Abraham Lincoln and George Washington consistently rank with historians and the public as the nation's best presidents – and we rightly celebrate their accomplishments.
This Presidents Day, as the holiday has been popularly recast, falls between Lincoln's Feb. 12 birthday and Washington's Feb. 22 birthday.
At the other end of the rankings sits James Buchanan, Lincoln's predecessor – so we're unlikely ever to celebrate his April 23 birthday. But from Buchanan's spectacularly bad leadership we can draw lessons about good leadership.
Ironically, Buchanan was one of the most experienced men to serve as president – four years in the Pennsylvania Legislature, 10 years in the U.S. House, 10 in the U.S. Senate, four in the foreign service, four as secretary of state.
Lincoln was among the least experienced – eight years in the Illinois Legislature and two years in the U.S. House before becoming president. What he lacked in experience, he had in judgment and backbone.
As the crisis grew between North and South over slavery, California was at the epicenter. The nation had 15 free and 15 slaveholding states when California sought statehood in 1850.
California's admission would give free states a majority, so Southern states threatened to secede. Buchanan was among those who thought the crisis could be defused by dividing California into two states, maintaining "equilibrium" between North and South. Only a "compromise" that strengthened pro-slavery measures allowed California to enter as a single, free state.
Buchanan came to the presidency after the 1856 election, blaming the national crisis on Northern "agitation" against slavery. Just move on to other matters was his message: "Most happy it will be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from the question to others of more pressing and practical importance."
The culmination of absurdity came at the end of Buchanan's term when seven Southern states seceded in the 120 days between Lincoln's November 1860 election and the March 1861 inauguration. Buchanan told the nation that the Southern states had no constitutional right to secede but the national government had no constitutional right to stop them – satisfying no one and amounting to acquiescence as the union dissolved.
Buchanan's solution was to placate the secessionists – urging the North to stop criticizing slavery, Congress to buy Cuba to add a new slave state and "letting the North have exclusive control of the territory above a certain line and to give Southern institutions protection below that line."
Lincoln was having none of this. In January 1861, he wrote: "We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices."
And he understood the practical effect: "If we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum (at their pleasure)."
How should things be decided in a democratic republic when people have polar-opposite views? Lincoln asked. For example, "One section of our country believes slavery is 'right' and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is 'wrong' and ought not to be extended." It cannot be that a minority gets its way or secedes.
Lincoln rejected "tyranny of the minority" in favor of majority rule with protection of minority rights: "A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."
The contrast between Buchanan and Lincoln shows that on the most difficult, controversial decisions of the day, it does not pay to stay above the fray, to delay, to avoid, to kowtow to recalcitrant minorities or to seek equilibrium between irreconcilable positions. Leadership is about offering a clear, coherent vision to the public, and having the courage to act on it.