February, 2011

In honor of President’s Day, Prof. Glenn LaFantasie of Western Kentucky University has written a very interesting piece on why the 15th President, James Buchanan, is the worst president in American history. It’s also sure to push the buttons of some modern-day Republicans:

Who’s the worst president of them all?
When it comes to who least deserves to be honored today, it’s a close call between the 43rd and 15th presidents
By Glenn W. LaFantasie

In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America’s worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.

In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history — witness Bush’s recent book tour — he doesn’t seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 “presidential scholars” had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that “Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House.”

Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.

Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln’s greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren’t for Buchanan’s utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever.

While I acknowledge that Bush 43 was certainly the worst president I’ve seen in my lifetime (12 presidents have occupied the White House since my birth), he runs neck and neck with Buchanan’s inadequacies as chief executive. Both of them pursued their own agendas: Buchanan hoped to placate the South as the sectional controversy grew worse (and became increasingly more violent) in the late 1850s, while Bush worked assiduously to dismantle the federal government while trying to fit his presidency into his vacation schedule. Buchanan failed to reach his goal; Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Both presidents handed a broken country on to their successors. But Bush broke the nation’s back on purpose, so he wins points for what we might call a competent incompetency.

– – – – – – – – – –

By any measure, Buchanan was an odd duck. As the last president to be born in the 18th century (1791), he began life as the son of a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, attended Dickinson College (from which he was briefly expelled for rowdiness), and became an able attorney. Apart from eyelashes and eyebrows, Buchanan lacked any facial hair; he never shaved throughout his adulthood. His eyes were slightly crossed; to compensate for the defect, he often kept one eye shut and cocked his head to the side. Actually Buchanan was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other.

Yet Buchanan built up a prosperous law practice, and savvy investments — particularly in real estate — made him a wealthy man. In 1819, he was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer, but he devoted most of his time to his work as an attorney and to politics. For whatever reason, Ann Coleman broke off the engagement and died shortly afterward, perhaps from an accidental or self-induced overdose of laudanum. Her death left Buchanan distraught with grief. “I feel that happiness has fled from me forever,” he told his father. The Coleman family prevented him from attending the funeral. He would mourn Ann’s death for the rest of his life. From time to time friends urged him to marry, but Buchanan vowed never to take a wife. “My affections,” he said, “were buried in the grave.”

The mysteries surrounding his relationship with Ann Coleman resemble the bleak and brooding elements of an Edgar Allen Poe story, with Buchanan cast in the role of a bereft and inconsolable inamorato. He remained a committed bachelor until his death. Some historians have speculated that Buchanan was actually a homosexual, but these claims are based solely on the fact that he roomed for several years with a close friend, William Rufus King, an Alabamian who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson once called Buchanan “an Aunt Nancy.” A Tennessee governor referred to him and his roommate as “Buchanan & his wife.” But such 19th century political slurs should not be interpreted in a 21st century context. Like most of us, Buchanan kept his sexual preferences — whatever they were — to himself.

During the War of 1812, Buchanan turned to politics, joined the Federalist Party, and served in the Pennsylvania Legislature from 1814 to 1816; he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1821 to 1831. In Washington, he turned his back on the Federalists and ardently — although somewhat incongruously, given his wealth and high status — supported Andrew Jackson and the rising populism of the Democratic Party. Jackson appointed him minister to Russia, a diplomatic post that placed Buchanan as far away from Washington as the spoils system could manage. When he returned to the States, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he displayed all the traits of a Democratic Party stalwart, a strict constitutional constructionist (in the Jeffersonian mode), and — again, incongruously — a Northerner who strongly, even sometimes impulsively, supported Southern interests, including any measure that would protect or extend the institution of slavery.

In the 1840s, he hoped to receive the Democratic Party nomination for president, but he did not attract much attention in Congress or as a diplomat, and he occupied a middling rank in his own party. When James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, he named Buchanan secretary of state — a plum appointment — but the new president grew frustrated with the Pennsylvanian, calling him indecisive and thinking him ineffective. “Mr. Buchanan is an able man,” Polk wrote in his diary, “but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” As secretary of state, Buchanan’s biggest idea was to propose the annexation of Cuba while the United States went about adding great expanses of territory in the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast after defeating Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1847. The dream of acquiring Cuba danced in Buchanan’s head for the rest of his life, obviously to no avail, even though plenty of Southerners would have loved taking over an island in the Caribbean where slavery already existed, just 90 miles or so off the U.S. mainland. Americans, he believed, should go wherever they wanted to go, although he said so in a potentially tongue-tying sentence: “Let us go on whithersoever our destiny may lead us.”

