(December 27, 2016) In this lecture Columbia University’s history professor Eric Foner condemns Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan as “perhaps the worst President in American history.” The professor begins by explaining that Buchanan was immediately under the thumb of Southern politicians. He points to the President’s initial cabinet selections as compelling evidence that Southerners dominated the administration from the beginning.
As the table above illustrates, citizens of states that voted for Buchanan got five out of seven cabinet posts. Four of the five were Southerners. However, Foner’s claim that Buchanan’s initial cabinet alone is sufficient verification that Southerners controlled him from the start is dubious. In the politics of the era cabinet posts were commonly awarded to residents of states that supported the winning Presidential candidate.
That practice did not change when Lincoln was elected. Five of his seven cabinet posts also went to men who lived in states that Lincoln carried in the election. Two of Lincoln’s cabinet members were from slave states, even though slave states were almost half of all sates at the time.
Some observers will, no doubt, argue that Lincoln’s choices were narrower than Buchanan’s because eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. Only seven, however, seceded before Lincoln took office. More importantly, Lincoln’s list of candidates for cabinet posts had been settled more than a month before even the first state (South Carolina) seceded.
On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet appointments. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were states where he received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who bargained for a cabinet position at the earlier Republican nominating convention in exchange for committing Pennsylvania’s delegates to Lincoln (David Donald, 249 & 261).
On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet positions. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were also states where Lincoln received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who was to receive a cabinet appointment based upon a bargain to get Pennsylvania’s delegates committed to Lincoln at the earlier political convention where Lincoln won the Republican nomination. (David Donald, 249 & 261.)
Although Foner later gave other reasons in his lecture why he feels that Buchanan was a Southern sympathizer he also he also provided evidence that Buchanan was not. Nonetheless, the professor’s conclusion that Buchanan’s sectional sympathies were obvious from the start based only upon the initial cabinet selections fails to take into account the conventional political practices of the era.