James Buchanan vs. Andrew Johnson: Pairing Presidents

Andrew Johnson vs. James Buchanan:
Pairing Presidents XVII

Welcome to the clothespin-to-the-nose segment. A few writers have tried, but there isn't much that's admirable about James Buchanan (1857-61) or Andrew Johnson (1865-69). About the best anyone can do is say that maybe Franklin Pierce was worse than Buchanan, or that Lincoln would be tough act for anyone to follow–even one less quarrelsome than Johnson.

How they were similar:

Both were accidental presidents. Buchanan only got the nomination because Pierce, an ally and erstwhile friend, was so awful Democrats knew he'd be defeated. Stephen A. Douglas would have been the logical choice, but he had far too many enemies to make it through the convention. So Democrats chose the non-entity Buchanan. He managed to win a confused 1856 election. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the Whigs as a national party, but the spanking new Republican Party had not yet cohered. As it was, had a few thousand votes gone the other way, Republican John C. Frémont would have won. Former president Millard Fillmore also muddied the waters. He won almost 22% of the vote running as a Know Nothing (officially the American Party).

Johnson, of course, assumed the presidency when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. He wasn't really a Republican and had only been vice president for five weeks. Lincoln's first VP, Hannibal Hamlin, was too closely associated with "Radical" Republicans seeking a punitive peace with the South. Lincoln, realizing that the Civil War was winding down, chose Johnson as sop to Southerners whom he hoped to reconcile with the Union. Johnson was a Tennessean and, as a U.S. Senator, the only major elected official within the rebellious states that refused to abide by his state's secession decision. When Tennessee was defeated, he was appointed military governor of the state. At heart, though, he was a Southern Democrat.

Neither Buchanan nor Johnson held much sympathy for African Americans. Buchanan asserted it did not matter what one thought of slavery, as it was a constitutional right. Johnson acceded to the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery but insisted upon the inherent inferiority of African Americans.

The issues they faced were dissimilar, but each was politically tone deaf. As much as one might wish politics to rest upon reason and morality, successful power brokers know which direction the political winds are blowing. That skill was lost on Buchanan and Johnson. Buchanan learned nothing from Pierce's downfall, especially in the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. He repeated his predecessor's mistake of recognizing the farcical pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution as the will of settlers rather than the imposed will of armed thugs. Buchanan wore his pro-slavery sentiments so openly that he encouraged violent opposition. Small wonder that his administration endured the trauma of Bleeding Kansas and John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Johnson badly read the potential of exploiting political divisiveness after the Civil War. He thought he could impose his will by allying himself with Northern Democrats and moderate Republicans to isolate Radical Republicans. He failed to realize that moderates disliked him more than they disliked the Radical faction, or that even many Northern Democrats thought him a closet Confederate. He had few allies when he was impeached in 1867.

Both men harbored expansionist desires. Buchanan thought Central America an ideal place to expand slavery. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, he tried to buy Cuba. Johnson entertained war with France over its meddling in Mexico, where Napoleon III's puppet Maximilian established himself as emperor. He also sought to assert U.S. control over Wake Island. He scored one major triumph when he authorized Secretary of State William Seward to buy Alaska from Russia. At the time, though, that purchase was ridiculed as "Seward's Folly."

Both squandered opportunities to build political credit by squashing good ideas that had broad support. Buchanan vetoed both the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act. Lincoln made no such mistake and both became enormously popular with the electorate. (The Morrill Act set up land grant colleges that became the backbone of state universities.) Johnson tried to kill the Freedmen's Bureau rather than alter it, and he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Neither of these was a particularly "radical" idea until Johnson's foolishness politicized them.

There was great sentiment to impeach Buchanan–especially when corruption charges surfaced–but proceedings never quite materialized. Johnson was impeached, though he was not convicted.

How they were different:

Call it the difference between passive and active ineptitude. Buchanan was a spineless do-nothing and Johnson a pigheaded battler. Here's a short litany of things that happened under Buchanan: Bleeding Kansas, the Panic of 1857, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid, the secession of seven Southern states, and the seizure of federal property in the South. Here's what Buchanan did about them: nothing! His most aggressive action as POTUS was to send the U.S. Army to Utah Territory to do battle against the Mormons. Few people realize this, but Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy before Lincoln took office as POTUS. Another thing often overlooked is that all the federal forts in the South were seized under Buchanan's watch except Fort Sumter, SC. Buchanan sent a supply ship there, but South Carolina fired upon it and it sailed away. Guess who had to make the decision about whether or not to re-provision the fort? Thanks for nothing, JB.

Johnson would have fared better had he been half as inert as Buchanan. Instead he stubbornly interjected himself into a political fray that became his political flay. The details are complex but, in short, the Civil War's end in the spring of 1865 meant that the nation had to be rebuilt–a process known as Reconstruction. Lincoln's plans were incomplete at the time of his death and Congress was torn–and I simplify greatly here–between those who wanted quick reconciliation with the South on a forgive-and-forget basis, and those who desired to punish the South and rebuild its very foundations. The latter was the position of the "Radical" Republicans, many of whom were Lincoln Cabinet members that Johnson inherited. Had Johnson consulted Congress more or showed willingness to compromise, a political crisis might have been averted. As we've seen, though, Johnson sandbagged even moderate Reconstruction efforts with an eye toward quickly redeeming the South and returning power to the rebellious states.

A showdown was inevitable when, during the Congressional recess of 1866, Johnson unilaterally imposed his vision. Southern whites enacted a series of black codes that constricted the rights of African Americans in ways that replicated slavery in all but name. Just as galling, Southern whites returned ex-Confederates to their prewar Congressional decisions, including Georgia's election of CSA VP Alexander Stephens to his old Senate seat. Johnson's solo act and Southern intransigence succeeded in converting the Radicals from a minority to a majority faction. Johnson's plans gave way to Radical Reconstruction (1866-69), which divided the South into five occupied military zones, wrote the 14th and 15th Amendments, set down strict conditions for redeeming former-CSA states, and even stripped Johnson of the right to choose his own advisors (see Tenure of Office Act). When Johnson tried to defy Congress, the House impeached him by a 128-47 vote. He would have been removed from office, except that the Senate vote was 35-19 in favor–one short of the 2/3rd vote required under the Constitution. (That vote may have been bought!) Johnson finished his term, but remained defiant. Among his last acts as president was the decision to grant pardons to Jefferson Davis and Dr. Samuel Mudd, a physician who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth and was (perhaps) a plot accomplice.  


These two put the "rank" back into rankings. Historians currently place Andrew Johnson at # 40 and Buchanan dead last at #43. As noted, I could make a case that Pierce was worse than Buchanan, but really…. Was Johnson better than G. W. Bush or Warren G. Harding? Probably, but let's not name any public building grander than a latrine after any of them, okay?

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