Echoes of Buchanan’s belief in Manifest Destiny can still be heard in our own time. In his 2004 State of the Union address, George W. Bush recast (but only slightly) Buchanan’s belief in manifest destiny by trumpeting: “America is a Nation with a mission — and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace — a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman.” That was one of his explanations for why the United States had invaded Iraq without provocation. Buchanan’s “whithersoever” had landed us in the Middle East — without an exit strategy. For Bush and Buchanan, there was simply no way to avoid destiny and providence. If God wanted the U.S. to possess California and Oregon, so let it be done. Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buchanan thought he could grasp the presidency by wooing support from Southern Democrats, so he remained steadfast in his defense of states’ rights, slavery and its extension into western territories, and aggressive expansionism. Yet his bid for the Democratic nomination failed in 1848, when Lewis Cass of Michigan ran and lost to Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, and again in 1852, when Franklin Pierce won the Democratic nomination and the election. Buchanan hoped that Pierce would name him secretary of state, but the new president instead appointed him minister to Great Britain. Once again Buchanan’s ostensible political friends had succeeded in getting him out of the country and, one assumes, out of their hair. In London, he could not stop thinking about Cuba. He traveled to Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854, where, with two other American ministers, he drew up a “manifesto” that called for the use of force by the U.S. to take possession of the island. Inevitably, the Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, giving rise to a storm of protest at home and abroad. Congress investigated the diplomatic correspondence surrounding the document’s creation, and Northern antislavery forces denounced it as nothing more than a Southern attempt to expand slavery into the Caribbean. The Pierce administration gave up its designs on Cuba, but Buchanan kept longing for the island, hoping that someday the United States (and he) would hold it in a loving embrace.

From across the Atlantic, Buchanan also kept his eye firmly focused on presidential politics. He resigned as minister to England and returned to the U.S. in time to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination in 1856. His timing was perfect, since the Democratic Party had been thrown into disarray by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years earlier. The act, which was the brainchild of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, voided the earlier Missouri Compromise by allowing the voters of Kansas and Nebraska to decide by means of what was called “popular sovereignty” whether their territories should allow slavery inside their borders. Conflict between pro-slavery “border ruffians” and “free-soilers” resulted in violence between the two sides. President Pierce supported the pro-slavery element in Kansas, despite the fact that free-soilers actually constituted a major of the population. As a result, both Pierce and Douglas, who also had presidential aspirations, lost support in the Democratic Party — a political development that worked to Buchanan’s great advantage.

Regarded as a safe candidate, since he had been overseas during the upheavals over Kansas, the Democrats nominated him at their convention in Cincinnati. In the general election, Buchanan faced off against two other candidates: John C. Frémont of the Republican Party and Millard Fillmore, the former president, of the American (or “Know-Nothing”) Party. Buchanan won, but only by a plurality, not a majority. Nevertheless, he saw his victory as a mandate, namely that Americans had voted for Union over disunion.

From the start of his presidency — indeed, from the very moment of his inaugural address — Buchanan revealed that he was going to do everything he could to sustain slavery and Southern interests, no matter how much his policies would give Northern Republicans proof that the new president was part of what they called a “Slave Power Conspiracy.” Sixty-five years old, with snow white hair, Buchanan took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. He made plain his own and his party’s belief that Congress had no authority to interfere with the institution of slavery.

What really mattered to him, however, was the prospect of finding a judicial, rather than a congressional or a presidential, solution to the sectional issue of slavery. Going beyond accepted political bounds, and ignoring the principle of separation of powers, Buchanan had used his influence to sway a Northern Supreme Court justice to side with the Southern majority in a pending case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. When he delivered his inaugural, Buchanan already knew the outcome of that case, although in his address he deceitfully alluded to the forthcoming decision by saying of the Court: “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be.” Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the most infamous decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court — an opinion holding that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master for a time in a free state, was not free; that no slave or black person could be a citizen of the U.S.; that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory; and that the slavery exclusion clause of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. The opinion did not resolve the sectional controversy as Buchanan and the Taney court had hoped. Instead, it produced thunderous outrage throughout the North. In the South, of course, the decision was cheered. But Northerners saw the court’s action as a partisan ploy.

Ignoring the clamor of criticism from the North, Buchanan nestled into the White House by surrounding himself with advisors who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know. The new president lived in a bubble, despite the fact that the nation was beginning to crumble around him. During his first year in office, an economic depression (referred to as the Panic of 1857) hit the country and persisted for his entire term in office. With striking ineptitude, Buchanan failed to deal with the economic crisis in any effective manner, which only helped to increase bitterness between Northern commercial interests and Southern agrarians. Spouting his philosophy of limited government, he told the public that the government lacked the power “to extend relief” to those hardest hit by the depression. As he promised to reduce the federal debt and all government spending, Buchanan nevertheless oversaw during his one term in office a growth in federal spending that amounted to 15 percent of the budget in 1856. When he left office, Buchanan handed over a $17 million deficit to Lincoln.

In the heat of mounting sectional discord and as the economy bottomed out, Buchanan abandoned the traditional understanding in U.S. politics of regarding his political enemies as a loyal opposition; instead, Buchanan, like George W. Bush 150 years later, accused his political opponents of disloyalty, extremism and treason. “The great object of my administration,” Buchanan wrote in 1856, “will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties.” In other words, Buchanan wanted to eliminate the Republicans, not just defeat them, rather like how Karl Rove worked strenuously to create a “permanent majority” for the Republican Party during Bush 43’s presidency.

While Buchanan condemned Republicans and abolitionists as the source of all the nation’s troubles, the Kansas problem continued to boil over. When the pro-slavery minority in Kansas submitted a fraudulent constitution legalizing slavery in the territory, Buchanan endorsed the document as legitimate. Then he tried to force his arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, to do the same. In a White House meeting, Buchanan threatened Douglas by pointing out that since Andrew Jackson’s time no senator had opposed a presidential measure successfully without then losing his next bid for reelection. Furious, Douglas replied: “Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead!” He then stormed out of the White House. (Douglas won reelection to his seat, successfully defeating Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Senate contest of 1858.)

