Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Tale Of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR (On 3Q)

 By Michael Liss

Adlai Stevenson, in the concession speech he gave after being thoroughly routed by Ike in the 1952 Election, referenced a possibly apocryphal quote by Abraham Lincoln: “He felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

Stevenson got over it sufficiently to try again in 1956 (he stubbed a different toe, even harder), but the point remains the same. Losing stinks. Having to be gracious about it also stinks. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that having to be gracious about it when you are the incumbent stinks even more, but that’s the job. The country has made a choice, and (let us keep our eyes firmly planted in the past for now), it is incumbent on the incumbent to cooperate, even if it is not required that he suddenly adopt the policies of his soon-to-be successor.

Last month, I wrote about the fraught transition from Buchanan to Lincoln, which ended with secession and, shortly after Lincoln’s Inauguration, led to the Civil War. Lincoln, and all that he represented, was clearly anathema to Buchanan, who, when he got up the nerve, acted accordingly. This month, I’m turning to the potent clashes of ideology and ego that went into the transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hoover was once one of the most admired men in the world. He had earned that through his service in World War I, first by aiding thousands of American tourists stranded in Europe, then, as Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, by helping to feed millions of people. He returned home in 1917 to take a role as Food Administrator for the United States, and, without much statutory authority, accomplished logistical feats on food supply and conservation. Woodrow Wilson sent him back to Europe to head the American Relief Administration, where he led economic restoration efforts after the war’s end, distributed 20 million tons of food to tens of millions across the continent, rebuilt communications, and organized shipping on sea and by rail. His efforts were so extraordinary that streets were named after him in several European cities.

All this before he was 45, and, being someone who did not lack confidence, he set his eyes on the White House in 1920. Both parties were interested in this man of extraordinary ability, but, in a political misstep that perhaps sprung from a touch of hubris, he announced that he would accept the Republican nomination if they adopted a platform reflecting his priorities. The party bosses who ruled in that time chuckled at his naiveté and exhaled a bit at their escape from the possibility of Hoover running as a Democrat. After a series of inconclusive votes at the 1920 GOP convention, they ducked into a smoke-filled room and picked the estimable Warren Harding of Ohio, with Calvin Coolidge to be his running mate.

As a consolation prize, Hoover accepted a role as Commerce Secretary, building out that department during a term in office that stretched more than seven years and through two Presidencies. In 1927, Coolidge tapped him to organize relief efforts in the Midwest after a gargantuan flood of the Mississippi covered 25 thousand square miles of normally dry land. He did superb work, once again putting his name in the public view.

Hoover won the 1928 Republican nomination, then went on to crush Al Smith (the first Catholic candidate) in the general election. His victory was comprehensive: 444 Electoral Votes to 87 (Smith didn’t even carry his home state of New York) and a Popular Vote margin of over 6.4 million. He was an extraordinarily popular man the day he took office.

Roosevelt’s path to the 1932 nomination took an entirely different route. Hoover had truly been a self-made man. FDR, not. Born to the gentry, educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia, he served (with Hoover) in Wilson’s Cabinet as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In one of the stranger ironies, he approached Hoover in 1920 to run as a ticket, with Hoover for President. After Hoover declared himself a Republican, Roosevelt pursued and got the Vice Presidential nomination behind James Cox.

In 1921, FDR contracted polio, and the arduous rehabilitation seemed to add a certain dogged toughness to his sunny personality. He gradually returned to public life, giving nominating speeches at the Democratic Conventions in 1924 and 1928, and allowed himself to be convinced to run for Governor of New York in 1928 (he expected, correctly, that Democrats would be routed). Despite the national tide, Roosevelt won by one percent. As Governor, he pushed for things like unemployment insurance and farm aid that would later be helpful in the 1932 campaign. He was a frontrunner at the 1932 Democratic Convention, eventually winning the nomination on the fourth ballot, after he was endorsed by John Nance Gardner, then Speaker of the House, soon to be the (far less powerful) Vice President.

Hoover initially misjudged Roosevelt, thinking him the easiest of the potential Democratic nominees to beat. He saw Roosevelt as unserious and ignorant of policy and thought the nascent New Deal dangerous. Hoover lacked the inner eye that the best politicians have—he was unable to judge himself and recalibrate when necessary. His early speeches, often dense, were filled with self-praise for a recovery simply not experienced by most people on the ground. In late October, after being urged by supporters to get tougher, he laced into Roosevelt in a stemwinder at Madison Square Garden (“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities”), declaring that the New Deal, would in effect, destroy the American way of life. Hoover’s closest advisors believed the tide had turned, and that California was certain and even FDR’s New York was within their grasp.

