Whenever a Presidential election rolls around people assume that the end times are upon us and that the jackass directly opposed to their views (and their candidate) will run the country into a ditch. And so it is with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two candidates who are widely unpopular and assumed to be among the worst campaigners we’ve ever seen. One of them is going to get their picture mounted in the post office and not in the Most Wanted section, and we’re all going to have to live with it, even if the winner makes us want to pull out all of our hair.
Despite that looming frustration, though, it’s good to look at this moment in a way that allows a bit of historical context to shine in. Most Presidents wind up being utterly forgettable, and the nation still stands when they blow out of town or get tossed on their asses. Not to give these two candidates too much credit, but we’ve seen far worse than what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are probably capable of doing. And that’s doubly true when you consider that neither is likely to get much help in an almost certainly divided legislature and that both will be heavily scrutinized by the media and voters. So, if your side doesn’t win on Tuesday, take some solace in knowing that it could be worse… which is, you know, not as shiny as “hope” and “change,” but it’s better than nothing.
In 1856, America was perilously close to civil war. Slave states and free states were already at war in all but name, with events like Bleeding Kansas and the death of abolitionist John Brown weighing heavily on the American mind. America needed a President who would stand tall, force hard compromises, and avert the course of war. Instead, they elected James Buchanan.
It’s debatable that the American Civil War could ever have been avoided. Buchanan, however, managed to spend his term making things worse. For example, he stated that seceding from the US was illegal… but that going to war to prevent secession was also illegal. He tried to weasel out of making any decisions by insisting it was up to the Supreme Court, which promptly issued the Dred Scott ruling. He managed to make Bloody Kansas worse by pushing through Kansas statehood as a slave state even though most of Kansas citizens were “free-soilers” who didn’t want slavery. But while he wouldn’t go to war over slavery, he’d happily try and kill a bunch of Mormons in Utah for defying the federal government.
If that weren’t enough, he was so ineffectual that the Democratic Party of the time fractured, nominating multiple candidates who split the vote and let Abraham Lincoln win the Presidency, which was enough to start a wave of secession across the South and trigger the Civil War. So, yeah, all in all, maybe Buchanan should have stuck with the Senate.