Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Pennsylvania President

now finished: President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein(entry backdated to when I finished the book)

Lots of early U.S. presidents were from Virginia. There were also a few from New England and from the Carolinas-Tennessee corridor, and a couple from New York. There was even a "Western" president (you know, Ohio and the Indiana "frontier") who played up the log cabin angle in his campaign years before Lincoln was around. But the 15th president, James Buchanan, came from Pennsylvania, and what I learned from this prez bio is that Pennsylvania politics of the early to mid-1800s were almost as atrocious and horrifying as New York politics.

I've mentioned before that Martin Van Buren basically invented the Democratic party as we know it, with political party loyalty, back room deals, and bizarre trade-off power plays. (He had the help of Andrew Jackson in this, along with plenty of New York politicians.) Well, Pennsylvania was not content to let its neighboring state be the biggest and baddest, and it certainly started throwing its weight around in presidential elections as well.

Now, here I must say that I actually like James Buchanan, and I think he gets a raw deal in how he is remembered. (I mean, to the extent that he is remembered at all.) He was a true success at his law career, and his political career. He made money, and he made connections, but he had loyalty to the place he came from and he supported his family forever, a family plagued with deaths and deadbeats and struggles and extra mouths to feed. This is why his niece and others lived in his household and ended up coming to the White House with him -- that's right, James B. is our famous "bachelor president" who had his niece do all the official society hosting First Lady duties. James had a LOT of experience, serving in Congress and as a Secretary of State, as well as being involved in all the political goings-on in Pennsylvania. People think poorly of him because the South started seceding at the end of his term, and because the slavery question obviously erupted into the biggest event in U.S. history during the next presidency, that of Abe Lincoln.

But our boy Buchanan did his utmost to keep the Union together, and he was deeply concerned with the law. He, like Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore before him, was no fan of slavery, but saw no legal way in the Constitution for the president to do anything about it. He also considered secession illegal. Most people at that time were focused on trying to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories; abolitionists were considered dangerous radicals (and, also a threat to the Constitution), sort of like some people jabber about Michael Moore and other righteous crusaders today.

Buchanan also got a raw deal from the Democratic party. Buchanan probably should have been nominated for the presidency earlier than he was. Maybe Franklin Pierce was the Obama to his Hillary? (Although I tend to think of Hillary as more like Henry Clay - hugely important and destined to be president, a foregone conclusion that somehow went awry.) Buchanan got shipped off to Europe during Pierce's presidency, but interestingly that ended up working out in his favor because he wasn't around for those violent, nasty, tearing-the-country-apart years and he was actually able to get the 1856 nomination.

Buchanan was dedicated to the law and I think of him as acting with dignity and maturity in his political interactions. Of course he had his side of things in the heated passions of Pennsylvania politics. But he was also the older, wiser man born at the end of the 1700s, the previous generation that was now passing the torch to a volatile new era.

Furthermore, I learned from this biography how very much Lincoln some ideas of Buchanan agreed  with and even adopted some ideas of Buchanan. There is one part where the author, Klein, includes Buchanan's writing of his main points on slavery, secession, the Union, and the crisis, and then juxtaposes it with Lincoln's later speech of "his" points on slavery, secession, the Union and the crisis. Well my, my, aren't they similar. 

In short, this was another fascinating read and I truly think everyone would benefit from and enjoy reading a bio of every president in order, as I am doing. Note: my favorites are still Millard Fillmore and my boy JQA.

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