Honors U.S. Government
Pierce and Buchanan
America’s misfortunes under the Pierce administration evolved into full blown catastrophe under President Buchanan’s leadership, due to his societal density, corruption and inaction. However, both former presidents owe their failures to ill—or better, non—use of their authority.
James Buchanan entered the presidency during a climate of fracture and discord between North and South, caused in part by former President Franklin Pierce who had “rekindled the animosities between the sections” (171). Though Buchanan had expansive political experience, he was a weak and “bumbling” man who endorsed “one-sided pro-Southern policies” as his predecessor had (174). He was “emotionally isolated from the antislavery fervor sweeping the country;” totally blind to the change in tide of the American people (176). In ignoring and even rejecting the growing call of the Northern abolitionists, as well as fueling their ire with several corrupt laws, he managed to stoke the flames of succession until they burned white hot. By “secretly influenc[ing] the Supreme Court’s controversial Dred Scott decision,” he showed “an appalling ignorance by assuming that this ruling would be acceptable to the North” (177, 184). Buchanan never once licked his finger to test the winds of public opinion, instead proceeding with his misconduct and dimwitted opposition to the ever powerful gusts of the North. Worse, his administration was overrun with corruption. He led one of the most fraudulent ministries in history; it is now known that he was “[u]nder the influence of a cabinet that included several scheming secessionists,” and was involved in bribery in the Lecompton constitution vs. Kansas-Nebraska Act showdown (189). Most abysmal however, was his reputation as a “lame-duck president” (177). Buchanan undercut his own position through his “indecisiveness and… denial of his own authority to coerce a state to remain in the Union” (ibid). This was a man who was simply not made for positions of power, as he lacked the will to use it. The tensions of the time called for a leader who would strong arm both sides into agreement and shove both sections together like nearly matching puzzle pieces. Instead, he claimed that he’d had “no power under the Constitution to use force against the seceding Southern states” and hoped, with trepidation, that secession would not take place until Lincoln took office (187, 189). Buchanan repeatedly pushed the nation into fracture through his flippant anti-North stance and blatant corruption, then sat on his hands when it began to happen.
The botching of Pierce and Buchanan’s presidencies can be attributed to the fact that both allowed their authority to be governed and overruled by others. Pierce was more than indecisive — he was careless in all he did; with whom he gave appointments to and what he promised and to who. A “bland, conciliatory, and yielding” people pleaser, he found himself with a cabinet composed of “an ill-assorted body of… highly incompatible men” who had been picked based upon the wishes of others (164, 165). Buchanan similarly lacked the “iron nerve… and ability to bend men to his will” necessary for a highly functioning administration and country (174). His cabinet was “dominated by Southerners” who used his refusal to act to their advantage (176). Always having refrained from any steps to hold the Union together, he watched sadly as it fell apart. The Civil War was not inevitable; Pierce’s lap dog mentality and Buchanan’s firm belief in his own powerlessness are to blame.
While Pierce’s inability to commit to any of his responsibilities as president served to further the eventual fracture of the country, Buchanan’s failure to act was its ultimate downfall. Buchanan stood stubbornly on the side of the South in the few times he did speak up, which only rallied the North. Both men were woeful examples of leadership and brought about tragedy to the American people.