Buchanan went forward and submitted the Kansas issue to Congress. Then, in his annual message, he enjoyed a “Mission Accomplished” moment by declaring that “Kansas is … at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina.” But Congress had not yet decided the fate of Kansas. After fierce debate, the Senate approved the bill admitting Kansas as a slave state, but the House of Representatives did not. Finally, in Kansas, the free-soil majority voted against the pro-slavery constitution in a fair election. (Kansas would remain a territory until 1861, when, after the departure of Southerners from Congress, it was admitted into the Union as a free state.) With a smugness that smacked of delusion, Buchanan took credit for making Kansas “tranquil and prosperous.”

Even as Buchanan was fanning the flames of sectional strife over Kansas, another crisis in the West demanded his attention as president. In Utah territory, the Mormons combined an overt patriotism and demonstrations of loyalty to the U.S. government with rebellious rhetoric and actions — such as the practice of polygamy, otherwise outlawed in the U.S. — that left many Americans outside of the Great Basin convinced that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were intent on dominating the government of Utah, ignoring federal officials and authority in the territory, and enforcing a “Theodemocracy,” rather than a true democracy, under the leadership of Brigham Young. When reports reached Washington in the spring of 1857 that the Mormons were in a state of near insurrection against federal authority, Buchanan concluded — on something less than reliable evidence — that the Utah settlers had “for several years past manifested a spirit of insubordination to the Constitution and laws of the United States,” that the inhabitants of the territory were under “a strange system of terrorism,” and that those who resisted the federal government were therefore traitors. Accordingly, he ordered, in his capacity as commander in chief, a military expedition to the territory that was “not to be withdrawn until the inhabitants of that Territory shall manifest a proper sense of the duty which they owe to this government.” The army blundered its mission, and the Mormons fought an effective guerrilla campaign against the federal troops. Eventually, Buchanan felt the heat of political pressure to end the so-called Mormon War, and a peaceful end to the fiasco. True to form, however, Buchanan claimed credit for a victory in Utah.

The president was a saber-rattler. To solve a dispute between the U.S. and the British over the boundary through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Northwest, Buchanan sent troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott to Puget Sound. Luckily the argument was settled peacefully. He also dispatched 2,500 sailors and Marines to Paraguay after a U.S. naval captain had been killed there. The campaign lasted months without any appreciable results. Like other presidents who would follow him, including George W. Bush, Buchanan resorted to military force without qualms and then, when the use of force did not quite work out as he intended, he simply declared victory and hoped that everyone would forget his mistakes. At least he did not say out loud to the Mormons, the British or the Paraguayans, as Bush 43 did to his enemies, “Bring them on.” Even so, he assumed the posture of an aggressive commander in chief — one who conveniently overlooked the fact that Congress, and not the chief executive, was supposed to declare war.

Meanwhile, Buchanan pushed ahead with what he considered his most important piece of business: acquiring Cuba for the United States. After his nomination for the presidency, Buchanan reiterated his extraordinary lust for Cuba. “If I can be instrumental in settling the slavery question … and then adding Cuba to the Union,” he exclaimed, “I shall be willing to give up the ghost.” Yet Spain had not changed its mind since the time of the Ostend Manifesto. It had no interest in relinquishing Cuba to any other country, including the United States. A bill to purchase the island languished and then died in Congress. Undeterred, Buchanan kept saying over and over, “We must have Cuba.” Because his desire for Cuba was not fulfilled, he did not give up the ghost.

Instead, he led the nation into its worst crisis. The crisis, at least, was not entirely of his own making, although he surely contributed to the steady escalation of belligerent feelings between North and South while he sat in the White House. He also helped bring about a schism in the Democratic Party that led to a four-way race for the presidency in the election of 1860: in the North, Abraham Lincoln (R) versus Stephen Douglas (D), and in the South, John C. Breckinridge (D) versus John Bell (Constitution Union Party). Buchanan did not run for reelection because he had promised the nation he would serve only one term. In that sense, he was a lame-duck president from the moment he had been elected in 1856, and his disputes with Congress suffered because everyone in Washington knew that he would be gone after four short years.

What triggered the immediate chain of events that led to the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860. Fearful that Lincoln was a die-hard abolitionist, rather than a Republican who simply wanted to prohibit the spread of slavery into the western territories, a good number of Southern extremists called “fire-eaters” vowed to take their states out of the Union if Lincoln became president. With his election, South Carolina quickly called a convention to consider the matter of secession, and on Dec. 20, after Lincoln’s election had been confirmed by the Electoral College, the Palmetto State jubilantly declared that it was no longer in the United States. Despite all the rationalizations and elaborate justifications for secession, then and ever after, the action taken by South Carolina was illegal and traitorous. Buchanan, as the nation’s chief magistrate, watched with a slack jaw as the South warned the nation that it would not abide Lincoln’s election, despite the fact that the Illinoisan had been legally elected (and not, say, appointed to the presidency by the U. S. Supreme Court as George W. Bush would be in 2000). Rather than taking the South’s threats seriously, Buchanan in his annual message ignored the impending crisis and asked one last time for a congressional appropriation with which to purchase Cuba. He also suggested that it might be prudent to send a military expedition into Mexico for the purpose of establishing an American protectorate in Chihuahua and Sonora to ward off Indian attacks and bandit raids into Texas and New Mexico. Congress refused his requests.

