What America’s First Politician Can Teach Us About Today
The mid-1800s saw a time of open conflict dividing the United States in half. The question of slavery had eluded even America’s greatest Presidents, primarily concerned with unifying the Country rather than ending the "abomination" which was slavery. By the mid 19 century, it was no longer possible to ignore the question of slavery and the rift that had formed between the North and South. If only America could elect one more great statesman to solve this momentous problem, a leader with the intellect of Jefferson, the humility of Adams, and the commanding presence of Washington. Instead, America received something much worse, a political operative.“Old Buck” James Buchanan was the wrong man to fix the crisis of identity American was facing in the 1850s. Old Buck used his mild temper and compromising policies to attempt to bridge the divide, which only made matters worse. While the proclamations of compromise and calls for unity seemed like a noble pursuit, they did nothing to quell the differences that ultimately lead to the Civil War. However, these same calls for ambiguous unity persist in American politics today, much to the same degree as they did almost 200 years ago.
While Buchanan's Presidency fostered the most prominent internal fighting the nation had ever known, his rise to power and conduct as President laid the groundwork for the attitudes and perspectives of our modern politicians. No longer were politician’s charismatic generals or accomplished legislators with a strong backbone; achieving political greatness became a game accomplished through the path of least resistance. Election to high office was a matter of becoming the least offensive, least divisive, and most fair-weather politician possible. Buchanan created a framework for politicians who could promise everything from unity to inclusion while delivering next to nothing. The rise of James Buchanan to the highest political office in the land was marked by the avoidance of controversial issues and pandering not so dissimilar to the entertainment politics of today's Democratic and Republican Parties. The United States of 1856 was a much different place but shares many similarities with 21 century America.
Buchanan's humble origins weren't so different from many politicians and government officials of the day; what was different was his lack of spine. Born to a middle-class Irish family, Jame's father, who worked as a storekeeper, was able to secure his son a chance at the American Dream. James Buchanan attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and was later admitted to the bar in 1812 and opened a successful law practice. After serving in the War of 1812, Buchanan ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820 as a Federalist. Serving the Jackson admission in 1824, he left the weakening Federalist Party and joined the Democratic Party, becoming a well-known Pennsylvanian statesman. Not stopping there, Buchanan became a senator, the Secretary of State in the Polk Administration, and later the Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Able to conveniently escape the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he became a shoo-in for the nomination for President by the Democratic Party in 1856.
Not too cool and not too hot, James Buchanan was adept at playing both sides of the aisle his entire career. Supporting pro-slavery laws such as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the return of escaped slaves, and an advocate of an end to abolitionist agitation, Buchanan was a favorite of the pro-slavery Democratic Party of the 1850s. However, winning the South with favorable slavery attuites would not be enough to secure the Presidency. Buchanan needed to appeal to the North if he was going to win. Drawing from his Federalist roots, James Buchanan promised to apply Popular Sovereignty in deciding which States would allow slavery and which would not. Appeasing the South, Buchanan pledged not to engage the federal government in the question of slavery, allowing each State to decide slavery’s fate in their jurisdictions. The Republican Party of the North, while founded on ending slavery in its entirety, settled for a ceased expansion of slavery into the west. Despite the Republicans' attempt to secure the Presidency, they could not amass the votes necessary to beat “Old Buck” in the Presidential election. Buchanan avoided the divisive questions of slavery and openly campaigned that while slavery was morally wrong, he did not want its elimination to cause the "introduction of evils infinitely greater."
After Buchanan's election in 1856, Buchanan continued his strategy of attempting to appease two sides of the same coin which could not have been more different. Trying to keep Northern antislavery agitation at bay while appealing to the South was no easy matter. Buchanan's advocacy for the unpopular Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, which would have permitted slavery in the State, angered Northern and Kansas voters who Buchanan promised popular sovereignty in his pre-election speeches. In August 1858, Kansas voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution. The rejection split the Democratic party in half, one side being the supporters of popular sovereignty under Stephen A. Douglas and the other, the supporters of Buchanan and his Southern Democrats promoting the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott, which prevented the federal government from involving itself in the question of slavery. The splintering of the Democratic Party during the Buchanan Administration enabled Republicans to win victories in the House, thus hindering Buchanan’s agenda for the next two years.
