Bun­gled pres­i­den­cies in run-up to Civil War: Lessons for to­day

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

suit­able for oth­ers than de­sir­able for my­self."

A Demo­crat from Penn­syl­va­nia, Buchanan, on the other hand, noted that slav­ery was "hap­pily, a mat­ter of but lit­tle prac­ti­cal im­por­tance." He saw no is­sue in per­mit­ting "the slave States ... to be let alone and per­mit­ted to man­age their do­mes­tic in­sti­tu­tions in their own way. As sov­er­eign States, they, and they alone, are re­spon­si­ble be­fore God and the world for the slav­ery ex­ist­ing among them."

The na­tion was rocked by a ma­jor fi­nan­cial down­turn in Buchanan's term, as well as a fool­ish pres­i­den­tial de­ci­sion to send troops to fight the Mor­mons in Utah, who were strug­gling to find a home but were con­tro­ver­sial be­cause of their re­li­gious be­liefs, in­clud­ing polygamy. Lit­tle won­der that the 1857-1858 mil­i­tary en­deavor was dubbed "Buchanan's Blun­der."

To be sure, Congress fid­dled with leg­is­la­tion to deal with vi­o­lence and divi­sion within and among the states, but Buchanan saw the pres­i­dency as largely cer­e­mo­nial. "It is beyond the power of any pres­i­dent, no mat­ter what may be his own po­lit­i­cal pro­cliv­i­ties, to re­store peace and har­mony among the states. Wisely lim­ited and re­strained as is his power un­der our Con­sti­tu­tion and laws, he alone can ac­com­plish but lit­tle for good or for evil on such a momentous ques­tion."

And talk about gloom and doom. When the South be­gan to se­cede af­ter Lin­coln's elec­tion, Buchanan wrote: "I am the last Pres­i­dent of the United States." And he was wrong again when he in­di­cated just be­fore his death in 1868: "His­tory will vin­di­cate my mem­ory from ev­ery un­just as­per­sion."

But there are some en­dear­ing mo­ments in this era of divi­sion. When, at mid­cen­tury, a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion was held in Cal­i­for­nia, some 48 del­e­gates assembled, eight of whom were Mex­i­can. "As a re­sult of their in­flu­ence," we write in our text­book, "the new con­sti­tu­tion was the first in the na­tion to al­low a mar­ried woman to re­tain con­trol over her own prop­erty. That had been the law in Mex­i­can Cal­i­for­nia. More im­por­tant, for its im­pact on the na­tion, was the del­e­gates' unan­i­mous de­ci­sion to ex­clude slav­ery from Cal­i­for­nia,"

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