At first, though, it looked like Buchanan might take decisive action against disunion. In his annual message to Congress, in December 1860, he denied “the right of secession.” The Founders had established a perpetual union, he said, and the federal government had the duty to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. In Buchanan’s estimation, there was no wiggle room when it came to disunion: “Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or may not be a justifiable revolution; but still it is revolution.” By inserting the word “justifiable” in this last sentence, one could detect Buchanan faltering, his knees buckling like a boxer who’s about to collapse to the mat. Sure enough, Buchanan also declared in his message that he and Congress lacked the authority to force any seceded state back into the Union. “The power to make war against a State,” he contended, “is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution … Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war.”

But he said this 17 days before South Carolina or any other Southern state had left the Union. He was, in other words, providing the South with a handy justification for secession and letting them know the federal government would do nothing to stop the disintegration of the nation. No longer did Buchanan rattle sabers, as he had done in Utah or had threatened to do in acquiring Cuba or invading Mexico. When it came to the South and secession, the president professed to be powerless. In the North, his professed impotence seemed inexcusable, especially among those anti-slavery Democrats who remembered how Andrew Jackson had effectively handled the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina tried to void a federal tariff law. Jackson had responded by threatening to use military force against South Carolina, which wisely had backed down. Stephen Douglas was right, though: Jackson was dead, and Buchanan was nothing like him.

Buchanan’s lack of resolve, once South Carolina and the other states of the Deep South did abandon the Union, opened the door for those rebellious states to take possession of federal property — forts, armories, post offices, customs houses — without hindrance. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which sat on a small island in the middle of Charleston’s harbor, was among the few federal military installations that remained in the hands of the U.S. government. The fate of Fort Sumter threw Buchanan into a fit of indecision. Always something of a sponge who absorbed the ideas and strength of others around him, like W did under the mesmerizing influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Buchanan continued to listen to his Southern advisors who told him to tread carefully or not at all. Throughout the month of December 1860, Buchanan nearly suffered a complete breakdown: He cursed aloud, he wept, his hands trembled, he could not remember orders he had given or documents he had read. Some mornings he found it difficult to get out of bed. Observers noticed that there was a constant twitching in his cheek, an indication that he might have suffered a minor stroke as the crisis mounted. Finally, he decided not to give up the fort, and the Southern members of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Buchanan replaced them with Cabinet officials who were more decisively Unionist in their sentiments.

He wanted someone — anyone but himself — to find a solution to the nation’s problems. Nevertheless, by the end of December Buchanan ordered a supply ship to Fort Sumter; the effort failed, however, when the ship was forced to abandon Charleston harbor when it came under heavy fire from batteries along the shore. Buchanan decided to do nothing else about the fort and the troops who defended it. In fact, it became clear that he intended to take no action against the South for the remaining eight weeks of his term. When he shared a carriage with Lincoln back to the White House after the new president’s inauguration, Buchanan said, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his private estate in Pennsylvania] you are a happy man.” Lincoln’s reply, if any, is not recorded.

Buchanan spent the rest of his life at Wheatland justifying his actions — and, more pointedly, his inaction — in a memoir in which he referred to himself in the third person, as if he were a figure he had never met in person. He continued to blame abolitionists and the Republican Party for the nation’s troubles, and he absolved himself of any responsibility for the Civil War, stating that he was “completely satisfied” with everything he had done as president. Forgotten by his countrymen as he spent his last years at Wheatland, he died in 1868. Many Americans had assumed he was already dead.

– – – – – – – – – –

Numerous historians have said that no president was better qualified to serve in the White House than James Buchanan, given the vast amount of experience he had gained in elected and appointed offices over the course of a long career in public service. In 1988, some pundits said the same thing about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had served as vice president, ambassador, congressman and director of the CIA before winning the presidency. Too few pundits, however, pointed out how injuriously unqualified George W. Bush was for the presidency. But, then, we all learned that for ourselves over eight long years.

Lately some historians have tried to rehabilitate Buchanan. “It is unrealistic,” writes a recent historian, Russell McClintock, “to think that in 1860 the White House could have been occupied by a chief executive willing to take a sufficiently bold stand” in the secession crisis. Really? McClintock believes that “few of the men who have occupied the White House could have stood up to the challenge of the moment.” But that’s nonsense. It amounts to admitting that most presidents are mediocre, and Buchanan should be forgiven for simply being more mediocre than most of them. Yet Lincoln had no experience in leadership when he took the oath of office. And while it’s true that he fumbled during his first weeks in office, he eventually rose “to the challenge of the moment.” What distinguishes Buchanan, then, is not that his mistakes can or should be excused, it’s that he totally lacked the capacity to rise to the occasion, to act when action was necessary, to defend the country precisely when it needed defending. In other words, he was a terrible president.

