The first-term Democratic president faced a dilemma. A radicalized political faction had threatened to wreck the whole nation if he did not accede to its surrender-or-else political demands.
Facing a choice between the merely catastrophic and Armageddon, the president caved. Political terrorism had triumphed.
Barack Obama vs. the Tea Party in the 2011 debt-limit crisis?
No, James Buchanan vs. the Southern secessionists, 1857. The Kansas Territory had just, in a sham vote by a small band of hoodlums, approved a pro-slavery constitution in defiance of the president's demands for a free, fair and representative political process.
Here's how Columbia University history professor Allan Nevins described the scene in the August 1956 issue of American Heritage:
For a brief space in the spring of 1857 Buchanan seemed to stand firm. In his instructions to Governor Walker he engaged that the new constitution would be laid before the people: and “they must be protected in the exercise of their right of voting for or against that instrument, and the lair expression of the popular will must not be interrupted by fraud or violence.”
It is not strange that the rash proslavery gamesters in Kansas prosecuted their designs despite all Buchanan’s lair words and Walker’s desperate efforts to stay them. They knew that with four fifths of the people already against them, and the odds growing greater every year, only bra/en trickery could effect their end. They were aware that the South, which believed that a fair division would give Kansas to slavery and Nebraska to freedom, expected them to stand firm. They were egged on by the two reckless southern Cabinet members, Howell Cobb and Thompson, who sent an agent, H. L. Martin of Mississippi, out to the Kansas convention. This gathering in Lecompton, with 48 of the 60 members hailing from slave states, was the shabbiest conclave of its kind ever held on American soil. One of Buchanan’s Kansas correspondents wrote that he had not supposed such a wild set could be found. The Kansas News termed them a body of “broken-down political hacks, demagogues, fire-eaters, perjurers, ruffians, ballot-box stuffers, and loafers.” But before it broke up with the shout, “Now, boys, let’s come and take a drink!” it had written a constitution.
This constitution, the work of a totally unrepresentative body, was a devious repudiation of all the principles Buchanan and Douglas had laid down. Although it contained numerous controversial provisions, such as a limitation of banking to one institution and a bar against free Negroes, the main document was not to be submitted to general vote at all. A nominal reference of the great cardinal question was indeed provided. Voters might cast their ballots for the “constitution with slavery” or the “constitution without slavery.” But when closely examined this was seen to be actually a piece of chicanery. Whichever form was adopted, the 200 slaves in Kansas would remain, with a constitutional guarantee against interference. Whenever the proslavery party in Kansas could get control of the legislature, they might open the door wide for more slaves. The rigged convention had put its handiwork before the people with a rigged choice: “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
Would Buchanan lay this impudent contrivance before Congress, and ask it to vote the admission of Kansas as a state? Or would he contemptuously spurn it? An intrepid man would not have hesitated an instant to take the honest course; he would not have needed the indignant outcry of the northern press, the outraged roar of Douglas, to inspirit him. But Buchanan quailed before the storm of passion into which proslavery extremists had worked themselves.
The hot blood of the South was now up. That section, grossly misinformed upon events in Kansas, believed that it was being cheated. The northern freesoilers had vowed that no new slave state (save by a partition of Texas) should ever be admitted. Southerners thought that in pursuance of this resolve, the Yankees had made unscrupulous use of their wealth and numbers to lay hands on Kansas. Did the North think itself entitled to every piece on the board—to take Kansas as well as California, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon—to give southerners nothing? The Lecompton delegates, from this point of view, were dauntless champions of a wronged section. What if they did use sharp tactics? That was but a necessary response to northern arrogance. Jefferson Davis declared that his section trembled under a sense of insecurity. “You have made it a political war. We are on the defensive. How far are you to push us?” Sharp threats of secession and battle mingled with the southern denunciations. “Sir,” Senator Alfred Iverson of Georgia was soon to assert, “I believe that the time will come when the slave States will be compelled, in vindication of their rights, interests, and honor, to separate from the free States, and erect an independent confederacy; and I am not sure, sir, that the time is not at hand.”
