Trump and Lincoln Are Opposite Kinds of PresidentsHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, presidential history, Eric Foner, Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan
Andrew Johnson may be hard to topple from last place. But what earned James Buchanan the second-to-last spot ahead of Trump?
Buchanan had seemed eminently prepared for office. He had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature and the U.S. Congress. He was in President James Polk’s cabinet and had been ambassador to Russia and Great Britain. He was elected in 1856, in an era of bitter sectional politics, with a plurality of the vote.
Like Trump, however, Buchanan never sought to expand his base. An admirer of the “chivalrous race” of white Southern men, the Democrat was a persistent partisan for Southern causes. He quietly sought to influence the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, which it handed down during his first days in office, by encouraging a justice from his home state to side with the pro-slavery faction. On the viciously contested issue of whether Kansas would be free or a slave state, he appeared uninterested in stemming political violence in the territory and supported a pro-slavery minority government based in Lecompton, Kansas, along with the pro-slavery constitution it tried to foist on Kansas’s anti-slavery majority.
Buchanan did little to halt the nation’s precipitous slide toward Civil War, and may have accelerated it. “In his years as President,” writes Buchanan biographer Jean H. Baker, “Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.”
Division and dithering: These are the chief reasons why Buchanan ranks near the bottom, and the reasons why Trump, post coronavirus, is poised to sink beneath him. Of course, some believe Trump, encumbered by corruption, has already sunk to the lowest depth of presidential history. Yet his catastrophic inaction amid the pandemic suggests he has more room to descend. I wrote Eric Foner, an expert on Reconstruction, to ask what he makes of the competition at the bottom of the presidential pile. It seems fitting to give the last word to one of America’s greatest historians.
“Buchanan’s involvement in the infamous Dred Scott decision and then support for the fraudulent Lecompton Constitution certainly push him toward the bottom,” Foner wrote back. “On the other hand he refused Southern demands to recognize the legality of secession and ironically ended up as head of a northern, pro-Union administration. His annual message to Congress made a strong argument that secession is unconstitutional. I rank Andrew Johnson below him as well as our current president. Buchanan did not recommend drinking Lysol.”
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