Presidential review: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln
|September 8, 2011||Posted by Oliver Nott under presidential reviews, reviews|
James Buchanan, 1857 – 1861
VP: John C. Breckenridge, First Lady: N/A
James Buchanan was one of those presidents who was widely admired and showed true potential before taking office, but when in the White House floundered a bit and left a lot to be desired. He was a distinguished legislator and a talented diplomat, however due to his ambivalence in office he was landed with a tough decision over the future of the Union, faced a hostile Congress and on leaving became the political scapegoat for the start of the Civil War in 1861.
James Buchanan was born on the 23rd March 1791, in Mercesburg, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Dickinson College and went on, like most middle-class men at this time, to study and practice law. After a short, but reasonably successful, stint in law, Buchanan entered public office, first as a Congressman, then as a Senator. In Washington DC, Buchanan earned a reputation as a dependable legislator and was ultimately given the role of Minister to Russia between 1832 and 1834.
Buchanan took to his role in diplomacy like a natural, which put him in good standing for future roles, such as Polk’s Secretary of State and Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain. Since Buchanan had really proven himself in numerous legislative and diplomatic roles, he became the de facto nominee for the Democratic Party for the 1856 presidential election. Buchanan won a heavy majority of the ECV over the Republican Party’s first ever nominee, John C. Fremont, and strolled into the Oval Office while the Union was at breaking point.
The issue in complete control of politics at the time was still slavery and while Buchanan was personally opposed to slavery, he remained unsure about the federal government’s role and therefore managed to alienate anyone and everyone who sat in Congress. The North felt he favoured the South and vice versa; in trying to keep everyone happy, Buchanan pissed everyone off. This made implementing domestic policy very difficult, as every policy became another showdown between Congress and Buchanan, which Buchanan would always lose in order to preserve the Union.
In the end, Buchanan barely achieved anything and left the White House, and Washington DC, very unpopular. Widely viewed as a the cause of the American Civil War at the time, like many of his predecessors, Buchanan struggled to combat the regionalism that plagued his nation and by the time he left office, seven states had seceded and the war had begun. Buchanan supported Lincoln during the Civil War and became a very close informal adviser, before dying on the 1st June 1868. Although Buchanan ruled over his nation during the most polemic time in US history, he is unfortunately best remembered for being the only celibate president.
Abraham Lincoln, 1861 – 1865
VP: Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson, First Lady: Mary Todd
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just a great president, he was the greatest. The 6ft, 4”, squeaky-voiced American was an inspiring leader with unique self-developed powers of persuasion, reason and persistence. Although he bent the constitution in more ways than any other president has ever done, he ultimately saved it from the grasps of forgotten history, as he fought and defeated the southern confederates after a long and bloody war. He served what was possibly the hardest presidency ever with the leadership and gravitas of a true American hero, and he is fondly remembered as one of the greatest men not just the US, but the world, has ever seen.
Lincoln was born on the 12th February 1809 in the state of Kentucky. He came from humble, but by no means impoverished, beginnings and experienced only one year of education before working for the family on their leave to Indiana. Lincoln worked hard for his family, but in 1831, he left for New Salem, Illinois to follow whatever career he fancied. He had various jobs and in 1832, he volunteered in the Black Hawk War, and although never actually fought, foreshadowed his future leadership skills when he was elected Captain by his fellow soldiers, despite his young age.
In 1834, the young and enthusiastic Lincoln was elected to the Illinois Legislature. During his work there he earned, developed and nurtured a reputation for honesty and loyalty, impressing many of his colleagues as a man blessed with the inspiration to lead. In 1836, after years of hard work, Lincoln acquired a completely self-educated law license, which alone was impressive, but considering his devotion to domestic politics at the time, demonstrates this young man’s unbelievable ability.
In 1842, after years of attempted courting, Lincoln married his sweetheart Mary Todd, who was 10 years his junior, but had a personality that was arguably bigger than his. Unfortunately, Lincoln and Mary followed history’s cruel line and suffered typical presidential personal lives, as they lost two of their sons at very young ages and Mary fought a long and losing battle with depression. However, Lincoln was good at hiding his emotional pain from his professional life and despite numerous historical references to a slight detached sense of melancholy, he built a face of endearing honesty and self-deprecating humour.
In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the House of Representatives and during the 1850s became one of the most ardent and, to some degree, most feared opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Then, in 1856, while originally a Whig, Lincoln transferred to the new Republican Party, due to its anti-slavery stance. Although Lincoln was vehemently opposed to slavery, he still believed blacks were inferior to whites and preferred a solution that sent the slaves back to Africa.
