New perspective on Buchanan

January 19, 2009|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Going by his résumé, James Buchanan was among the most qualified men to run for president, yet in the pantheon of chief executives, the 15th president is regarded as among the worst.

However, Buchanan's four years in office need to be placed in perspective, said Karl Reisner, a history teacher at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy who has spoken hundreds of times on the presidency of that town's native son and the only president born in Pennsylvania.

Like most people, Reisner knew little about Buchanan until asked to prepare a presentation for Buchanan's 200th birthday in 1991. He told two dozen visitors to the Heritage Center on Chambersburg's public square Monday that his research caused him to change his views of the man who served in the U.S. House and Senate, as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain, and as secretary of state before his election in 1856 -- some eight years after Buchanan actually wanted the job.


If integrity and sticking by one's principles is what people want in a president, that was Buchanan, Reisner said. A strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution; a Unionist in an increasingly sectional country; a supporter of popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery; and a proponent of laissez faire capitalism, Buchanan stood by those beliefs, which proved unpopular and divisive.

"Unfortunately for him ... he was 65 years old at the time," quite old for the era, and many of his political contemporaries -- Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster -- were dead, Reisner said.

Early in his administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it did not have jurisdiction in the case of slave Dred Scott. The decision effectively meant Congress had no authority to prohibit the extension of slavery into its territories, thus infuriating abolitionists.

Buchanan's presidency was further complicated by a financial panic in 1857; his support for Kansas being admitted to the Union as a slave state; and sending federal troops to put down John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Buchanan wanted to preserve the Union by keeping Lincoln from becoming president," Reisner said. However, the Democratic Party fractured in 1860 and produced three candidates running under different political banners, he said.

Though Lincoln's name was absent from southern ballots, he carried the election with just 39 percent of the vote, Reisner said.

In a final effort to preserve the Union, Buchanan in December 1860 supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel, Reisner said. The plan died in Congress, but Lincoln tried to offer it to the Confederacy in June 1861 in an effort to lure it back into the Union, he said.

At that point, the South had the military upper hand and was in no mood to compromise, Reisner said.

"The war, I think, was pretty much inevitable," Reisner said. Buchanan had the further historical misfortune of being juxtaposed to the martyred Lincoln, he said.

Exhibits feature presidents who
passed through Franklin County

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- With Barack Obama to be inaugurated Tuesday, the Heritage Center has exhibits on Franklin County native James Buchanan and other presidents who have passed through Franklin County.

The Buchanan memorabilia includes handwritten letters by him, among them one addressing repairs to a front porch, another inquiring of a friend about the character of a man named Phillips who was interested in his niece, Harriet.

"His family is not of as high standing as one could desire, but I consider a young & rising professional man a better match than a rich drone," Buchanan wrote.

A number of other presidents and former presidents have come to Franklin County, beginning with George Washington, who stayed overnight in Chambersburg on Oct. 12, 1794, on his way to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, according to the exhibit.

Washington's fading signature on parchment also was on display Monday honoring one of the founders of Chambersburg and a Revolutionary War veteran. The Oct. 31, 1785, proclamation signed by him honors James Chambers as a member of the Society of the Cincinnati for Chambers' service during the Revolutionary War.

Chambers was the son of Chambersburg founder Benjamin Chambers. The proclamation is from the collection of the Franklin County Historical Society.

Since Washington slept here, other presidents and former presidents -- William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton among them -- have come to Franklin County, usually to visit Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy or enjoy a round of golf.

Photos and news clippings of those presidential visits will be on display through Jan. 31 at the center, 100 Lincoln Way East.

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