argues persuasively that Buchanan bungled the Utah situation with poor leadership appointments, badly informed decisions on the use of the military, deficiencies in establishing communications, and burdening the country with a huge debt load. An interesting question is whether any useful comparisons can be made between how Buchanan handled this first instance of rebellion and the second far more serious one. The answer remains unclear, but MacKinnon notes that it is not unreasonable to suppose that bad memories of decisive federal action in Utah informed a more passive approach to southern secession. MacKinnon also remarks upon the research of Jane Flaherty, whose work enumerating the considerable cost of the Utah War found that the abysmal condition of the federal treasury at the time of the 1860 election undoubtedly constrained Lincoln's options early on. Different from Etcheson, Belohlavek, and MacKinnon, Michael Morrison takes a more general look at Buchanan's presidential leadership. Along with the Freehling and Holt interview, his contribution makes the case that Democratic Party corruption was a significant campaign issue in 1860, a factor still underappreciated in the literature. Michael Holt mentions in the interview section that historian Michael Burlingame remains adamant that Republican use of the corruption issue was vital to Lincoln's electoral victory. If that be the case, or something close to it, one wishes that an essay more specifically devoted to corruption was solicited for this compilation.

Finally, readers are taken back to the secession crisis with articles by William Shade and Daniel Crofts. Shade summarizes the response to secession above the Mason-Dixon Line, emphasizing the fragmented nature of northern political opinion. Daniel Crofts takes the novel approach of viewing the crisis through the lens of Buchanan's relationship with Secretary of War Joseph Holt, a rare Lincoln administration figure who continued to view his first presidential boss with warm respect. Predictably, opinions of Buchanan's handling of the secession crisis vary among the contributors. Crofts formulates his own perspective especially well, and there does seem to be a wider willingness among the writers to at least consider a more respectful appreciation of Buchanan's actions (and inaction) in the face of an unprecedented political catastrophe. Paramount to Buchanan during his last few months in office was the avoidance of a shooting war, the maintenance of Border and Upper South states within the Union, and the buying of time for compromise to exert itself as it had always done in the past. All of this was achieved, although at the cost of allowing federal arsenals and other Deep South government properties to be confiscated without opposition or stern warning. Buchanan could not have known that compromise or reassurance was impossible with a silent president-elect and immoveable Republican legislators. What could or should have been done to prevent further federal humiliations in the form of installation seizures in the southern states remains controversial, but the preponderance of evidence supports wider secession and an immediate outbreak of general war rather than some kind of fantasy that would involve southern hotheads backing down. Unmentioned in the book is the immense difficulties bloodshed of several month's duration would have conferred upon the nuts and bolts transfer of power to Lincoln, a situation made even more difficult given the drastic change from a Democratic establishment to a brand new political organization of untested unity. Really, if one compares the actions of Buchanan to those of Lincoln between his inauguration and the firing on Fort Sumter there is little to choose between the two.

James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War is not a rehabilitation of the current image of the 15th president of the United States, nor was it intended to be, but what it is is a much needed, and satisfyingly comprehensive, reassessment of the Buchanan presidency from a variety of informed perspectives. This is one of the must-read political history books of the year. While the hefty price tag will likely preclude its addition to most home libraries, it is sincerely hoped that most academic institutions and many public libraries will add this exceptional compilation to their collection.

More CWBA reviews of UPF titles:
* A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw
* Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida
* The Southern Mind Under Union Rule: The Diary of James Rumley, Beaufort, North Carolina, 1862-1865
* A Brief Guide to Florida's Monuments and Memorials
* Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War
* Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War


  1. Thanks for this great review. I have the book on my "wish list," but didn't realize that it was so costly. That is too bad! However, the content is quite captivating, so I may save my pennies. The only time I ever recall hearing anything positive about Buchanan was when I toured Wheatland, his home in Lancaster....

    1. Your mention of Wheatland makes me think of the Buchanan episode of CSPAN's traveling American Presidents series, which I assume was broadcast from Wheatland. I don't recall who the guest historians and biographers were for that one.

    2. I recall seeing an advert for that, but missed the show. Maybe they have it on a video library. I am sure things may have changed on the tour since I went in the 1980s!

  2. Drew: Your last sentence highlights a growing problem. It seems that these academic presses, in particular, are pricing books such that they will increasingly end up only in institutional collections. Some, at least, are offering reasonably-priced soft cover editions, but others are not. This is especially unfortunate in an culture where the "free" alternative of the internet buries quality material in so much uninformed junk. And we think that there is a good amount of ignorance about the ACW today. Even that dim light is in danger of being extinguished.

    1. John,
      Unfortunately in this case, I don't think UPF is one of those that typically does PB reprints after the hardcover run sells out.


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