I recently enjoyed reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s immediate predecessor as US President, James Buchanan.
Of Northern Irish stock, he had a long political career in Washington, and abroad representing his country, before he became President at the then advanced age of 70.
The book by Garry Boulard is entitled “ The Worst President”, a title that is not really warranted by its content.
Buchanan did not believe in the forceful abolition of slavery in the South, but he did not want to see it spread any further.
He was also uncertain whether the Federal government had the right to use force to prevent state from seceding from the Union, although he eventually came to the view that it had.
There was genuine room for doubt on the legal position at the time.
The issue was eventually settled only when, after Lincoln had taken over, South Carolina forces fired on a Federal Fort in Charleston.
The Civil War that followed polarised opinion, and Buchanan’s temporising earned him a bad reputation.
But hindsight is at work here. Buchanan suffered the same sort of retrospective reputational fate as Neville Chamberlain.
Both bought time, and preserved peace as long as they could, thereby ensuring that when battle was finally joined, public opinion was better prepared for the sacrifices involved.