James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. Edited by John W. Quist and Michael J. Birkner. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 289 pp.
The subtitle of this book should have been The Masters of Antebellum Politics Assess the Buchanan Presidency, for the nine chapters showcase the talent of the finest historians now writing on antebellum politics. For historians of American politics and of the Civil War era, this book will be a delight. The chapters stem from a 2008 conference, probably prompted by the sesquicentennial surrounding the Civil War. None of the authors conceive of James Buchanan's presidency as a success, but most make the case that Buchanan was a far better president than he has been given credit for.
Two historians find Buchanan essentially reprehensible. Paul Finkelman emphasizes how unique was Buchanan's interference with the Supreme Court. Moreover, he makes a good case that Buchanan's use of the Dred Scott decision was contradictory. Jean Baker also judges Buchanan harshly. She emphasizes Buchanan's Southern leanings, his long-standing friendship with Southerners, and his choice of strong Southern personalities for his cabinet. She intimates that if it had not been for Joseph Holt, Edwin Stanton, and Jeremiah Black, Buchanan might have recognized the Confederate States of America.
Two chapters testify to Buchanan's success in policy. William P. MacKinnon has written an excellent, informative essay on the Mormon War. He ties much of Buchanan's financial problems with funding the movement of troops and supplies to the West, and he faults Buchanan's execution of his plans, especially the persons meant to deploy his policies. John M. Belohlavek wrote an essay underlining Buchanan's forceful actions in foreign policy. He seemed no tool of the slave power here: he enforced the laws against the international slave trade and moved quickly to suppress filibustering.
The rest of the chapters find Buchanan a confusing combination of strengths and weaknesses. Nicole Etcheson offers a view of Buchanan as one who wholly swallowed the Southern line on slavery in the territories, had no sense of Northern rights being endangered by Southern demands, and who vacillated on his Kansas policy to please Southern fanatics. She looks at the Douglas-Buchanan feud and notes that, while Buchanan wanted to think he had the power of Andrew Jackson, the only resemblance he actually had with Jackson was in holding the same office...