The phrase “looks good on paper” certainly applies to our 15th president, James Buchanan, who took office this week (March 4) in 1857. Few men have entered the White House with such sterling credentials, which included service in the Pennsylvania state legislature, five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (chairman, powerful House Judiciary Committee), a decade in the Senate, minister to Russia, secretary of state under President James Polk and ambassador to Great Britain under President Franklin Pierce.
But as the saying goes, the game ain’t played on paper, it’s played on the field, and President Buchanan was an abject failure on the field of politics.
Part of it was timing. His service as ambassador to Britain during Pierce’s presidency coincided with America’s most intractable domestic issue, slavery’s attempt to expand west, which essentially would be Pierce’s undoing as president. Being overseas, Buchanan was insulated from the political fallout, but he also was insulated from an understanding of the volatility of the issue. As a result he overreacted to controversies rather than fashioning policies that might mitigate their effect.
But most of his failure was temperament. He could be hardheaded and petty, and a feud with the Democratic Party’s other power broker, Stephen Douglas, resulted in his denying any member of the Douglas wing of the party a Cabinet post. Thus, at a time when party unity was crucial, Buchanan furthered a party split.
Worse, those Cabinet members he did listen to were mostly pro-southern, which led Buchanan, who had promised to be an honest broker, to pursue increasingly anti-northern policies. He publicly criticized the abolitionist movement, which he blamed for the South’s threats to secede from the Union, and he even suggested that talk about freeing slaves should cause fear among southern women. “Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall her and her children,” Buchanan said in a speech, which northerners considered growing evidence of his irrational pro-southern sympathies. That evidence was confirmed when Buchanan illegally intervened in the Dred Scott decision, urging the Supreme Court to rule that slavery was legal nationwide.
Thus, by the time the election of 1860 approached, Buchanan’s antagonism of Douglas and the moderates in his party ensured that he would never be re-elected, and his pro-southern sympathies ensured that he would be unable to prevent southern states from leaving the Union, which they began doing in droves during the last months of his presidency.
It would be left to his successor, a politician who looked terrible “on paper” — four inconsequential terms in the Illinois State Legislature, one forgettable term in Congress — to somehow succeed on the field. Amazingly, Abe Lincoln did just that.