Name one U.S. President you’ve never heard of. In the spirit of being purposefully cryptic and a novice historian, I too assumed no such question could stump me. And then I stumbled upon the name of one James Buchanan Jr. Who? While I’m positive the 15th president’s name has been memorized by millions of elementary school children, myself included, it’s equally likely Buchanan is the most forgotten of all who have served in the country’s highest office. Full disclosure – I went searching for Buchanan needing to know who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office as the country was splintering at the seams.
A Democrat, Buchanan approached the subject of slavery through a strict, and short-sighted, economical lens. As documented by the Smithsonian’s Thomas Balcerski, “Although he came from the North, Buchanan saw that the viability of the Democratic Party depended on the continuance of the South’s slave-driven economy.” In his 1856 inaugural address, Buchanan called the territorial issue of slavery “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in America. The $3 billion in cost to Southerners represented roughly 15% of the economy at the time and that’s as far as Buchanan’s thinking apparently went even as the country splintered at a societal level and slipped into recession and ultimately, chaos.
Historians have long since concluded that this facile and callous assessment cost Buchanan the 1860 election. By then, the North was industrializing at a rapid pace which only served to increase tensions, resentment and divisiveness. During Buchanan’s lame duck period in between the election and when Lincoln took office in March 1861, seven states seceded. Even bearing witness to this, Buchanan held his ground. This is an excerpt from his final State of the Union address: “All for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”
In the end, the People begged to differ. The cost was the most devastating in history as 752,000 men, or 2% of all Americans, lost their lives. The devastation wrought had an enormous effect on an American society that was deeply religious and struggled to find peace with a God they believed to be benevolent. The $7 billion cost of the war was two years of U.S. gross domestic product in 1860. Imagine a war today costing upwards of $40 trillion. But it was not evenly shouldered. On a per capita basis, the costs to Northerners were about $139 amounting to one year’s per capita U.S. GDP. The per capita encumbrance for Southerners was almost three times that amount.