Even so, Buchanan’s incompetent incompetency resulted in our worst national catastrophe, though the Civil War cannot entirely be laid at his feet. Other forces, beyond his blunders, led to secession and war, and to some extent, when all’s said and done, there was probably little he could have done to prevent the cascade of Southern states that left the Union after South Carolina marched out in December 1860. Indeed, it’s just possible that if he had attempted to coerce South Carolina to rescind its secession, other Southern states might have seceded in even more rapid order than they ended up doing. That’s not an excuse for his inaction, and my statement differs significantly in substance than McClintock’s apologia for Buchanan. Buchanan might not have been able to change the course of history or to stop the onslaught of Civil War. But he might have at least tried.

As for George W. Bush, and his incompetent competency, he did not usher in a civil war — not quite. But he did make a mockery of the Office of the President of the United States, initiate foreign wars without provocation, mismanage the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, overstep his constitutional authority as president and commander in chief, violate human and civil rights, approve the use of torture, call his domestic political opponents enemies of America and traitors, alienate most of the nation’s allies around the world, lie about WMD, pass tax cuts for the wealthy that brought the national economy to its knees, sign the TARP bill into law while letting foreclosure victims eat cake, and spend a great amount of time pedaling his trail bike and clearing brush on vacation.

Buchanan’s sins were many. Their consequences were felt by Northerners and Southerners through four years of a bloody Civil War. And so we still feel the effects of his ineptness 150 years after the fact. But we are still too close to Bush 43’s despicable actions in office — the ripple effect of all the mayhem he sought purposely to create — for us to understand just how much lasting damage he actually accomplished. Even so, Bush’s eight years in office were an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the more we learn as time goes by, the worse Bush’s presidency continues to get; there will undoubtedly be more damning revelations in the years and decades ahead.

Hence my verdict: As of today, Presidents’ Day 2011, James Buchanan wins the dubious distinction of having been our worst president. Nevertheless, it is well within the realm of possibility — once historians have a chance to reckon more completely with all of Bush 43’s extraordinary transgressions as president — that W might someday unseat Buchanan as the very worst president this nation has ever had.

Sadly, I have to agree with his assessment, and it pains me to do so. Buchanan is the most famous alum of my alma mater, Dickinson College, and he is my home state of Pennsylvania’s only president. His weakness and inaction triggered the Civil War, the cataclysmic event that cost 600,000 American lives in four years of bloodletting. His sitting by and doing nothing while the Union unraveled is, in my humble opinion, unforgivable and an egregious breach of his constitutional duty to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Any redeeming values that he may have had, and any qualifications that he may have had for the job, pale in comparison to Buchanan’s epic failure as Chief Executive.

As for Bush 43, time will tell, and I would prefer to leave the discussion of modern politics out of this particular discussion.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

Thanks to friend Keith Toney for bringing this to my attention.

The powers that be in Union County, NC have refused to erect a marker to honor so-called black Confederates for the simple reason that there is very little documentation that these men served the Confederacy voluntarily. At least one of the men that would have been honored was sent to help construct Fort Fisher as a slave and then was returned to his master after the work was complete. Only a neo-Confederate/Lost Causer hoping to put a human face on slavery would consider such service to be voluntary or appropriate of honoring.

From today’s issue of The Charlotte Observer

Marker rejected for slaves in South’s Army
Union County says plan poses an inconsistency.
By Adam Bell
Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

MONROE Union County is refusing to approve plans for a marker to commemorate slaves who served in the Confederate Army, raising questions of how to appropriately honor men virtually ignored by history.

On the eve of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, amateur historian Tony Way led the push for a granite marker to be placed at the Old County Courthouse in Monroe next to a 1910 Confederate monument. The new marker would be for 10 black men, nine of whom were slaves, who served the Confederacy during the war and eventually got state pensions.

It would probably be one of a few public markers of its kind in the country, experts say.

Way, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Monroe, says he and some friends sought to highlight a little-known facet of county history and make commemorations more inclusive.

But county officials recently recommended the marker not go on the 1886 courthouse grounds, saying it would be inconsistent with other monuments. The existing Confederate monument cites regiments, not individuals. Other war monuments on the grounds name only those who died.

Earl Ijames, curator of community history and African-American history at the N.C. Museum of History, worked on proposed wording for the marker.

“A tremendous opportunity has been lost to have this outreach for black and white people to understand a facet of history that has been swept under the rug,” he said. “It re-enslaves them all over again” by not recognizing their service.

Slaves in the army

So how would a slave end up in the Confederate Army?

Armies need vast amounts of labor, and slaves provided a plentiful source, said David Blight, a Civil War expert at Yale University.

Nearly all of the work that blacks did for the Confederacy was support and logistical, from building latrines to working in armories. Some slaves could have been hoping for more favorable treatment back home because of their service, Ijames said.

Almost no black men fought in battle for the Confederacy, Blight said. He added that though it’s impossible to know how many slaves went willingly, many bolted for the Union lines the first chance they got.

Still, there have been occasional commemorations of the South’s slaves. At Tyrrell County’s courthouse in Eastern North Carolina, a 1902 Confederate statue includes the words, “To Our Faithful Slaves.”

In the 1990s, stories about “black Confederates” seemed to pick up traction, Blight said.