In 1858, Lincoln decided to run for the Senate seat in Illinois, however he faced an extremely talented candidate in Stephen A. Douglas, a rising star in the Democratic Party. Lincoln knew that in order to win, he would have to make sure that the focus was on the issues and therefore challenged Douglas to series of debates, now famously known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Although the two politicians were actually closer on policies than either liked to think, their physical differences was what personified these debates. Douglas was short, materialistic and always smartly dressed, while Lincoln on the other hand was tall, non-commercial and wore suits that were often too small for him. Slavery was the main issue and although Douglas ended up winning the election, Lincoln took the greater victory, attention, especially from his party, which was looking for a presidential candidate who offered more than their failed bid with John C. Fremont a couple of years earlier.
After 3 rounds of balloting in Chicago, Lincoln was declared the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1860. However, he faced three opponents, as the Democrats were split between Buchanan’s vice-president, John C. Breckenridge, and Lincoln’s Illinois nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas, while at the same time a new party of moderates was formed called ‘The Union Party’, which supported candidate John Bell. After a long and tough election, although Lincoln didn’t win the majority of the popular vote, he did win the majority of the ECV, and thus became the first Republican president of the United States.
By this time, however, seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) had already seceded from the Union, and since Buchanan had done nothing about it, it became obvious to Lincoln that his presidency would be dominated by a civil war. This war was commenced when Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Lincoln sprang into action and was hoping for a quick war, as he felt an extended one would have a drastic effect on the Union in the long-term. However, Lincoln’s hopes were utterly confounded by the Confederates’ victory at the battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
Even though the North had numerous advantages over the South, from thousands more soldiers to greater production and trade, the military expertise of the Confederates, consisting of General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas Jackson, made this fight a fair one, at least for the first couple of years. Lincoln, still in search of the right General to lead his Union army as his current commander, George B. McClellan, was not playing ball, used whatever tactics he could, constitutional and certainly otherwise, to maintain the North’s advantage. He drafted in thousands of new immigrants into the Union army and even suspended habeas corpus in areas suspected to hold southern sympathisers.
Moreover, Lincoln nearly found himself fighting two wars, as his naval blockade of the Confederate states interfered with British trading, which antagonised Great Britain and almost drafted them into this Civil War. However, Lincoln remained poised and cleverly avoided war with the British, which would have been catastrophic for the Union cause. Lincoln also faced riots against ‘The Draft’ in New York and a lot of criticism from his cabinet and his own Generals.
Although by this point in the war, Lincoln’s only priority was to keep the Union together, he knew a compromise was off the table and so on the 1st January 1863 Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the United States, except those in DC and some border states, were now free. Despite a number of interpretations, which suggest that this was a huge step forward in the eradication of the slave trade, since the confederates simply ignored the proclamation and a number of border states were exempt few slaves were actually freed. Nonetheless, this proclamation set the tone for the future under a Union victory.
Six months after the Emancipation Proclamation came the greatest Union victory during the whole war, the battle of Gettysburg. However, what is often commemorated here is not the actual fighting, but possibly the most famous speech in US history, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its eloquence and poignancy epitomised Lincoln’s greatest skill, which was rallying people behind a bigger movement; “that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” – one line that summarises his talent with perfection.
In 1864, Lincoln finally found his dream general in (future president) Ulysses S. Grant and although he received criticism from many politicians for appointing Grant, he replied with a sincerity only Lincoln could muster: “I can’t spare this man, he fights”. Lincoln also faced re-election in 1864, however was reluctant to run a campaign, as he both wanted to concentrate on the war, but also because he didn’t think he should have to. Nonetheless, the election came and despite what was initially a close contest with his former commander, General George B. McClellan, after a number of Union victories in 1864, Lincoln won another term. At Lincoln’s inauguration, instead of using this opportunity to boast his success or emphasise the need to continue the war, he expressed conciliation and, with beautiful rhetoric, asked his fellow American citizens to act “with kindness toward all, with malice towards none”.
Just over a year after Lincoln’s second inauguration, on the 9th April 1865, General Robert E. Lee and his confederate army surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The Civil War was now over, but the man who had the courage and persistence to continue, and ultimately saved the Union from disaster, would never get to really enjoy the fruits of his labour. On the 14th April 1865, 5 days after the end of the Civil War, while Lincoln was watching a performance of Our American Cousin, an actor called John Wilkes Booth sneaked into Lincoln’s private box and shot him in the back of the head. Lincoln was declared dead on the morning of the 15th April 1865. It was the first ever presidential assassination and Lincoln’s body was met by thousands of mourners, as it made its journey to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln was an extremely complex man; he had a harrowing personal life and a sparkling professional one. Although he was fiercely ambitious and had a brilliant and reasoned mind, his humour was centred on a self-deprecation that was sadly never contrived. He defied social convention by not drinking and expressing sceptical views on organised religion, but nonetheless commanded the respect of anyone and everyone he worked with. His very best talent though, was his ability to see value in everybody. He happily worked with political enemies to get things done and this is why he was an inspired leader, persuasive orator and the best president who has ever lived.