James Buchanan has come down in American history as the worst president in our history. Having angled for the office for decades, Pennsylvania’s only president thus far managed to make a mess of a diplomatic post in Europe when he was responsible for co-authoring the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba as a way of easing the southern feeling of claustrophobia in the aftermath of the admission of California as a free state. In his inaugural address he fatuously claimed that the Supreme Court would shortly settle the divisive issue of the status of slavery in the territories to the satisfaction of everyone, only to see that decision stoutly rejected and the source of further sectional discord. By the end of his miserable failure of a term the Union was in shambles and he had been repudiated, and even fellow doughfaces like Stephen Douglas found he had gone too far to bend to the demands of southern extremists. Not surprisingly, in light of that dismal failure, Buchanan has fared poorly in the verdict of historians who have blamed a large part of the blame for the start of the Civil War on his doorstep, fairly or not. It is unlikely that, given the mess he made of the presidency, and the total absence of backbone and moral fiber that he showed in office, that historical revisionism will ever manage to raise his reputation far.
Throughout the history of the United States, the Supreme Court has made occasional self-inflicted wounds that harmed its credibility in the eyes of the country. Faced with vexing social issues, the Supreme Court has sought to settle the issue through landmark cases only to find its own credibility harmed in the process by those who are understandably loath to let cases be settled by the nine notoriously fallible justices of the Supreme Court . In fact, it can be fairly reliably said that whenever the Supreme Court has attempted to legislate morality or immorality, whether with regards to slavery, abortion, gay marriage, separate but equal, school prayer, or any other number of issues, the Supreme Court has dealt self-inflicted wounds to its credibility and its honor, and saw itself besmirched as yet another area for partisan discord rather than a place where genuine justice can be found above the sordid fray of politics. No, from the beginning the justices of the Supreme Court have shown themselves to be as partisan as everyone else, and therefore their attempts to solve vexing and divisive issues has merely increased the tension present within society rather than resolving those problems as they wished to do. If passing laws does not settle larger social issues, certainly making verdicts does not do so, especially because those verdicts often show themselves to be embarrassingly short on actual truth either on a historical, legal, or moral level.
How do we demonstrate ourselves as just people whose opinions and decisions are worthy of respect from those around us? Clearly, the mere holding of an office and the making of decisions under the robes of those offices does not make one’s decisions respectable, as much as we may wish it was so. When a state of deep conflict is present, among the earliest casualties is the sense of goodwill and trust that allows people to believe in the goodness of those who take adverse positions and make judgments inimical to one’s interests and worldview. Such a state of affairs, and it is one that easily exists in our lives, mean that attempts to settle disputes by the use of official power tends to create in the minds of those who are on the wrong side of the judgments to, with a great deal of justice, view those offices as hopelessly corrupt and in need of drastic reformation and regime change. What is meant to settle disagreement only throws oil on the fire by bringing the prestige of those offices into the dispute rather than resolving anything. This suggests that the way we resolve deep cultural conflicts as a society is deeply flawed, as the failures of Dred Scot and Prohibition, and the bad reputation that has attached itself to every aspect of our contemporary political infrastructure demonstrate that there is no faith in the justice or goodness of those who hold office, nor any confidence that any new people and outsiders that could be elected in their stead would prove themselves to be any better at the job.
Seeing that our institutions have generally failed to provide the sort of conflict resolution between groups of people with hostile interests, and that the result of attempts to solve such problems has been a general decline of faith and trust in those institutions that have sought to resolve these problems, it is clear that the only place for such situations to be dealt with is in the greater population itself, in our own ability to disagree with respect and to seek to understand even where we do not agree, and to see those who disagree with us within a civilized culture as our own as human beings, however mistaken. This is not easy to do, but clearly we cannot trust other people to do our job for us. If we want civil political discourse, and we want to keep disagreements from becoming crises that last for years, if not generations, we have to learn how to get along better. As difficult as it is to do this, it would help us to live much better lives, and keep conflicts from getting out of hand as they so often do. It is not as if we are going to appreciate anyone getting in the way of us doing the job ourselves, after all.
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