They were all deluding themselves. The 1932 Presidential Election was nothing if not decisive. Election Day brought Roosevelt 472 Electoral Votes to Hoover’s 59, and a popular vote margin of over 7.1 million. Looking closer at some of the states, you can see that there were huge swings from Hoover to FDR, some as much as 20%. California was particularly cruel, as FDR flipped the state, with a nearly one million vote differential from 1928. By midday, Hoover, on his way back to his home on the Stanford campus, knew he’d lost. He conceded, by telegram, at about 1:00 AM New York time.

If transition effectively begins the minute the result is clear, what’s truly fascinating is how little stock Hoover put in what was clearly a brutal personal repudiation. It’s not that he claimed fraud or tried to undermine the results. He just believed that the public was foolish, that his policies were the only rational response to the Depression, and (more quietly but equally firmly) that FDR was a lightweight unable to fill his shoes. In Hoover’s mind, his duty was clear: convince (or manipulate) FDR into adopting those Hooverian policies until 1936, when the genuine article could be restored to his rightful place in the White House. His closest advisors agreed; the public was too emotional to think clearly.

As in Buchanan’s transition to Lincoln, FDR’s Inauguration was still four months distant. In Hoover’s mind, those were four months where he could make his case to the public that they have erred, instruct FDR in the finer points of his policies, and tarnish FDR’s halo just a bit before he even got started.

Hoover saw an opportunity almost immediately with the issue of Britain and France’s debt payments to the United States. Hoover had previously suspended those payments and, for a variety of reasons, wanted that policy continued. He knew this was unpopular domestically, and, if he could get FDR on board supporting his policy, he could tag him with it. An exchange of telegrams raised the issue, and a meeting was set for November 22, 1932 at the White House.

What is so interesting here is how the two men seemed to size each other up instinctively. Hoover simply didn’t trust Roosevelt. Standing instructions were that any calls or meetings would require a stenographer and at least one “second.” There was a reason for this beyond Hoover’s almost irrational dislike of the man. Roosevelt was very skilled at being aimiable, but noncommittal, a talent which ended up being amply on display.

Hoover prepared obsessively before the meeting. After a few obligatory courtesies, the President launched into an hour-long soliloquy on international economic issues, while FDR sat quietly, pleasantly smiling and nodding. Hoover’s intention here, beyond further taking Roosevelt’s measure, was to use the appearance of access (a “joint board”) in return for FDR’s giving Hoover a free hand to set policy. Hoover thought he had FDR hooked, but the following day learned that Roosevelt had rejected the idea. Roosevelt’s message was clear: Hoover was still President for the next few months and should set his own course, as FDR would when he took office.

Hoover tried again in December, attempting to interest FDR in appointing a delegation to a World Economic Conference in London. Roosevelt demurred, and Hoover struck back by releasing the telegrams between the two men, hoping to make Roosevelt look bad in the press.

There were deeper issues than just public relations. As 1932 was drawing to a close, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, with the Nazis gaining in influence. FDR wanted to discuss foreign policy, and Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, wanted to discuss it with him. The problem was that Hoover didn’t want the exchange of information to take place, and, despite all of Stimson’s requests, even to Hoover’s patriotism and sense of duty, he refused. Finally, a telegram to Hoover from Walter Edge, the Ambassador to France, broke the impasse by conveying Edge’s threat to resign unless talks were permitted. Word was sent to Roosevelt to ask Hoover respectfully for the meeting, giving the President the opportunity to gracefully agree.

On February 15, 1933, matters took a darker turn, as an assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, fired at Roosevelt, who was sitting in an open limo with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. A woman in the crowd grabbed Zangara’s hand just before he shot. He missed FDR, but fatally wounded Cermak.

Hoover was shaken by this, and quickly telegraphed FDR his concern, but he was not done with legacy-building. On February 18, he hand-wrote a long personal missive to FDR and had it delivered to his hotel in New York. The letter, perhaps a tad too pushy for the moment, warned Roosevelt of an impending catastrophe which could only be averted by his declaring for, and adopting, whole, Hoover’s policies. FDR sat on his response for 12 days before politely rejecting Hoover’s advice.

