Buchanan — A Glimpse at the Worst Presidency in American History?
December 3, 1860. Historians consistently rate James Buchanan among the very worst American presidents. But why? A look at his last State of the Union message to Congress provides a partial answer to that question!
In short, President Buchanan argues that the secession crisis is the fault of the North for interfering with the question of slavery and inspiring in slaves dreams of freedom.
He states that the Union was intended to be perpetual and that the Southern states do not have a right to secede–even though they are “sovereign.”
But even though states have no right to secede, neither the President nor the Congress has the authority to stop them!
And so he simply pleads for the South to not be precipitous and secede in anticipation of possible future actions by Lincoln or others, and he proposes an adoption of a Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee the rights of slave owners forever–even though he says that he believes that slavery is already in the decline.
In other words, Buchanan sees the secession crisis as a problem without any realistic solution, as a wrong without a means of righting it. He sees a need for action, but no party that is either authorized or able to act. Certainly there is nothing he can do!
William Seward, then a Senator from New York, wrote his wife that Buchanan showed “conclusively that it is the duty of the President to execute the laws–unless somebody opposes him; and that no State has a right to go out of the Union unless it wants to.” Needless to say, both the North and the South condemned Buchanan’s message.
A month after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan tells Congress:
“. . . The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects….I have long foreseen and often forewarned my countrymen of the now impending danger.” [Read more]
Buchanan’s Full Address to Congress, December 3, 1860
James Buchanan’s Remarks to Congress on Slavery (1836)