“For neo-Confederates, it was a way of legitimizing the Confederacy in the popular memory: ‘Look, the blacks supported us, too,'” he said. “If they were there, they were impressed or ordered into service. They were not soldiers.”

Eventual pensions

After the Civil War began, Wary Clyburn ran away from his plantation to join his master’s son, Frank Clyburn, acting as his cook and bodyguard for his old friend.

Wary’s daughter, Mattie Rice, was fascinated to hear her father’s stories when she was a young girl in the 1920s. She remembers him describing a battle where Frank was shot. “He crawled up a hill on his stomach, like a snake, and pulled Frank to safety.”

In later years, Wary moved to Monroe, played his fiddle at reunions and got his Civil War pension. He was buried in a Confederate uniform in 1930 at about age 90. Rice, an 88-year-old High Point-area resident, is proud of her father’s service.

The city of Monroe and a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter honored him in 2008.

The next year, Way, the historian, got to wondering about other pensioners. He and several friends began research with a county librarian’s help. They found records for 10 black pensioners, including a free man, Jeff Sanders.

All were described as “body servants” or bodyguards, even Sanders. Some hauled supplies, carried water or cooked. At least two were wounded.

Hamp Cuthbertson helped build Fort Fisher near Wilmington in 1863, his pension application stated, “under the direction and command of his masters, and enduring severe privation, hunger, illness and punishments, and being returned to the home of his owner about one year later.”

Southern states began providing Civil War pensions in the 1880s; only Mississippi did not exclude blacks. In 1927, N.C. law finally let people of color seek pensions – but only if they went to war as laborers or servants.

“They essentially got pensions by being loyal slaves,” Blight said.

Fewer than 200 sought N.C. Civil War pensions, Ijames said. They got annual pensions of $200, about $2,550 today.

In Union County, most of the 10 men had an average age of 90 when their pensions began.

County concerns

Last May, Way asked county commissioners to approve a marker honoring the men.

Commissioners sent the request to the county Historic Preservation Commission, which recommended that no new marker go on the courthouse grounds unless there was a major new conflict to commemorate.

A Civil War room in a future museum at the courthouse would be the best place to memorialize the 10 men, the preservation group said. No money has been budgeted for a museum, nor is there any timetable to create the center.

The county manager agreed with the group’s assessment. Staff told county commissioners they did not recommend the marker be added and recently told Way of the decision.

He isn’t sure what he will do next. Way said he felt the historic commission did not want to see a monument to African-Americans at the courthouse.

County Manager Cindy Coto and preservation commission Chairman Jerry Surratt said they did not think the historic commission’s actions were based on race.

Surratt said all of the other monuments at the site, except for the Revolutionary War marker where records were hard to come by, honor those who died in service. No marker mentions a person’s race.

About 552 Union County soldiers died in the Civil War, Surratt said, but only their regiments are on the monument.

“If you go back 100 years later and put up a supplement to the monument, with names, it elevates the 10 people by name above the 500 other people who died,” Surratt said. “(It) would turn a race-neutral monument to be racially a step backwards.”

Ijames called it disingenuous to think a monument erected in 1910 at the height of the Jim Crow era would have been intended to honor contributions by black residents.

Until Way contacted Greg Perry, he knew little about his great-great-grandfather, pensioner Aaron Perry, who toiled at Fort Fisher.

“To find out he fought for the Confederacy was mind-blowing,” said Perry, 48, of Monroe.

Perry said he understands but disagrees with the reasons the marker was rejected.

“It’s really sad,” he said. “One thing about history, it can be divisive or it can be healing.”

Not to disrespect Weary Clyburn, but he was a musician. He didn’t tote a musket. With the exception of the one free black, Jeff Sanders, the likelihood is that these men had no choice but to do what they did–they were slaves, and this was part of their bondage. It simply doesn’t make sense to erect a monument to the suffering of slaves, and I think that Union County did the right thing here.

Kevin Levin has an interesting take on this issue today as well.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

My friend and co-author Michael Aubrecht is one of the producers of a well-regarded documentary film called The Angel of Marye’s Heights, about Sgt. Richard Kirkland of South Carolina. Michael asked me if I would mind passing along that the film is now available for home use on DVD, and can be purchased here. Please help support independent documentary film making.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

One day last week, I got hit with an unprecedented barrage of spammers trying to sign up for this blog. In just over 24 hours, nearly 250 spammers signed up. It took me nearly half an hour to clear them out.

On a normal day, I will get three or four, sometimes five or ten. Even though this blog has been around since 2005, I have never, ever had anything like what happened last week.

In the hope of bringing it to a screeching halt, I have had to make adjustments. Specifically, I have had to disable sign-ups altogether and, for the time being, only those actually registered (101 people) are permitted to leave comments after logging in. For any of you who have tried to leave comments in the last week but have been unable to do so, at least you now understand why. I hope to change all of that later this week, as I’m hoping that being off the spamming radar for a week will help.

I very much enjoy the give and take in the comments, and greatly resent that the spammers have forced me to do what I did last week. I regret not being able to enjoy the comments, and very much look forward to them being open and available again in a matter of a few more days.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

Brooks Simpson has an especially thought-provoking post on his blog today asking why the Lost Causers are so afraid of Kevin Levin and his blog. Brooks quite correctly points out that Kevin’s blog seems to stir up massive amounts of hatred and personal attacks/insults among the Lost Cause and Neo-Confederate crowd, and asks why. Brooks points out that when Kevin asks for evidence–especially about the existence of black Confederates–and that usually brings out the haters.

