James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War.
The subtitle of this book should have been The Masters of Antebellum Politics Assess the Buchanan Presidency, for the nine chapters showcase the talent of the finest historians now writing on antebellum politics. For historians of American politics and of the Civil War era, this book will be a delight. The chapters stem from a 2008 conference, probably prompted by the sesquicentennial surrounding the Civil War. None of the authors conceive of James Buchanan's presidency as a success, but most make the case that Buchanan was a far better president than he has been given credit for.
Two historians find Buchanan essentially reprehensible. Paul Finkelman emphasizes how unique was Buchanan's interference with the Supreme Court. Moreover, he makes a good case that Buchanan's use of the Dred Scott decision was contradictory. Jean Baker also judges Buchanan harshly. She emphasizes Buchanan's Southern leanings, his long-standing friendship with Southerners, and his choice of strong Southern personalities for his cabinet. She intimates that if it had not been for Joseph Holt, Edwin Stanton, and Jeremiah Black, Buchanan might have recognized the Confederate States of America.
Two chapters testify to Buchanan's success in policy. William P. MacKinnon has written an excellent, informative essay on the Mormon War. He ties much of Buchanan's financial problems with funding the movement of troops and supplies to the West, and he faults Buchanan's execution of his plans, especially the persons meant to deploy his policies. John M. Belohlavek wrote an essay underlining Buchanan's forceful actions in foreign policy. He seemed no tool of the slave power here: he enforced the laws against the international slave trade and moved quickly to suppress filibustering.
The rest of the chapters find Buchanan a confusing combination of strengths and weaknesses. Nicole Etcheson offers a view of Buchanan as one who wholly swallowed the Southern line on slavery in the territories, had no sense of Northern rights being endangered by Southern demands, and who vacillated on his Kansas policy to please Southern fanatics. She looks at the Douglas-Buchanan feud and notes that, while Buchanan wanted to think he had the power of Andrew Jackson, the only resemblance he actually had with Jackson was in holding the same office. Michael Morrison also finds Buchanan misguided in his Kansas policy, acting on proslavery premises, but interestingly adds that Buchanan felt Kansas was merely an obstacle to bypass, for once the territorial stage was finished, the people of Kansas would do exactly what they pleased--and that was to become a free state. Morrison also details the corruption of the Buchanan administration, some of which was traced to the ineptitude of Secretary of War John Floyd.
My two favorite pieces in this excellent collection were done by William G. Shade and Daniel W. Crofts. Shade inspects Buchanan and Northern opinion on disunion from December 1860 to March 1861 and finds that Buchanan did not differ from members of his party. Moreover, he reminds readers that Congress was attempting to create a compromise to bring South Carolina back into the Union and that an attempt to use force to retake government installations would have ruined those efforts. Crofts comes to the same conclusion but does so by an interesting comparison of the views of Buchanan with Kentuckian Joseph Holt (postmaster, then secretary of war). Both thought separate state secession was illegal, and both agreed that Confederate firing on Fort Sumter deserved a military response.
The final chapter is an edited transcript of a conference plenary session featuring William W. Freehling and Michael F. Holt. This is certainly worthy of a wide audience, because both honored historians give the backgrounds of their graduate days and the problems that antebellum historians were then probing. Freehling interestingly mentioned that his current emphasis on contingency comes from a personal revelation that historians had gone too far in stressing forces rather than human agency. Michael Holt also talked about his foray with quantitative methods (the horror of logarithms) and his consequent decision to broaden his historical methods and approach. Of special interest in the historiography of the coming of the Civil War was Holt's admission that his crusade against the idea that the moral dilemma of slavery was the core problem of the nation has not triumphed. For unexplored reasons, many of today's scholars of the antebellum period have resurrected the moral question of slavery as the dominant force in American sectionalism.
These chapters are extraordinarily well crafted; they are argumentative and pointed; and at the same time, they are informative. This book is a feast for antebellum political historians.
--James L. Huston
Oklahoma State University
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|Author:||Huston, James L.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 27, 2015|
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