You can bet that the issue of qualification will come up often in the presidential race. Partisans will focus on Barack Obama’s paper-thin résumé, and John McCain’s years of service marred by the Keating Five scandal. They’ve already talked about Hillary Clinton’s supposed experience as co-president, and Mitt Romney’s tenure with the US Olympic Committee, and the governorship of Massachusetts.
No doubt, any excursion into the realm of what constitutes “qualified” has to be subjective. On the one hand, the ultimate qualification for any job would be that you have already done it—and this is the classic argument that incumbents will use. This breaks down, of course, if the person may have already done it, but did it poorly, or if the opponent promises a better or novel approach to a particular facet of the job. Yet, even these notions of “poorly,” “better,” and “novel” are themselves subjective.
More than that, because of the foolish convention of having history decide who was a good president—thus imposing anachronistic standards that in many cases trump the contemporary evaluations—even the criteria by which we can judge a president are skewed.
With that preface out of the way, let’s continue…
There are many who believe that James Buchanan (1791-1868), our fifteenth president, had the best résumé of any man who has assumed the office. Buchanan was actually born in a log cabin, and his family operated a frontier trading post. James worked in the store, acquiring practical business experience, undertook a typical undergraduate education and was admitted to the bar in Lancaster, PA.
He practiced law for two years before seeing some voluntary cavalry action, defending Baltimore during the War of 1812. He served in the Pennsylvania legislature (1814-1816), and then returned to his law practice.
In 1819 he became engaged to the love of his life Ann Coleman, a Lancaster iron works heiress, although the union was opposed by her father Robert. As it happened, when Ann discovered that Buchanan had returned from a business trip to Philadelphia and first stopped at the home of another woman before seeing her, she emotionally broke off the engagement. Shortly thereafter, she went to Philadelphia specifically to avoid seeing James, but fell ill and died in what many scholars feel could have been a suicide.
James took her death very hard, and was barred from attending her funeral by her cruel father. Biographers agree that this experience caused Buchanan to eschew romance and throw himself into his legal and political career.
In 1820, he was elected to Congress, leaving in 1831, but then became President Andrew Jackson’s ambassador to Russia. Upon his return to the US, he served in the Senate from 1834 to 1835. Buchanan had sought the 1844 nomination, but gave his support to James K. Polk, who made him his secretary of state. He tried again in 1852, but lost to Franklin Pierce, who made him ambassador to Britain.
Finally, in 1856, he became the Democratic candidate and defeated the Republicans’ first candidate John C. Fremont as well as Millard Fillmore. In those contentious times, Buchanan was seen as the perfect compromise candidate, for the apparent majority of the country who wanted to preserve the Union, with a careful balance of power between pro- and anti- slavery interests. After all, presidents going as far back as Jefferson believed that slavery would eventually end in a peaceful manner.
Taking a page out of today’s modus operandi, his inaugural address noted that the Supreme Court would soon decide the issue of slavery in the territories, and the matter would be settled. The case was Dred Scott v. Sandford, which stated, quite logically, that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories. In his zeal to achieve this verdict, which on the surface represented a compromise of sorts, he jaw-boned a northern justice to vote along with the southern justices, and expand the case beyond the fate of a single slave.
Many historians condemn Buchanan for this manipulation of the Court, but to assert that the Court is above politics is patently absurd.
His biggest mistake leading up to the Civil War was not recognizing the growing power of the free soil group, who mostly were indifferent to the plight of the slaves, but felt that slavery was a threat to free labor in the newly admitted states. There was surely a synergistic effect when this faction was combined with the radical abolitionists and mercantilists of the North. With this, the Democratic party would split in two, assuring Lincoln of the election and secession of the southern states.
Perhaps his second biggest mistake was to maintain a pretzel logic legalism in that he refused to recognize the right of any state to secede, but said that he had no power to prevent them from doing so. This soon morphed into his vow to commit no act of aggression against the seceded states, as he was looking for a constitutional convention (that he felt he could not call) to finally settle the slavery issue. But then there was that nasty business at Fort Sumter, taking place a month after Lincoln assumed the presidency in March, 1861.
History has not been kind to Buchanan even if Lincoln first attempted to follow his conciliatory strategies, saying that if war were to come, the South would have to fire the first shot. And, indeed they did, although Lincoln’s effect on this was hardly benign.
Poor old James Buchanan, possessed of the best résumé, but that would not be enough to overcome the turbulent times in which he lived.