As I said there, we lawyers have a cliche we like to use that’s particularly apropros: When the facts are against, argue the law. When the law’s against you, argue the facts. When the facts and the law are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.

It seems to me that most of this visceral response to Kevin’s posts is pounding the table and yelling like hell. They can’t produce evidence because there isn’t any. Rather than admit it, they go on the attack very aggressively and very personally, and they hope that doing so diverts away from the real issue, which is very sad indeed.

Lost Causers: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story and good spin doctoring, okay?

Scridb filter

Continue reading

This is one of those cases that ties up both my interest in Civil War history as well as my day job. Hat tip to Charlie Knight for bringing this to my attention.

This article appeared in the February 11, 2011 edition of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper:

Williamsburg collector will fight for Civil War sword
Posted to: Military News Williamsburg – James City

By Tim McGlone
The Virginian-Pilot
© February 11, 2011


Civil War artifacts collector Donald Tharpe paid $35,000 for a one-of-a-kind, Tiffany-made sword, and he’s not about to give it up easily.

Brown University in Providence, R.I., is suing Tharpe in federal court, seeking the return of the Col. Rush C. Hawkins sword. The university considers the 1863 silver-and-steel saber priceless.

At a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar set a Sept. 7 trial date to settle the matter but ordered both sides to try to work it out before then. He noted that “possession is 90 percent of good title.”

“I think we’re going to be able to resolve it,” said Brown attorney Robert McFarland.

Doumar previously issued an injunction preventing any transfer of the sword. Tharpe, who lives in Williamsburg, had loaned the sword to a Newport News museum but retrieved it in December and had it placed in a secure art storage facility in Manhattan.

Tharpe’s attorney, Alan Silber of New Jersey, told the judge that Tharpe is the rightful owner because officials at Brown previously relinquished its rights and the statute of limitations has since expired. Brown, he said, found the sword with a Midwest dealer around 1991 but failed to sue for ownership then.

Tharpe bought the sword from an Illinois antiques dealer in 1992 for $35,000, Silber said.

Tracing the sword back to Brown would be difficult, Silber said. The Illinois dealer bought it from a dealer in Pennsylvania, who bought it from another dealer in Massachusetts, who has since died.

Plus, there may not be enough evidence to prove that the sword is the actual 1863 Hawkins sword, he said. There may be multiple Hawkins swords.

Silber and a Brown representative took the sword’s case to the storage center in New York on Feb. 8 to see whether it would fit. The two sides dispute whether it did.

“They believe it did, we believe it did not,” Silber said.

Tharpe and his wife were in court Thursday morning but declined to comment.

Brown has said the sword was stolen from its collection in the mid-1970s and that it maintains ownership despite several transfers since then.

The sword was a gift to Union Col. Rush C. Hawkins for his battlefield successes during the Civil War.

Hawkins, who became a general, later donated the sword and most of his art, mementos and books to Brown and housed them in the Annmary Brown Memorial at the university, which he had built in honor of his wife, the daughter of one of Brown’s founders.

Tim McGlone, (757) 446-2343,

Rush Hawkins commanded the 9th New York Infantry, also known as Hawkins’ Zouaves. The 9th New York was part of the Ninth Corps, and fought during Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition and then in the 1862 Maryland Campaign. The 9th New York made the farthest advance into the town of Sharpsburg during the September 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam, and their monument is one of my favorite monuments to grace the Antietam battlefield. He was badly wounded in North Carolina in 1862, and mustered out of service in 1863 when the regiment’s two-year term of enlistment expired. He was brevetted to brigadier general of volunteers, and was a prominent attorney in New York City. The irony of this situation would not be lost on him.

The Civil War historian and preservationist in me screams that the sword is the property of Brown University and that it needs to be returned immediately. However, the lawyer in me realizes that it’s not that simple. The sword was stolen, and then changed hands several times before Mr. Tharpe ended up with it.

Longstanding Virginia law provides that one who does not have title to goods cannot transfer title to a buyer, even a bona fide purchaser for value without notice. Thus, a thief cannot pass title to stolen goods even to an innocent purchaser who pays for the stolen goods. However, Virginia law has also recognized that a person who purchases goods from one possessing only voidable title can nevertheless receive good title to the goods purchased.

These principles have been implicitly recognized in Virginia Code § 8.2-403(1), which states, in pertinent part:

A purchaser of goods acquires all title which his transferor had or had the power to transfer…. A person with voidable title has power to transfer a good title to a good faith purchaser for value. When goods have been delivered under a transaction of purchase the purchaser has such power even though

(d) the delivery was procured through fraud punishable as larcenous under the criminal law.

So, there are a couple of critical questions that must be answered in this lawsuit: Was Tharpe a bona fide purchaser for value without notice? Should he have known that the sword was stolen? And was the seller’s title to the sword voidable? Or was it void from the beginning?

