Thursday, April 23, 2009
On this date in 1791, lawyer and politician James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Buchanan went on to become one of the most experienced men ever to hold the office of President of the United States, having served as state legislator, Congressman, Senator, minister to Russia, minister to Great Britain, and Secretary of State -- as well as turning down a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
He was also a very bad prophet who wildly overestimated the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to decide contentious political issues. In his Inaugural Address he cheerfully noted that the question of slavery was one of "little practical importance" because the U.S. Supreme Court was about to settle it as a matter of Constitutional law. Two days later, the Court announced Dred Scott v. Sandford. Two years later, in his 1859 State of the Union message, he was still confident that the Court's decision had finally settled the issue whether slavery could be abolished and eliminated all need for sectional strife:
I cordially congratulate you [the people] upon the final settlement by the Supreme Court of the United States of the question of slavery in the Territories, which had presented an aspect so truly formidable at the commencement of my Administration. The right has been established of every citizen to take his property of any kind, including slaves, into the common Territories belonging equally to all the States of the [Union], and to have it protected there under the Federal Constitution. Neither Congress nor a Territorial legislature nor any human power has any authority to annul or impair this vested right. The supreme judicial tribunal of the country, which is a coordinate branch of the Government, has sanctioned and affirmed these principles of constitutional law . . . .
Apparently, though, some people continued to disagree.