Literally days before the Inauguration, the economic situation was growing increasingly dire, and as it did, Hoover’s outreach to FDR grew more intense. The pitch was always the same: Roosevelt must publicly renounce the New Deal in order to instill confidence. While this standoff was taking place, the banking crisis was getting more acute on almost a moment-by-moment basis. Hundreds of banks had already failed, in many cases taking their depositors’ life savings with them. Now thousands more were ready to follow. Hoover had refused to step in, saying that the market would sort out winners and losers, and the strongest banks would survive. Desperation grew for a bank holiday—a nationwide closure for a period of time, so that outflows would cease long enough to determine which banks could survive (with propping up, if necessary) and which would need to fold. The Federal Reserve Board went on record asking Hoover for one, and the old Congress, on its last days, stayed open to process a request from the President. One state after another declared bank holidays or restrictions on withdrawals, but, without a national policy, these efforts weren’t enough. Hoover wouldn’t do it—all he would consent to was to forward a request by Roosevelt and his team, and to send yet another letter to Roosevelt asking him effectively to renounce the New Deal.

FDR wouldn’t bite, and he was right. In just a few days, he would be sworn in, and could set policy (and accept responsibility) as he chose.

Hoover tried one more time. He scheduled a tea the day before the Inauguration, which quickly veered from the ceremonial to the substantive, as Hoover had brought along the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Board Chair for additional leverage. The meeting deteriorated rapidly, as Hoover pressed FDR to agree to make a joint announcement on a bank holiday. It was a fascinating endgame. The meeting broke up with more than a little anger, but Hoover kept at it, phoning FDR well into the night to ask him to agree. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board, frustrated with Hoover’s insistence that FDR must sign on, regardless of whether he had any statutory authority, drafted a letter to the President with a proposed proclamation. Hoover wouldn’t sign it. To the end, he wanted the bank-holiday policy to appear to be FDR’s.

Why? What possible reason could Hoover have had to extend the crisis? Stimson believed that Hoover had given in to his anger at being ousted and could not bring himself to do the right thing. It’s also reasonable to think that Hoover utterly despised FDR, who possessed in abundance the political gifts that Hoover never had.

Yet, to just look at the last few moments of a failed Presidency is to miss something larger. What had happened to the humanitarian Hoover of 1917-20, who worked tirelessly to ameliorate the suffering of literally hundreds of millions of Europeans? Where was Hoover in 1929, after the Crash, and in 1930-32, with massive unemployment, collapsing purchasing power, devastated farms? Why did he not act?

There is a tendency now to think of him as true to a cohesive economic philosophy, principled although wrong. But even this falls short: Hoover unquestionably deepened the Depression by doing things that a true free-market capitalist would never have done: He signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which inevitably led other nations to retaliate. Hoover also raised taxes, supported a tight money policy (when money was already desperately scarce), and walked away from the banking crisis. It’s not hard to see an astringent logic to Hoover’s approach—wash out the weaker hands; let the strongest survive; let the system right itself. Yet, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of the scold in Hoover—he’s the type who thought a lecture, a cold bath, and going to sleep without supper brought out the spine in a man. It was not just the transition, his dislike of FDR, and his bitterness at losing. The uncomfortable conclusion one can draw is that Hoover didn’t act in 1933 for the same reasons he didn’t act in 1930: because he didn’t want to, and, as President, he had the luxury of compelling his country to endure his particularized philosophical and personal morality.

The political historian Richard Neustadt wrote that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” At this fraught moment in American life, the public was persuaded by Roosevelt. His extraordinary gift for communication, for speaking in a language that was both intimate, yet conveyed seriousness, was something that Greatest Generation people would remember more than a half-century later. Above all, Roosevelt wouldn’t just speak, he would act. His team would relentlessly experiment, sometimes hitting, often missing, but with a purposefulness from which the country drew strength. The public found the choice between the two men easy to make.

On March 4, 1933, literally just hours after his last call to FDR to convince him of the error of his ways, Hoover joined Roosevelt in an open car as it made its way to what should be the last stop of all Presidential transitions, the podium at the Capitol. There, in a moment of political grace, the outgoing President is given the opportunity to remind us of the gesture of George Washington, and publicly and voluntarily yield to his successor. In this final act, Herbert Hoover played his part. Franklin Roosevelt then rose, and rose to the occasion, delivering an Inaugural Address punctuated by a single phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The 100,000 in attendance cheered him, and the hope that he brought.