Under the voidable-title doctrine, an individual who procures goods by larcenous conduct acquires a voidable title to the goods and therefore may pass valid title to those goods in a “transaction of purchase” to a bona fide purchaser for value without notice. Title in the thief is voidable “because the true owner is entitled to rescind the transaction and recover the goods from that individual. The right of rescission is cut off, however, by a transaction to a good faith purchaser.” Thus, once title to the goods has passed to the good-faith purchaser by a transaction of purchase, the original owner has no recourse to recover said goods.

Therefore, under the “voidable title” doctrine, it appears that Mr. Tharpe may have acquired good title to the sword, even though it was stolen–assuming he had no notice that it was stolen and acted in good faith in purchasing it. The question of what he knew and when he knew it will be absolutely critical to the outcome of this case, which may well conflict with my instincts as a preservationist and will undoubtedly cause a loud and unhappy reaction from a lot of people.

This will be an interesting case to monitor, and I will post updates as they become available.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

Mississippi looks to be the battleground over Civil War memory. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have decided to push their aggressive Lost Cause agenda by asking the State of Mississippi to offer a vanity license plate dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest. My thoughts on Forrest as a general are well known and need not be repeated here. Whether he was a good general is irrelevant to this discussion.

What is relevant is that black soldiers were massacred by troops under his command at Fort Pillow and that Forrest was a Grand Wizard–and one of the founders–of the KKK. Those are facts, and they are indisputable. It ought not be a big surprise that members of the African-American community might have some serious issues with an official commemoration of such a person by the State of Mississippi.

From MSNBC today:

License plate proposed to honor KKK leader
Fight brewing in Miss. over proposal to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Associated Press
updated 4 minutes ago 2011-02-10T14:02:54

JACKSON, Miss. — A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which it calls the “War Between the States.” The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014.

“Seriously?” state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. “Wow.”

Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading the 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.

Sons of Confederate Veterans member Greg Stewart said he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It’s a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.

“If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words,” Stewart said. “We should respect that.”

State Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said legislators would have to approve a series of Civil War license plates. She said if every group that has a specialty license plate wanted a redesign every year, it would take an inordinate amount time from Department of Revenue employees who have other duties.

SCV has not decided what the Forrest license plate would look like, Stewart said. Opponents are using their imagination.

A Facebook group called “Mississippians Against The Commemoration Of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest” features a drawing of a hooded klansman in the center of a regular Mississippi car tag.

Robert McElvaine, director of history department at the private Millsaps College in Jackson, joined the Facebook group. McElvaine said Forrest’s role at Fort Pillow and involvement in the Klan make him unworthy of being honored, even on the bumpers of cars.

“The idea of celebrating such a person, whatever his accomplishments in other areas may have been, seems like a very poor idea,” McElvaine told The Associated Press.

Mississippi lawmakers have shown a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward allowing a wide variety groups to have specialty license plates, which usually sell for an extra $30 to $50 a year. The state sells more than 100 specialty plates for everything from wildlife conservation to breast cancer awareness. One design says “God Bless America,” another depicts Elvis Presley. Among the biggest sellers are NASCAR designs and one with the slogan “Choose Life.”

The Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has had a state-issued specialty license plate since 2003 to raise money for restoration of Civil War-era flags. From 2003 through 2010, the design featured a small Confederate battle flag.

The Department of Revenue allowed the group to revise the license plate this year for the first of the Civil War sesquicentennial designs. The 2011 plate, now on sale, depicts the Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.

SCV wants license plates to feature Civil War battles that took place in Mississippi. It proposes a Battle of Corinth design for 2012 and Siege of Vicksburg design for 2013. Stewart said the 2015 plate would be a tribute to Confederate veterans.

Johnson, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he’s not bothered by Civil War commemorative license plates generally. But he said Mississippi shouldn’t honor Forrest, who was an early leader of what he calls “a terrorist group.”

“He should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden,” Johnson said of Forrest. “The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state.”

Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey, who handles license plate requests in the House, said he has no problem with SCV seeking any design it wants.

“If they want a tag commemorating veterans of the Confederacy, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Bailey, who is black. “They have that right. We’ll look at it. As long as it’s not offensive to anybody, then they have the same rights as anybody else has.”

Nobody would ever accuse me of being an advocate for political correctness. Indeed, I am deeply bothered by the idea of political correctness. At the same time, there’s being politically correct, and then there’s thumbing your nose at an entire segment of society, and it appears to me that the SCV, bound and determined to push its revisionist agenda, is doing precisely that with the African-American community. Forrest is a polarizing and hated figure among African-Americans, and for very good reason. It seems to me that the SCV could not care less about whether it offends African-Americans because “it’s heritage, not hate.”

I know a lot of SCV members. Most of them are good and decent people who are, indeed, primarily interested in honoring their forebears who fought for the Confederacy, and I have no issue with them. What I have major problems with is the very aggressive cadre that took control of the SCV board a few years back and and decided to push their Lost Cause agenda by claiming that thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy in an attempt to justify and humanize slavery. Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson have done a fine job of dealing with that particular canard, and I commend their work on the subject to you.

It seems to me that if the SCV was serious about it being about heritage and not hate, it would have selected a less polarizing figure than Nathan Bedford Forrest to lionize in a state that historically boasted one of the largest slave populations of the Deep South.

Scridb filter

Continue reading

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress