Exit J. B.
Hartford Evening Press, March 2, 1861
To-morrow, Sunday, March 3rd, 1861, closes the presidential life of James Buchanan. If it were a secular day the exuberant feeling of the country would find fit expression in bonfires, illuminations and jubliant bell-ringing. As it is a sacred day, let us set a white mark opposite it, and let our devotion have a deeper tone in the consciousness of a peril escaped, a disgrace removed, and the certainty of a clearer atmosphere hereafter.
The day has not come to write the history of this administration. The historian will be astounded at the revelations of incompetency, personal dishonesty, and official corruption pervading it. Nor will the most bitter partizan of to-day brand it with so deep an infamy as the impartial future historian has in reserve.
The life of Mr. Buchanan has been that of a mere politician. Unmixed selfishness has been its center and circumference. To his personal advancement everything has been sacrified.—Cold at heart, fawning and sycophantic in manner, wily, double-tongued, in the same hour stubborn and fickle, vindictive, forgetting the statesman in acts of personal malice, true to no friend, firm against no enemy, to serve him faithfully has been to gain his hostility, to oppose him bitterly has been to insure his fawning.
It is remarkable that of all the politicians and statesmen of his generation, not one respected him nor trusted him. Men to whom manliness and personal honor were anything could not speak too contemptuously of him. Jackson, Clay, and Benton, who knew him well, have left their verdict in phrases that will sting his memory forever. As a federalist, he declared that he had not a drop of democratic blood in his veins. As a democrat, he proclaimed himself to be only the incarnation of a double-headed platform. He was as honest in one assertion as in the other. He was James Buchanan in all the protean shapes. He had ability—his early speeches show that—though his administration has been senile in all but a tenacious malice and wrong-headedness, but he was not honest. His moral instincts were clouded and perverted, so that you could safely predict that he would throw his weight on the wrong side, provided only that selfishness called most loudly in that direction.
In 1857, he was called to the presidency, at the head of a united party, with a full treasury and a prosperous country. Doubts were expressed that he would carry the devious ways of the politician into the executive chair. But conservative men said that having attained the summit of his ambition he would look only to his future reputation, and rule for the best good of the country. They did not allow for the force of life-long habits.
No sooner was he established in the chair of Washington than corruption renewed its vigor. The treasury rats swarmed to the carnival. Did he befoul the sources of legislation? Read the Covode report. Did he interfere with local elections? Read the conclusive records. Who were his confidential advisers? Some of them have been exposed as thieves, and most of them as traitors. And yet not one of them did he dismiss from his side.
Coming into power with the whole country disposed to give his administration a lenient trial, he had not been a year there when the almost universal verdict of the country was made up against him. He had not been there a year when his united and victorious party was hopelessly rent in twain by his acts. There is no instance in our history of any ruler who has so completely forfeited the public and private respect, even of his own party. And four years of his incompetent and disingenuous management has been sufficient to bring to disgrace abroad and at home the wisest government ever framed, and to shake to its very foundations a Union that we all thought as firm as granite.
In a short four years, what mischief more could he have devised or permitted? What more severe blows could he have dealt public liberty or private honesty? If the nation recovers from the shock of his misrule, it can have no fear of any future peril.
The historian will eagerly search for some alleviating feature in his public life and character, some light shade in the somber picture. May he find it. The old man, weary, forlorn, seeks his quiet home among the wheat fields of Lancaster. But the scorn of Europe, the contempt and indignation of America, will pierce that veil. Buchanan will not rest. Let the historian find—we hope he may—that some monstrous delusion led the man astray, and that under other circumstances he might have been an honest man and a patriot. And let us hope that the judgment of this world may not prefigure that of the next.—Let the curtain drop.