After the election of Lincoln in December 1860, talks of succession reached their tipping point. During his last address to Congress as President on December 10, 1860, Buchanan was forced to address both the South and North's concerns. Never willing to take a decisive side, Buchanan denied the right of States to secede from the Union, but maintained that the federal government had no power to stop States who did. His speech angered Northern voters who blamed him for not stopping States from seceding while also criticized by the South for denying them the right to secede. By the beginning of 1861, six States had succeeded from the Union, forcing Buchanan to finally state that "the assault upon Fort Sumter was the commencement of war by the Confederate States, and no alternative was left but to prosecute it with vigor on our part." His denunciation of the South was too little too late, and the burden of war would be left to the Republican Lincoln to resolve.
Buchanan's fair-weather advocacy and open bias towards the South over the entire Union, of which he was elected to protect, eventually appeased no one and angered all. The illusion of support of "both sides," while favoring one over the other, has become a hallmark of modern politics and should come as no surprise. Early Federalists such as James Madison advocated for the election of "disinterested" and virtuous men who the public could count on to put personal interest and bias aside and govern for the greater good. Clouded by the romantic view of classical Greece and Rome, Federalists believed that human bias would be controlled if the right, virtuous men could be elected who could separate themselves from market forces based on the greatness of their wealth. However, Madison’s vision of great, disinterested men was crushed the first time Madison stepped into a State House in Virginia. Seeing the bickering, attempts at price controls, and debt forgiveness, Madison set out to create a system ready to balance the diverse and heated passions of the nation's citizens.
Every politician has their bias and personal perspectives, but that has not stopped us, the voting population, from dissolution. Regardless of party, Democrat or Republican, each promises the same time-tested slogans of "unity" and "compromise" today as they did two centuries ago. Recognizing that politicians have their own interests, getting elected, it follows that they work to appeal to the most people as possible. What doesn’t make sense however is how willing voting populations are to accept the election of one candidate as the one who will be able fix all the vast differences among the nearly 328 million people residing in the U.S. today.
The calls for unity did not stop with the 15th President, who spoke of destroying “sectional parties,” and it indeed has not escaped the politics of today. Recent calls for unity have not slipped in President Biden's speeches, stating, “We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness, and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward." Nor has it escaped the mouth of previous President Trump, who asked by reporters about the tone of his State of the Union address in 2019, replied, “I think it's unification.” Nor by President Obama, who stated, “That's what the country needs – a sense of unity.” None of this is to say that America could not use some unity. We live in a time where people in rural South Carolina can find almost no common ground with New Yorkers, despite a shared history and values. Amongst the constant voices for unity and an end to party bitterness, the question begs to be asked, do these politics work?
Echoes by high public officials for "togetherness" only work if people buy into it. The calls for unity between the North and South by Buchanan indeed fell on deaf ears for a society that was so divided the only solution seemed to be war. According to Pew Research in 2017, almost 64% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans say they have "just a few" or "none" close friends in the other party. Only 14% of Republicans and 9% of Democrats say they have "a lot" of friends in the opposing party. Even more concerning, the number of Democrats and Republicans who saw the opposite party as "very unfavorable" has more than doubled from 1994 to 2017. Americans are not interested in unity at the moment.
Advocating unity after bitter elections such as 2012, 2016, and 2020 is superficial at best and needs to stop. Politicians make a living, not by making the country a better place, but by carrying out the wills of their constituents and by gaining re-election. Although demands for unity make sound political sense, they are dishonest, especially after elections where rumors and insults go nuclear. If the American people are looking for a fix, they will not find it in Washington. Every President promotes unity, then turns around the next day and pursues their party interest with policies that undermine the opposing side. Bringing the American people together is a noble cause and something that should be strived for always. Yet, we need to stop believing it will miraculously occur in place thousands of miles away from the local problems in the inner city of Baltimore or the forgotten mining communities of West Virginia. It costs nothing for a politician except air-time on TV to advocate for an end to bitterly partisan politics, ultimately benefiting from the positive press while leaving a nation unchanged. America has always been a country filled with varying perspectives and diverse experiences which have led to politically motivated disagreements. America’s varying opinions and open rhetorical conflicts have been a cornerstone of our nation's pressure to move forward; it was in the 1780s, it is today and will be tomorrow. However, when did we, the American people, start believing that our issues could be solved by docile platitudes and pats on the back? Calls for unity did nothing to help the situation in 1860, and they will do nothing to help us today. The only beneficiaries will be the sanguine, superficial politicians who continue to be elected promoting unity then blaming the other side as a convenient excuse when, predictably, it doesn’t work.