September 16, 2009

Book Review: James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850’s Part One

Brinkner, Michel ed. James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850’s Associated University Presses, Cranbury, NJ 1996.

This book is comprised of six papers and a subsequent discussion at a conference for two days September 1991 commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the Sage of Wheatland’s birth (James Buchanan). For this review I will quickly outline each entry and then discuss the correlation of the political climate of 1850’s with that of our own. Particularly, I will relate the election of 1856 to the elections of 2000 and 2004. Latter I hope to show the glaring similarities between the election of 1860 and the 2008 election.

Michel F. Holt takes a different approach to Buchanan’s win in the paper “Another Look at the Election of 1856.” And to describe the 1860 election, Peter Knupfer uses a notion called ‘political generation’ to account for the shift from Jacksonian style politics to Civil War style politics in his piece “James Buchanan, the Election of 1860, and the Demise of Jacksonian Politics.” Shedding light on leadership styles during this era, William E. Gienapp compares Buchanan to Lincoln in his work, “’No Bed of Roses’: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Presidential Leadership in the Civil War Era.” Rounding the corner...
Mark Summers and Robert May essay Buchanan’s handling of patronage and crisis, in their separate pieces; “Dough in the Hands of the Doughface? James Buchanan and the Untamable Press” (Summers) and “James Buchanan, the Neutrality Laws and American Invasions of Nicaragua” (May).
To begin with there are three major incidents that we need to keep in mind that occurred before and during James Buchanan’s administration. First, before Buchanan took office the issue of popular sovereignty in the territories was in front of the Supreme Court with the Dred Scott case. To appease Southern interests Buchanan leaned heavily on Justice Greier to rule against the Missouri compromise. This allowed for a narrow definition of popular sovereignty, proclaiming that a territory would decide if it was a slave state upon admittance to the Union and not when it became a territory. Second, we need to keep in mind that almost directly after this incident, Buchanan and members of his cabinet almost outright purchased votes to ratify the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which would admit Kansas as a slave state. He lost this battle by five votes, and created a deep and untreatable wound in the Democratic Party, between his supporters and the supporters of Stephen Douglas. Third, that for some time the goal of all the presidents had been to keep the Union intact and acting from this mindset many of the things that Buchanan did made sense.

More Tomorrow
(photo from the National Guard)

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