Special thanks to fellow @3QD author Bill Murray, who sent me Professor Eric Rauchway’s “Winter War” after reading my piece on FDR’s Fala Speech. He rekindled an interest in Presidential transitions, and particularly this one, with its unique intellectual and political struggle between winner and loser.

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR first appeared on Monday, January 4, 2021 at

You can follow Syncopated Politics on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, February 1, 2021

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part I, Buchanan to Lincoln

By Michael Liss:

Editors Note:  This is part 1 of a series of three on Presidential Transitions.  It is followed by a second on Hoover to FDR, and the last is Trump to Biden.   

November 6, 1860. Perhaps the worst day in James Buchanan’s political life. His fears, his sympathies and antipathies, the judgment of the public upon an entire career, all converge into a horrible realty. Abraham Lincoln, of the “Black Republican Party,” has been elected President of the United States.  

Into Buchanan’s hands falls the most treacherous transition any President has had to navigate. The country is about to split apart. For months, Southerners in Congress, in their State Houses, in newspapers ranging from the large-circulation influential dailies to small-town broadsheets, had been warning everyone who cared to listen that they would not abide an election result they felt was an existential threat to their Peculiar Institution. Lincoln, despite what we now consider to be his notably conservative approach to slavery, was that threat. 

The task is made more excruciating because the transition, at that time, was longer—not the January 20th date we expect, but March 4th. Four long months until Lincoln’s Inauguration. Thirteen months between the end of the regular session of the outgoing Congress and the first scheduled session of the incoming one, unless the President calls for a Special Session. Each day, the speeches become more radical, the threats blunter. Committees are formed in many states to consider secession. By December 20, South Carolina leaves the Union. It is followed in short order by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and, on February 1, 1861, Texas. The Upper South (Tennessee, North Carolina, and all-important Virginia) holds back, as does Arkansas. Unionist sentiment is strong enough to keep them from bolting, but the cost of their loyalty is that nothing aggressive be done by Washington to bring back the seceding states. In reality, that means an acceptance of secession for those that cannot be wooed back. 

Buchanan is not the man for the job.

Nearing 70, ill, perceived as both politically and morally weak, rumored to be behind the unpopular Dred Scott decision, he is reviled in much of the North as a Doughface who allowed himself to be ruled by the Southerners in his Cabinet, and despised in the South for his querulousness. That he was not on the ballot (he had pledged himself to one term in his Inaugural Address) merely spared him the likely humiliation of being decisively rejected by the electorate.

Be that as it may, Buchanan is also still the President of the United States, with a Washington newspaper (the Washington Constitution) to act as house organ, patronage to distribute, policies that could reward or punish, and, most importantly, control over the Army and Navy. Would he use his powers to keep the Union alive?

Where does Lincoln fit in as President-elect? What is fascinating about this period is that, while Lincoln is an essential figure, even a precipitating one, he is also a mostly quiet actor. The custom of the day is for candidates and the newly elected (but not yet seated) to maintain a dignified silence. Lincoln largely sticks to that, even when asked to offer either soothing words, or tougher ones. He is convinced that his policies have been well-aired during the campaign, and any statement he makes would be either misinterpreted or hyperbolized. When informed of the many efforts made by well-meaning men of both regions and all parties to find some compromise short of war, his attitude is more one of acceptance than of encouragement. He would offer the South the assurances he had always offered, but never bargain away what he, and the Republican Party, had just won.

That leaves the field to the primary actors of this period, Buchanan and the Cabinet members he relies on, the Fire-Eaters in the South who crave an independent nation, and an ever-shifting group of men of various political persuasions and even motivations, who desperately search for some way out of the present crisis.

There were really four phases to Buchanan’s approach; the first pre-election, the last three governing his conduct as President. 

His pre-election choices may very well have increased the odds of the very disaster he was facing. Buchanan did not support his fellow Democrat, Steven Douglas. The two men disliked each other, having been rivals for the nomination before, and Douglas’s advocacy of Popular Sovereignty made him unpopular among slaveholders and the Doughfaces who voted with them. There was a potent internal conflict going on inside the Party that mirrored the one going on in the nation at large. While there were many issues driving North and South apart—tariffs, internal improvements, the value (or superiority) of an agrarian lifestyle over sheer economic growth—only slavery packed the emotional heft that would lead men to take up arms.