Three southern members of the Cabinet, Cobb, Thompson, and John B. Floyd, had taken the measure of Buchanan’s pusillanimity. They, with one northern sympathizer, Jeremiah Black, and several White House habitués like John Slidell of Louisiana, constituted a virtual Directory exercising control over the tremulous President. They played on Buchanan’s fierce partisan hatred of Republicans, and his jealous dislike of Douglas. They played also on his legalistic cast of mind; after all, the Lecompton constitution was a legal instrument by a legal convention—outwardly. Above all, they played on his fears, his morbid sensitiveness, and his responsiveness to immediate pressures. They could do this the more easily because the threats of disruption and violence were real. Henry S. Foote, a former senator from Mississippi and an enemy of Jefferson Davis, who saw Lecompton in its true light and hurried to Washington to advise the President, writes: “It was unfortunately of no avail that these efforts to reassure Mr. Buchanan were at that time essayed by myself and others; he had already become thoroughly panic-stricken; the howlings of the bulldog of secession had fairly frightened him out of his wits, and he ingloriously resolved to yield without further resistance to the decrial and villification to which he had been so acrimoniously subjected.”
And the well-informed Washington correspondent of the New Orleans Picayune a little later told just how aggressively the Chief Executive was bludgeoned into submission: “The President was informed in November, 1857, that the States of Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and perhaps others, would hold conventions and secede from the Union if the Lecompton Constitution, which established slavery, should not be accepted by Congress. The reason was that these States, supposing that the South had been cheated out of Kansas, were, whether right or wrong, determined to revolt. The President believed this. Senator Hunter, of Virginia, to rny knowledge, believed it. Many other eminent men did, and perhaps not without reason.”
Buchanan, without imagination as without nerve, began to yield to this southern storm in midsummer, and by November, 1857, he was surrendering completely. When Congress met in December his message upheld the Lecompton Constitution with a tissue of false and evasive statements. Seldom in American history has a chief magistrate made a greater error, or missed a larger opportunity. The astute secretary of his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, wrote: “I had considerable hopes of Mr. Buchanan—I really thought he was a statesman—but I have now come to the settled conclusion that he is just the damndest old fool that has ever occupied the presidential chair. He has deliberately walked overboard with his eyes open—let him drown, for he must.”
As Buchanan shrank from the lists, Douglas entered them with that gaudium certaminis which was one of his greatest qualities. The finest chapters of his life, his last great contests for the Union, were opening. Obviously he would have had to act under political necessity even if deaf to principle, for had he let popular sovereignty be torn to pieces, Illinois would not have sent him back to the Senate the following year; but he was not the man to turn his back on principle. His struggle against Lecompton was an exhibition of iron determination. The drama of that battle has given it an almost unique place in the record of our party controversies. “By God, sir!” he exclaimed, “I made James Buchanan, and by God, sir, I will unmake him!” Friends told him that the southern Democrats meant to ruin him. “I have taken a through ticket,” rejoined Douglas, “and checked my baggage.” He lost no time in facing Buchanan in the White House and denouncing the Lecompton policy. When the President reminded him how Jackson had crushed two party rebels, he was ready with a stinging retort. Douglas was not to be overawed by a man he despised as a weakling. “Mr. President,” he snorted, “I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead.”
As for the southern leaders, Douglas’ scorn for the extremists who had coerced Buchanan was unbounded. He told the Washington correspondent of the Chicago Journal that he had begun his fight as a contest against a single bad measure. But his blow at Lecompton was a blow against slavery extension, and he at once had the whole “slave power” down on him like a pack of wolves. He added: “In making the fight against this power, I was enabled to stand off and view the men with whom I had been acting; I was ashamed I had ever been caught in such company; they are a set of unprincipled demagogues, bent upon perpetuating slavery, and by the exercise of that unequal and unfair power, to control the government or break up the Union; and I intend to prevent their doing either.”
