The country went to hell in a hand basket when Abraham Lincoln was President-elect. A veteran politician whose career included service in both houses of Congress, Ambassador to Russia, and Secretary of State in the Polk Administration (having first declined appointment to the Supreme Court), the outgoing President James Buchanan was singularly ineffective as Chief Executive. From the very start of his Presidency, he announced that he would not be seeking re-election and hoped the Supreme Court would settle the great issues of state. On his watch the economy collapsed in the Panic of 1857, a military attempt at regime change in Mormon Utah was a miserable failure, and the border was literally afire over the future of slavery in the western territories.
Refusing to take any action in the four months between Lincoln's election and first inaugural to stem the tide of southern states falling like dominoes out of the Union, Buchanan believed that secession was illegal but also that nothing could be legally done by the federal government to prevent it. He reorganized a lame duck cabinet of conservative Democrats who were nonetheless strong nationalists but to no avail. Seven states left the union before he left office. Buchanan is remembered today as the lamest of lame ducks, and his single, disastrous term in office as one of the very worst American presidencies.
The lame duck Congress in the winter of 1860-1861 was severely hamstrung as well. The Crittenden Compromise called for an impractical suite of Constitutional amendments to keep the Union together that satisfied no one. Radical Republicans who would control both houses in the new session of Congress refused to undermine their new mandate in the old one. The fire-eaters of the Deep South refused to attend a Peace Convention hosted by Virginia and attended by representatives of the Upper South and the Northern states.
Lincoln had a long period as president-elect at precisely the moment when firm and decisive leadership was needed. It is not certain that he could have prevented the split had he taken the reigns of government any earlier - his election and what it represented to Southern interests was all the justification South Carolina required to declare for secession six weeks later - but with no one at the wheel the crisis could only deepen. For his part, Lincoln spent nearly a fortnight traveling through the north on his way to Washington, stopping along the way and introducing himself to the people and gaging their mood. He had not personally campaigned for their votes, but as historian Larry D. Mansch writes ; "he would, in essence, campaign after his election." It is well known that he selected a cabinet of his political adversaries, but perhaps less so that the eloquent words most often quoted from his inaugural address -the mystic chords of memory and the better angels of our nature - come only at the finish. For the rest, he sounds more like a defense lawyer arguing a losing case before a jury than a chief executive steering a course through adversity that the country could follow.
There was no play book for such unprecedented challenges. Lincoln was feeling his way, drawing on his instinct, intellect and common touch to find first political and then military strategies that would serve to save the country. Buchanan possessed no such assets, and was overwhelmed by events that tore the country apart.
Compared to these times and trials, the financial chaos and foreign and domestic policy challenges that await the current president-elect are nowhere near such calamities. The Bush administration is not passively packing up shop, though it is hard to imagine what it has in its power to do to mitigate a situation years in the making in a few short weeks before Obama's election. Historywill not be kind to George W. Bush - he is unlikely to look as good 60 years later as Eisenhowerer does today - but he is no James Buchanan. Whether the next president to come to Washington from Illinois will have the legacy and impact as the first to do so is not going to be decided anytime soon. The most that can be said at this time is that it probably helps that he will not have to wait until March to be sworn into office.