In June of 1860, at the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, these conflicts came to a head.  Southern Democrats would not accept a Douglas nomination, and, encouraged by Buchanan and egged on by the Fire-Eaters, many bolted, set up a rival convention, and nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge. As if three parties were not enough, a fourth, the compromise-inclined Constitutional Union Party then emerged, and nominated Tennessee Senator John Bell.  

It was soon realized that this split would likely be fatal to the South’s chances, as Bell would draw off support in the upper South and Border states. There were discussions between the Breckinridge and Bell camps and outreach to Douglas to combine forces, but that would have required Douglas to withdraw, and, quite understandably, he was unwilling to do that, so the talks fell apart.

We can speculate about what a two-man race might have looked like, but it should not be assumed Lincoln would have lost. In nearly sweeping the North, he actually took enough states by absolute majorities to win the Electoral College. Whatever the outgoing President may have wished for, the prize was Lincoln’s, and cleanly won.

Buchanan was faced with a critical decision—accept Lincoln’s win and plunge into trying to ameliorate the damage, or remain passive and resentful. His first problem was to ascertain reality. In this chaotic time, few people were able to ignore the noise and gain a clear-eyed view of what public opinion really was. Hindsight tells us that both sides sorely underestimated the willpower and ability of the other. 

Buchanan meets with his Cabinet for the first time on November 9, and there the battle lines are clearly drawn. His Secretary of the Treasury is Howell Cobb of Georgia, former Speaker of the House, and future President of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Secretary of the Interior is Jacob Thompson, who, while still in the Cabinet, is soon to be appointed by the state of Mississippi as a “secession commissioner” to North Carolina, charged with convincing that state to secede. Secretary of War John Floyd, is a former Governor of Virginia, later accused by Grant in his memoirs of scattering the Army to places where they could be more easily captured, and redistributing military supplies from Northern locations to the South. In this phase of Buchanan’s response, it is clear he is more influenced by Southerners inside the Cabinet and out. Buchanan is, in a sense, a Unionist, but his policy, at least at this point, is one of appeasement and at least tacit acceptance of secession. Cobb remains in the Cabinet until December 6, Floyd resigns December 29, and, astoundingly, Thompson is not forced to resign until January 8, 1861. 

Buchanan proposes a national convention of the States, as authorized by Article V of the Constitution. There, he suggests, a compromise could be worked out to satisfy the South, and, if the South is not sufficiently appeased, it would be justified in separating. Reaction to this is mixed—Lewis Cass of Michigan, then Secretary of State, and Jeremiah Black of Pennsylvania, (then Attorney General, later Secretary of State) approve of the idea, so long as it is coupled with a willingness to enforce federal law; Cobb and Floyd refuse to commit; while Thompson and Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey of Connecticut support it.

November 10, the Cabinet meets again, and here is where the power of Southern members exerts itself. Buchanan has been working on a state paper of sorts, combining three concepts: acceptance of Lincoln’s election by the South, rejection of secession, and the implication that some sort of federal force might be necessary to enforce basic law, such as the defense of army posts/forts and collection of tariffs. The Southern members argue violently against it, and Buchanan, unfortunately, withdraws it.

It is important to realize what a critical turning point this is. What Buchanan is proposing is the minimum of what any President should insist on. There is no right of secession in the Constitution—it is not a transitory, voluntary compact where any state may leave if it’s unhappy with an election result or even just a law. Certainly, a seceding state has no right to use force against federal property and expect no response. For the Southerners to insist on such a course should have required their immediate resignations, yet none is offered and Buchanan doesn’t demand them. It is a critical early failure of leadership, and one that has broad ramifications. 

What Buchanan does do is a lot of nothing. He doesn’t reorganize his Cabinet, and he doesn’t push for a national convention. One can understand his fears in ejecting the Southerners and possibly further inflaming the Fire-Eaters, but what he fails to grasp is that they are likely beyond appeasement. By retaining them, by accepting the reality of secession and allowing them to influence policy to the nation’s detriment, he is broadcasting this weakness.