After a long, close, and acrid contest, on April i, 1858, Lecompton was defeated. A coalition of Republicans, Douglasite Democrats, and Know-Nothings struck down the fraudulent constitution in the House, 120 to 112. When the vote was announced, a wild cheer rolled through the galleries. Old Francis P. Blair, Jackson’s friend, carried the news to the dying Thomas Hart Benton, who had been intensely aroused by the crisis. Benton could barely speak, but his exultation was unbounded. “In energetic whispers,” records Blair, “he told his visitor that the same men who had sought to destroy the republic in 1850 were at the bottom of this accursed Lecompton business. Among the greatest of his consolations in dying was the consciousness that the House of Representatives had baffled these treasonable schemes and put the heels of the people on the neck of the traitors.”
The Administration covered its retreat by a hastily concocted measure, the English Bill, under which Kansas was kept waiting on the doorstep—sure in the end to enter a free state. The Kansas plotters, the CobbThompson-Floyd clique in the Cabinet, and Buchanan had all been worsted. But the damage had been done. Southern secessionists had gained fresh strength and greater boldness from their success in coercing the Administration.
The Lecompton struggle left a varied and interesting set of aftereffects. It lifted Stephen A. Douglas to a new plane; he had been a fighting Democratic strategist, but now he became a true national leader, thinking far less of party and more of country. It sharpened the issues which that summer and fall were to form the staple of the memorable Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois. At the same time, it deepened the schism which had been growing for some years between southern Democrats and northwestern Democrats, and helped pave the way to that disruption of the party which preceded and facilitated the disruption of the nation. It planted new seeds of dissension in Kansas—seeds which resulted in fresh conflicts between Kansas free-soilers or jayhawkers on one side and Missouri invaders or border ruffians on the other, and in a spirit of border lawlessness which was to give the Civil War some of its darkest pages. The Lecompton battle discredited Buchanan in the eyes of most decent northerners, strengthened southern conviction of his weakness, and left the Administration materially and morally weaker in dealing with the problems of the next two and a half critical years.
For the full measure of Buchanan’s failure, however, we must go deeper. Had he shown the courage that to an Adams, a Jackson, a Polk, or a Cleveland would have been second nature, the courage that springs from a deep integrity, he might have done the republic an immeasurable service by grappling with disunion when it was yet weak and unprepared. Ex-Senator Foote wrote later that he knew well that a scheme for destroying the Union “had long been on foot in the South.” He knew that its leaders “were only waiting for the enfeebling of the Democratic Party in the North, and the general triumph of Free-soilism as a consequence thereof, to alarm the whole South into acquiescence in their policy.” Buchanan’s support of the unwise and corrupt Lecompton constitution thus played into the plotters’ hands.
The same view was taken yet more emphatically by Douglas. He had inside information in 1857, he later told the Senate, that four states were threatening Buchanan with secession. Had that threat been met in the right Jacksonian spirit, had the bluff been called—for the four states were unprepared for secession and war—the leaders of the movement would have been utterly discredited. Their conspiracy would have collapsed, and they would have been so routed and humiliated in 1857 that the Democratic party schism in 1860 might never have taken place, and if it had, secession in 1861 would have been impossible.
BAD THINGS HAPPEN when American presidents get bullied by political extremists up to no good.
For good reason, the U.S. government, as a matter of policy, refuses to negotiate with terrorists, much less acquiesce to their demands. The theory behind that is as simple as it is obvious -- if terrorists' extortionist tactics prove successful, they'll keep doing what works.
Give us what we want, or the little lady . . . the children in the schoolhouse . . . the jetliner full of passengers . . . the hostages in the American embassy . . . the city of New York . . . the economy and government of the United States of America gets it.
Look where caving into the politics of extortion led us a century and a half ago. Over the past day, several national commentators have rightly noted the bloody obvious -- it's back. They have stared the obvious in the face and acknowledged what cannot be denied, that President Obama's monumental collapse in the face of legislative terrorism will lead to the repeated use of a tactic as effective as it is despicable.
If it's true that war "is the continuation of politics by other means," the safety is now off.
We suspect we now are a nation as divided as we've been since 1861. We know what happened then and how we got there. Historians look at James Buchanan's actions, and inaction, in the runup to the Civil War and proclaim him one of the worst presidents in American history -- likely the worst.
SO . . . what do we do? Naturally, we do exactly as Buchanan did.
You do know what the definition of insanity is, right?