Presidential Experience: Two Pickings from the Historical Grapevine

Ryan S. Walters | @ryanswalters73

As I wrote on Tuesday, I can find no correlation between experience and a successful presidency.

So let’s take a closer peek at two rather obscure examples from presidential history.

First, a President with a lifetime of experience, the 15th President, James Buchanan:

Buchanan had one of the country’s most distinguished political resumes, as impressive as any American President.  He had a wealth of legislative experience, serving in the Pennsylvania state legislature; the U.S. House for ten years, where he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and the U.S. Senate for two terms, chairing the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

As side from his service chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee, he had a wealth of other foreign policy and diplomatic experience, serving as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain, as well as James K. Polk’s Secretary of State, giving him some executive and administrative experience managing the State Department.James_Buchanan

He was also considered one of the nation’s best legal minds, and was offered an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court but turned it down.

With all that experience and prestige, his presidency should have been a great success, especially with the nation facing a growing sectional crisis, but it was a disaster, mainly due to his judgment and leadership skills, or lack thereof.

With the Supreme Court poised to rule on the Dred Scott case soon after his inauguration on March 4, 1857, Buchanan, it is alleged, communicated in a very unethical manner with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, urging him to make a definitive ruling that would end the fight over slavery in the territories.  Rather than handing down a simple ruling that Dred Scott had no standing to sue in federal court, and leaving it at that, Taney, whether he followed the new President’s prodding or not, issued a decision that caused the sectional crisis to burn red hot.

Buchanan also stepped in it on the issue of “Bleeding Kansas” by recognizing the Lecompton government as the legitimate ruling authority in the Kansas Territory, even though the elections that had empowered Lecompton were clearly fraudulent, causing that territory to explode in violence and chaos.

And when Southern States began leaving the Union one by one after the election of 1860, Buchanan did absolutely nothing, one way or the other.  He did not even evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, which Southerners believed he would, instead leaving that thorny issue for Lincoln, a situation that led to war rather than peaceful negotiations.  Though he can be given credit for not wanting to invade the South, as Lincoln did, in short, the experienced, yet indecisive, Buchanan fiddled while Rome burned and historians have hammered him for it.

By contrast, President Chester A. Arthur had never held a single elective political office, save 199 days as Vice President. His only public service had been as Collector of the Port of New York for three years and head of the state Republican Party of New York. That’s it. No legislative experience, no executive experience, or diplomatic experience.  You can only imagine the modern media’s hostility toward him after his nomination as Vice President in 1880, where served on the ticket with the experienced James A. Garfield, which was nothing more than a move to placate the rival factions within the Republican Party.

After his election to the Vice Presidency, Arthur soon found himself in the White House within six months, after the tragic assassination of the President. Upon learning the news that his friend would sit in the presidential chair, one Arthur confidant exclaimed, “Chet Arthur is President! My God!” That seemed to be a general feeling that pervaded the country.20_Chester_Arthur_3x4

Despite being what historians and political scientists call a “Postage Stamp President,” Arthur’s record is exemplary. Ivan Eland, a scholar at the Independent Institute, ranks him at number 5 on his list, a very deserved spot.

Far from being an indecisive leader, President Arthur set to work implementing his agenda. He was very strong on national defense and wanted to expand the army to 30,000 troops, a plan that Congress rejected. But he was able to begin the process of expanding and modernizing the navy, converting ships from wood to steel and upgrading weaponry, thus sowing the original seeds for the great US Navy of today. For this accomplishment, Arthur has earned the moniker “Father of the Modern Navy.”

In another foreign policy accomplishment from the man with no experience, Arthur negotiated a treaty with Nicaragua that gave the US co-ownership of a strip of land for the construction of a canal to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific, two decades before the Panama Canal was built.

On the home front, Arthur maintained the nation’s gold standard, rather than allow the currency to be inflated, as many in Congress favored. He kept the system of high tariffs in place that safeguarded the nation’s industrial base and protected the phenomenal economic growth from foreign predators.

Arthur also believed in limited government and opposed wasteful spending. He vetoed a “rivers and harbors” bill, the infrastructure spending of its day, because it was filled with special interest, pork-barrel projects that favored “particular localities,” much to the chagrin of party bosses, although Congress did override that veto.

And although he was once a beneficiary of government largess and the “spoils system,” Arthur took the initiative in cleaning up what had become a very corrupt system by signing into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Bill that would begin the process of choosing federal workers on the basis of merit rather than politics. For this, it is President Arthur who is known as the “Father of Civil Service.”

Given the high standards that have been erected by the so-called experts, Buchanan should have been a rousing success and the nation should have gone forward with peace and tranquility, while Arthur’s administration should have been a big, fat mess. But the opposite was true.

If we listened to the pundits and political geniuses today who harp on and on about experience, the only person with the kind of experience needed for the Presidency would be a former President.

But it doesn’t take experience; it takes competence and the skills of leadership.


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