Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Frightening Similarities between the man who started the Civil War and Joe Biden

There are some frightening similarities between the man many historians blame for the US Civil War and President Joe Biden (D-Delaware). To explain, I think Biden resembles James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) the man many people regard as America’s worst president.

In 1856, voters elected Buchanan, like Biden, to “restore normalcy” and end the national crisis. The normalcy voters wanted to restore was the peaceful equilibrium between northern politicians and the Southern Slave Power.

The crisis voters wanted to ignore was the growing conflict over slavery. In particular, voters wanted the violence between pro and antislavery forces in Bleeding Kansas to go away. The hope was that somebody could manufacture a compromise that could end the battles over slavery.

Many voters thought Buchanan was that person because of his experience and background. However, Buchanan failed miserably and made the catastrophe of the Civil War inevitable.

Experience as Nostalgia

One reason many Americans thought Buchanan could end the 1860s crisis was his experience.

However, there is powerful evidence that the “experience” Buchanan offered was really nostalgia for an earlier and simpler time when Americans could settle differences through talk. Today, Biden’s experience is a code word for nostalgia for the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when politicians could compromise over most issues. Biden is a relic of that era. Just as Buchanan was a relic of the era of compromise over slavery: the 1820s and 1830s.

Thus, Biden and Buchanan supporters were voting for nostalgia. The delusion was that the wise old man had a magical solution that bring back the good old days. Experience was a code word for nostalgia, not a gauge of a candidate’s abilities.

Hence, in the 1850s, voters elected a president who was incapable of comprehending the national crisis. Today, I think voters have made a similar mistake. To explain, I think Biden is incapable of understanding today’s problems such as Climate Change, Income Inequality, Technological Unemployment, and American Decline.

The Paper President offers Nothing

Before the presidency, James Buchanan Jr had been a US Representative, US Minister to the Russian Empire, a US Senator, US Secretary of State, and US Minister to the United Kingdom. On paper, Buchanan was one of the most successful and experienced politicians in the country.

That experience, however, had not prepared Buchanan for the divided America of the 1850s. To explain, Buchanan’s whole political strategy, like Biden’s, was compromise. Essentially, Buchanan thought he could negotiate a deal with anybody.

Hence, Buchanan was incapable of understanding or responding to people who were unwilling to compromise. For example, the extreme abolitionists and the Southern slavery fanatics of the 1850s. By 1856, both the abolitionists and Southern Fire Eaters were unwilling to compromise. Yes, by the 1850s, Southern slavery supporters were so rabid the press called them Fire Eaters.

Hence, Buchanan was incapable of understanding or responding to people who were unwilling to compromise. For example, the extreme abolitionists and the Southern slavery fanatics of the 1850s. By 1856, both the abolitionists and Southern Fire Eaters were unwilling to compromise. Yes, by the 1850s, Southern slavery supporters were so rabid the press called them Fire Eaters.

The Limits of Experience

Buchanan arose in a political system where it was always possible to negotiate a compromise on slavery. By the 1850s, such a compromise was politically impossible.

Similarly, Joe Biden came from a political system where it was always possible for Democrats and Republicans and conservatives and progressives to strike a compromise. Today, anybody who watches five minutes of Fox News or MSNBC knows such a compromise is impossible.

Hence, when he reached the White House in March 1857, Buchanan had nothing. Instead of offering a solution, Buchanan began praying that some wise statesman would appear and offer a compromise that could defuse the situation.

Such statesmen had appeared before and offered solutions during similar crises in 1820 and 1850. However, by 1856 compromise was impossible, largely because the last compromise the Kansas-Nebraska Act had made the situation worse.

The Death of Compromise

To elaborate, the major dispute in the 1850s was whether new states in the territory the United States conquered in the Mexican War would be free or slave. Before the Mexican War, the Missouri Compromise had defused that situation by mandating that one slave state join the union for each free state admitted.

The mineral wealth of the new territories gave settlers enormous bargaining power. For example, Californians could threaten to join the British Empire if Washington did not admit their territory as a free state. In 1850, President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) got the memo and rushed California’s admission through Congress.

In the Kansas-Nebraska Act, US Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) tried to defuse the situation by allowing the people of new states to choose between slave and free. Consequently, Northern and Southern settlers in the Kansas Territory began shooting it out over slavery.

The compromise gave America Bleeding Kansas, not peace. One reason for the fighting was that Kansas sat across one of the principal land routes to California and the gold.

Hence, compromise was dead. Yet Buchanan could not see it.

The Tragedy of James Buchanan

One reason Buchanan could not see beyond compromise was that his entire career was about compromise.

Buchanan had become a successful politician by serving as a negotiator between powerful Southern slave interests and rising Northern political machines. Buchanan’s built his entire career by giving the Slave Power everything it wanted.

In return, Northern Democrats such as Buchanan, got offices and influence. For example, the Slave Power backed Northern Democratic candidates in the presidential elections of 1848, 1852, and 1856. The hope being that if we give both sides something, we can avoid conflict.

