50

DO NOTHING

Executive Inaction Dooms the United States

1850

Almost all of the mistakes in this book are actions. They tell about someone doing something wrong or having an accident that changed history. Along with commission there is also omission. Not doing something can be just as great a mistake as doing something very wrong.

In the decade before the American Civil War, the United States endured three presidents in a row who were simply not up to the job. The question of slavery, which was wrapped in the problem of states’ rights and federal jurisdiction, was the major issue of the 1850s. Yet despite the obvious importance of the problem, amazingly little was done to address it. Slavery was just not a topic that could be ignored or about which any agreement could easily be found. The United States was just about the last place in the modern world where slavery was still legal. Britain, France, and most of Europe had banned it. A look at the record of the three presidents who served from 1850 until Lincoln was elected demonstrates what a mistake it can be when you do nothing.

Millard Fillmore took office because Zachary Taylor made some stupid choices. On the Fourth of July 1850, President Taylor spent hours in the hot sun at the dedication of the Washington Memorial. He then went back to the White House and helped himself to a lot of cold water, a large bowl of cherries, and finally some iced milk. The problem with this was that Washington, D.C., was in the midst of a particularly virulent cholera epidemic. Cholera is transmitted through tainted water. Everyone had been warned not to drink the water, eat fruit washed in the city’s water, or have anything containing ice made from the city’s water. Taylor did all three and was dead four days later. This made his vice president head of the nation in one of its most troubling times. Fillmore was not as strong a leader or as decisive as his predecessor. Where Taylor had stopped the Clay Compromise, Fillmore saw it as a needed solution. This admitted California as a free state and tightened the laws in the north regarding the return of fugitive slaves. Since the Fugitive Slave Act was unenforceable in the abolitionist north, the south felt betrayed. The Clay Compromise ended up doing more harm than good. That was it. Fillmore did nothing else and was dropped by his party in 1852. More than two years were lost through inaction.

Franklin Pierce was a last-minute candidate who first appeared on the thirty-fifth nomination vote at the Democratic Convention. That party was split between proslavery southern representatives and those who were just as vehemently abolitionists. Pierce was a doughface, a northerner who favored slavery. Pierce won the nomination and the presidency. But once in office, he proved totally ineffective in dealing with the slavery problem on any level.

Actually Pierce did more damage to what had been already worked out when he did try to act. When the issue of expansion of the United States into its western territories blew up over which would be free and which slave states, he helped Frederick Douglass destroy the Missouri Compromise. The citizens of Kansas and Nebraska were allowed to vote, slave or free. The resulting violence gave rise to the term “Bleeding Kansas,” and the split between north and south became greater. President Pierce was never again able to deal with the issue of slavery or much else. Mostly he went drinking and argued with his critics. By the end of his term, Pierce had proved himself abysmal at diplomacy and had a habit of substituting bluster for action. He alienated even his own party. In 1856 the motto of the Democratic Convention was “Anybody but Pierce.” When James Buchanan took office everyone forgot to get President Pierce to ride in the inaugural parade. He never did get to it. Because of Pierce, four more crucial years were lost, and the nation became more divided.

James Buchanan had been a really good trial lawyer and made a fortune at it. This was good as it gave him something to live on after being one of the worst U.S. presidents ever. He could not have come along at a worse time. When the problem of slavery had begun to overwhelm all other issues and split the nation, he proved to be a weak hand on the rudder of the ship of state. The former lawyer really got elected more for where he was during the election of 1856 than for who he was or what he stood for. While everyone else had gotten soiled over the violence resulting from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Buchanan was ambassador to England. This made him just about the only generally popular and untarnished candidate the Democrats could field. The new Republican Party did well, but the Democratic machine managed to win just one more time. The problem then was that Buchanan had no idea what was going on. Once president, he was indecisive, and he fluctuated between proslavery and antislavery positions until he had alienated both sides. One is hard put to find any substantial accomplishments in any area by Buchanan, even at a time when the United States was tearing itself apart.

In a list of the worst presidents in history, all three from the 1850s make the top ten. Some argue James Buchanan was the worst while other historians hold out for Franklin Pierce. All three were totally ineffective at dealing with the most pressing problem of their day. By the time Abraham Lincoln replaced Buchanan as president, the nation was divided and was soon at war with itself. Three men who led the nation did nothing, and by doing nothing, they doomed the United States to a civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

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