The Presidency of James Buchanan

Elbert B. Smith

This book offers conclusions that are very different from most of the traditional historical interpretations of the Buchanan presidency. Historians have either condemned Buchanan for weakness and vacillation or portrayed him as a president dedicated to peace who did everything constitutionally possible to avoid war. Under the scrutiny of Elbert B. Smith, Buchanan emerges as a strong figure who made vital contributions not to peace but to the accelerating animosities that produced the war.

"Historians who have considered the Civil War a necessary and justifiable price for the destruction of slavery should feel a debt to James Buchanan," Smith writes. "Those who think the war could and should have been avoided owe him nothing."

“An engaging, highly readable account of the conditions, events, and personalities of the years preceding the Civil War and a critical, personal view of Buchanan’s leadership.”

History: Reviews of New Books

“Understanding Buchanan, his presidency, and the coming of the Civil War is no small task. To this enterprise Smith brings crisp prose, effective organization, and a sense of the provocative.”

Journal of Southern History
See all reviews...

Most of the accounts of the era have concentrated on the Dred Scott Case, Bleeding Kansas and the Lecompton Constitution, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown, the rise of the Republicans and the disintegration of the Democrats, the election of 1860, and the bitter quarrels over slavery extension occasioned by these events. Buchanan has often appeared on a stage occupied by more important actors.

Whether or not the war was already inevitable by March, 1857, cannot be proved. That a subsequent series of emotion-packed events filled both North and South with rage and fear, triggering secession and the war, is undebatable. It is Smith's theory that Buchanan, in leading the United States through these fateful years, added much to the war spirit that developed in both sections. Driven by affection and sympathy for the Southerners, he tried to satisfy their demands for slavery rights in the territories. This aroused bitter anti-South feelings throughout the North, which foiled his efforts and further convinced the Southerners that they could no longer have their way inside the Union. The one event that finally triggered the Southern secession was the election of a Republican president, and Buchanan's agreement with the Southern demands and his personal hatred for Stephen A. Douglas did much to accomplish this.

Covering the most controversial period in American history, Smith presents important new evaluations for the consideration of students of both the Civil War and the presidency.

About the Author

Elbert B. Smith received the Phi Alph Theta Book Award for this work.

Additional Titles in the American Presidency Series Series