Similarly, Joe Biden became successful by giving wealthy corporations everything they wanted in exchange for support. Biden also became adept at buying off conservatives with mild compromises.

The problem compromisers such as a Buchanan faced is that there was nothing they could give abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, and Southern Fire Eaters. There was no compromise between abolitionists and the Slave Power.

The situation grew worse as ordinary Northerners began siding with abolitionists. Ordinary northerners began backing abolitionists because they increasingly viewed the Slave Power as a threat to them. For example, in Bleeding Kansas, the Slave Power hired professional thugs and mercenaries to force a slavery government on the territory.

The Only Issue

Buchanan learned the horrendous truth the hard way when the US Supreme Court gave him a nasty surprise shortly after his inauguration. The surprise was the Dred Scott Decision.

In Dred Scott, Southern extremists on the Supreme Court rewrote the Constitution by claiming nonwhite people were not Americans and not entitled to liberty. Moreover, in Dred Scott, the Surpemes ruled that neither Congress nor state or local governments had the power to ban slavery anywhere in the country.

Consequently, many formerly moderate Americans; such as Congressman turned corporate lawyer Abraham Lincoln (W-Illinois), began believing that the Slave Power was a threat to their freedom. Lincoln, like many moderates, joined the new Republican Party, which aimed to contain the Slave Power by any means necessary.

In 1856, the Whig Party, which contained Southern and Northern moderates, collapsed as many Northern moderates joined the Republicans and the Anti-immigrant American (Know Nothing Party). After Dred Scott, Slavery became the only issue in American politics and most of the Know Nothings followed Lincoln into the Republican Party.

In such an environment, Buchanan; whom voters elected as a compromise candidate between the Slave Power and moderates, was helpless. The constituency Buchanan appealed to no longer existed.

The Helpless President

As President, Buchanan was helpless because he could not oppose the slave power. Instead, Buchanan’s record was one of aggressive action on every issue but slavery.

For example, Buchanan sent much of the U.S. Army to Utah to stop imaginary Mormon succession in the so-called Mormon War. A large force of troops commanded by one of America’s top soldiers, Albert Sydney Johnston, marched hundreds of miles across difficult territory only to find that the Mormon threat was fake.

Yet, a little over a year later, when Southerners began seizing US military bases, stealing weapons, and organizing a secessionist government, Buchanan did nothing. In November or December 1860, an aggressive federal response could have deterred the Confederacy, or at least deprived it of the arms and munitions in federal arsenals.

Notably, the US had an excellent professional army capable of quickly overwhelming secessionists. Moreover, Buchanan could have called for volunteers to the defend the Union, and mobilized a large force of Northern militiamen to support the Regular Army.

Unfortunately, the federal government took no aggressive action against the Confederacy until President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) ordered the Navy to reinforce Army troops at Fort Sumter in Southern Carolina in April 1861. By then, the Confederates had assembled a large force with heavy artillery, taken from federal arsenals, that could drive Navy ships away and overwhelm the Fort.

On 12 April 1861, Confederate Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his artillery to open fire on Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun. The conflict’s first casualty was the political career of James Buchanan. In 1860, Buchanan was no longer a credible candidate for a Democratic Party that was about to crack up. By the time Beauregard opened fire, Buchanan was back home in Pennsylvania feuding with his Republican neighbors.

Biden and Buchanan

Buchanan was incapable of dealing with the political realities of the 1850s because he was out of touch with America.

Notably, in 1856, Buchanan had been out of the country for four years as Minister (ambassador) to the Court of St. James. Thus, Buchanan was familiar with politics in Queen Victoria’s London, but not in Washington, DC. Moreover, Buchanan was completely out of touch with popular opinion and ordinary Americans.

Hence, Buchanan’s “experience” left him unprepared for the situation in 1859 and 1860. Oddly, the country lawyer Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) who had been out of political office for over a decade was better prepared for the political realities of the day than the “experienced” Buchanan.

Instead of a leader, Buchanan was a relic from a past age who convinced voters he could restore the glorious past with his “wisdom.” Similarly, Joe Biden is a relic from an earlier time who has convinced voters he can restore the golden age of the 1960s or the 1980s with his “wisdom.”

Moreover, Biden, like Buchanan, is totally out of touch with the realities of American life. Biden is out of touch because political power has isolated him from reality for decades. In particular, Biden spent most of his adult life in the fantasy world known as the United States Senate.

Notably, Biden gets confused when people criticize his past friendships with notorious racists and segregationists. Similarly, Buchanan could not understand why people were criticizing his friendships with slave owners.

In the final analysis, James Buchanan’s failure shows why we need to fear political experience and politicians who claim to have it. Hopefully, Biden’s presidency will not be as disastrous as Buchanan’s. Yet the similarities between Biden and Buchanan are frightening.