In light of this position, just how successful could a national convention be? The forces of Unionism and the interests of the North (even without taking into account that of the electorate that had just picked Lincoln) would have nothing left with which to bargain. The abstract concept of “Union” holds much less sway than many (including Lincoln) believe. You need at least a “whiff of grapeshot” to be taken seriously. The result is no national convention, and not the slightest hint of Southern acquiescence. 

A month after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan, and the country, continue to drift toward oblivion. For some bizarre reason, the Administration’s newspaper, the Constitution, continue to publish wildly inflammatory and disloyal articles and editorials. Still, even with them, Buchanan’s timorousness manifests itself in paralysis. It is not until Christmas that he informs the editor he is withdrawing support.   

What is Buchanan doing all this time, besides wringing his hands? Not following the advice of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who suggests reinforcing federal facilities in several Southern states. Not taking a firmer hand with his Southern advisers. Not putting the prestige of the President’s office behind a national convention. Instead, he continues to work on his state paper, thinking that perhaps words would help.  In mid-November, he turns that work over to his able Attorney General, Jeremiah Black. Black’s draft, however, is continually watered down to meet the objections from the Southerners (and Buchanan) until it is ready. The end product only goes so far as to say there is no right of secession. Beyond that, it kneecaps itself by saying that, if all federal officeholders in a seceding state refused to obey the law, there is no explicit Constitutional power in Congress (or in the Executive) to compel them to obey. Any attempt to do so, in effect, would be an act of war by the federal government on the seceding state. 

This construct is soon tested in South Carolina (it’s always South Carolina). Despite continual entreaties to Buchanan to reinforce the forts around Charleston Harbor, he remains too concerned that firmness would ruffle feelings. He focuses on his annual Address to Congress, while the South Carolinians prepare to take the forts. Almost daily arguments break out in the White House about how to respond, with Buchanan seemingly open to whomever is the last person to make an argument. In the meantime, Floyd is communicating privately with South Carolina Governor Gist, informing him of Buchanan’s plans and reassuring him the forts will not be reinforced. Buchanan, of course, does nothing besides fret and polish his language. In a moment of extreme historical irony, he invites Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis to view his draft and suggest changes. 

The Address is completed by December 2nd. Inside the Cabinet, the Union men are losing issue after issue. Lewis Cass is arguing the forts have to be maintained. Buchanan brushes him off (Cass is later to resign over this). Black asserts that, if Buchanan cannot support the offensive use of force to defend the forts, he must at least assert that the soldiers there have a right to defend themselves. Black also insists that, should a state secede, Congress has the power to take “necessary and proper” actions to deal with it. Buchanan turns him down on both.

The final Message to Congress is a monument to bad governing. Buchanan does agree that there is no right to secede, but, on point after point, he sides with Southern interests. In an extraordinarily polarized era, Congress (which still includes the vast majority of Congressmen and Senators from soon-to-secede states) finds much to hate. It’s a contradictory paper, asserting certain federal rights, but insisting that the government, and particularly the Executive Branch, has no power to enforce those rights—a quintessentially Buchanan position. 

There is more. Buchanan can’t rise to the occasion. He barely gets past his opening before launching into a denunciation of the North. “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.” He praises the Dred Scott decision, and goes on to offer what compromises he believes essential for the North to make to woo the South back, if it will come back. You would be hard-pressed to find a single balanced, constructive moment in all 6600+ words of it. 

Whatever this is, it is not leadership, and it is not Presidential. Buchanan just doesn’t have it in him. He punts the responsibility to Congress, yet advises that it, too, has little authority to act. Congress, hopelessly divided, and without Executive Power, can do nothing substantive. 

The stalemate only begins to break when Southern politicians decide to return home. With Cobb, Floyd and Thompson’s departure, Buchanan’s Cabinet gains new spine, but the two months lost are critical. It’s not one state anymore, but seven, and by February 4, 1861, they are already forming a government. Buchanan’s window for action to resolve the matter without violence is almost certainly closed. By the time Lincoln is Inaugurated, General Scott, and Secretary of War Holt must arrange for guns to line Pennsylvania Avenue and cross streets placed under guard. 

Each incoming President steps into the shoes of the one who is leaving. That places an enormous burden on the outgoing one; they must be caretakers in the best sense of the word—they owe it to their successors, and the American people, to leave as strong a country as they can. History’s verdict on how James Buchanan discharged that particular duty has been harsh, but well-earned.  

The original of Buchanan to Lincoln was published on on December 7, 2020.  You can find it at

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