The worst U.S. President ever? Many historians give the nod to James Buchanan, under whose watch the sectional rivalry between slave-holding states and "free" states spun out of control. By the time his successor, Abraham Lincoln, was inaugurated in March 1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union. Buchanan's slim claim to fame was that he was able to avoid bloodshed while he occupied the White House.
Slavery, of course, was the issue that eventually split the country. It was also an issue that Buchanan thought had been settled in the early days of his administration in 1857, when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its infamous Dred Scott decision. With five of the nine Justices coming from slave-owning families, it came as no big surprise that the Court upheld the Fugitive Slave Act, by which slave-owners (and federal marshals) were empowered to pursue runaway slaves across state lines. "Free" states were barred from providing sanctuary to slaves and, indeed, from prohibiting slavery within their own borders.
The Court's reasoning was simple enough. Since the Constitution protected the property rights of free men, and since furthermore slaves were considered property (and not citizens with rights of their own), then it followed that slave-owners could hold their property wherever. Slavery could not be abolished anywhere in the United States. Thus, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which, among other things, birthed Maine's statehood) was deemed unconstitutional for seeking to prohibit slavery in most of the western territories.
President Buchanan was pleased with the ruling. In fact, there is evidence that he tampered with the decision to get a two-thirds majority, a margin that he figured would end the debate for good. Now he could get on with his own agenda: further territorial expansion of the U.S. His was the Monroe Doctrine on steroids. European colonial governments in Central and South America were to be replaced by U.S. protectorates, Cuba would be purchased and annexed as a slave state, Mexico's northern states would be peeled off and annexed, and domain would be seized in Central America for a trans-isthmus waterway. "No nation will have a right to interfere or to complain," declared Buchanan in his inaugural address, "if...we shall still further extend our possession."
But the issue of slavery kept getting in the way. Author Bruce Chadwick (book jacket above) details how events in 1858 escalated tensions between North and South. Against the President's wishes, Congress refused to admit Kansas as a pro-slavery state. And candidates for the new Republican Party were ratcheting up their rhetoric, denouncing the extension of slavery. On June 16 Abraham Lincoln, campaigning for the U.S. Senate, told the Illinois Republican Convention that "a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." On October 25 William Henry Seward, U.S. Senator from New York, electrified a crowd in Rochester--and garnered widespread national attention--by highlighting the "irrepressible conflict" growing over slavery. "The United States," proclaimed Seward, "must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free labor nation." Lincoln and Seward both considered the status quo neither durable nor acceptable.
Lincoln was running against the Democratic incumbent, Stephen Douglas. Normally Douglas could have expected the support of the President, also a Democrat. In fact, Douglas had worked hard to help Buchanan get elected in 1856. But the two fell out over the Kansas debate, and Buchanan tried to undermine Douglas's campaign for re-election by fielding a third candidate. Douglas managed to hold his seat, as well as his prominent place in national politics. His intention was to run for President in 1860.
Though Lincoln was denied in Illinois, his party made huge gains in the 1858 elections, gaining a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and narrowing the Democrats' advantage in the Senate. Buchanan mused in a private letter that the Democrats' defeat was "so great that it is almost absurd." The new Congress eventually killed Buchanan's design on Cuba and amplified the debate over slavery. With the Democratic Party now deeply split, the winner of the 1860 presidential election would likely be whomever the Republicans might nominate.
And that would almost certainly be William Henry Seward.
William Henry Seward: the early favorite to succeed Buchanan