39, 38, 37: James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Millard Fillmore

I suppose it is not correct to blame the onset of the Civil War on the presidents directly preceding it. A more convincing case can be made that the Civil War was made inevitable by the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the expansion of the United States into the West, the war with Mexico, or even the founding of the country itself. (In reality, the Civil War was likely the result of a combination of many of these factors.) The president is actually not as powerful as we make him seem in the narratives we push in presidential biographies and media coverage. This is the case today — though presidents receive praise or blame depending on whether the economy is booming or contracting, they have a very minimal effect on such a large and unwieldy thing as the American economy — and it was even more so the case in the 19th century, before anything like the modern presidency existed.

Still: It could not have helped to have had three of the worst presidents in our history run the country in the decade before the Civil War.

Millard Fillmore was a Whig who took over for Zachary Taylor in 1850 after Taylor died one year into his first term as president. Fillmore’s main “accomplishment” was supporting and championing the Compromise of 1850, legislation that was meant to pacify the sections but only ended up worsening the crisis. This compromise, engineered by “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay (politicians and historians are well-known for their creativity), admitted California to the Union as a free state and abolished the slave trade (not slavery). In return, the Southerners received a much stronger Fugitive Slave Act, which now required all Northerners, whether they had moral objections to slavery or not, to assist the federal government in returning runaway slaves to their “owners,.” The act also fostered corruption, with officials earning $5 if they ruled in favor of a black person and $10 if they ruled in favor of the slave owner. (You can imagine how many slaves were declared free by these boards of commissioners.)

13th President Millard Fillmore
13th President Millard Fillmore

Franklin Pierce was a northern Democrat and friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne who encouraged and supported passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, another bill meant to ease the crisis but only enflamed passions on all sides (a recurring theme). This piece of legislation admitted Kansas and Nebraska as states in the Union not as free states, as the Missouri Compromise would have mandated, but as states whose status as to the question of slavery would be decided by popular sovereignty. I know it’s hard to foresee how giving two states the right to choose whether they are slave or free states, changing the balance of power in the Congress, would lead to a rush of pro- and anti-slavery activists moving to these territories in order to influence the vote and cause incredible violence, but — surprise! — that’s exactly what happened.

14th President Franklin Pierce
14th President Franklin Pierce

James Buchanan was our only bachelor president (and also probably our first gay president). Under Buchanan’s influence, the Supreme Court decided the worst decision in the history of the Court: Scott v. Sanford, the Dred Scott decision, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney. Buchanan and Taney wanted to settle the sectional crisis once and for all, but, again, only made everything worse. In the case, the Court ruled that black people could not be citizens of the United States, whether they were slave or free. Congress could not abolish slavery in any new territory or newly admitted state. In his opinion, Taney wrote, “They [meaning black people] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” [emphasis added.]

15th President James Buchanan
15th President James Buchanan

Lincoln was right: “If God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

In Christian theology, the term “Original Sin” refers to the sin of Adam and Eve. Though they lived in paradise, experiencing the world as God always meant it to be, the Serpent tempted them with one idea: that “ye shall be as gods.” Ever since, the sin of pride has infected humanity like some virus for which there is no earthly cure. We may try to cover up this pride, hide it with false humility, custom, or tradition. Yet we still fall prey to the Serpent’s temptation all those years ago — ye shall be as gods.

That’s the idea, anyway. And it is a powerful one: By my lights, there is no better explanation for the evil that exists in the world, for the awful things we do to one another, than that concept of Original Sin, the pride in all of our sinful natures that can only be eradicated with a new life, one freely offered by Christ through his work on the Cross — and then, only imperfectly, at least until we finally enter that land where we never grow old.

Well, the Original Sin of America is slavery. Like a virus, it has infected our people in every way. The founding generation thought it would slowly, eventually disappear as the outmoded activity those enlightened men no doubt thought it was. Yet further we fell into its grip. Smart politicians attempted to save the body politic by putting boundaries around the issue, balancing pro-slavery and anti-slavery positions, ever straddling some hazy middle line. That is what Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan thought they were doing. Alas, it took the death of more than 700,000 Americans, the desolation of the South, and the near-disintegration of the Republic to resolve the issue once and for all.

And yet, it remains with us, our Original Sin. It infects our politics to this day, to the point where a small band of white supremacists are somehow pandered to by the Republican candidate for president — The Nominee, He Who Must Not Be Named, whom we must bow before and accept, because judges.

In Christianity, Original Sin is overcome by the sheer grace of Christ, freely given. It is overcome by the New Birth, the leaving behind of the old life for the new.

How can America’s Original Sin be overcome?

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Let us continue to strive.


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