James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States. He was born near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania and lived much of his life in nearby Lancaster. He was the only Chief Executive from the Keystone State and the only one who remained a lifelong bachelor. Despite his local roots, many people in the Brandywine Valley outside Philadelphia don’t know much about him. Coming into office just before Abraham Lincoln, one might understand why his place in American history has been diminished versus that of his successor, who is regularly ranked by historians among our greatest Presidents. Understanding Buchanan’s life and times will help people to better comprehend his part in the sweep of American history and the most cataclysmic event which helped shape it: the Civil War.
Buchanan came into this world on April 23, 1791; he would be the last U.S. President born in the 18th century. He graduated with honors from Dickinson College in 1809, the year his Presidential successor was born, later training as an attorney in Lancaster. Buchanan was admitted to the bar in 1812. The conflict with England that year was something he initially opposed, but when British troops attacked Washington, D.C., he enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia, positioned in Henry Shippen’s Company, 1st Brigade and marched to defend the capital. Buchanan was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist and served from 1814- 1816. Later when the Federalist Party collapsed, he aligned himself with supporters of Andrew Jackson, becoming a Democrat. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for a decade, from 1821- 1831. Like many others who aspired to the highest office in the land, he prepared himself over the years in various positions, becoming Minister to Russia under Jackson from 1832- 1833, a Senator from 1834- 1845, U.S. Secretary of State under President James Polk from 1845- 1849 and later Minister to England under President Franklin Pierce.
Unlike most other Presidents, his lasting impact on our nation came from one of his previous jobs. As Secretary of State under Polk, he helped negotiate the Oregon Treaty and the one which ended the Mexican-American War, the results of which added an enormous amount of territory and natural resources to the United States. These two actions doubled the size of the nation and helped propel America through the Industrial Revolution to become a powerhouse among world economies. Discoveries of vast new deposits of iron ore, chromite, copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver helped to drive westward expansion, the development of new technologies and industries and led the nation to the top tier of global players. Interestingly, like Polk, Buchanan is one of the few U.S. Presidents who kept a promise to run for only one term.
Buchanan’s time in the White House (1857- 1861) did not distinguish him as one of America’s gifted statesmen. Beset by serious problems related to the spread of slavery as he took office, including the horrific slaughter of people in Kansas, he knew the issue would be a critical one impacting his Administration. Yet the experienced lawyer- trained in making insightful arguments- could not come up with a coherent position on slavery to satisfy his critics or even himself. Personally opposed to slavery, he reportedly purchased slaves in the South and later released them to freedom. Yet within days of his taking office, the Supreme Court released their decision in the Dred Scott case, which held that slaves had no rights and that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence. Buchanan not only supported this decision, scholars feel there is some evidence that he actually helped Chief Justice Roger Tawney to craft it, which would later be overturned and regarded by historians as the worst ever produced by the U.S. judicial system. The Dred Scott decision infuriated abolitionists and millions of Northerners personally opposed to slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act- which mandated that escaped slaves be returned to their owners and compelled people to assist in their capture- was also a highly controversial law which Buchanan supported. So why did a talented attorney with wide ranging political experience not do something to help end the scourge of slavery which was tearing the nation apart under his Presidency? The answer may lie in the highly turbulent times in which he lived.
To people living in the 21st century, the merits of slavery are not even worth considering. It is now viewed as a horrible stain on our country and the human psyche. That people could treat other human beings as mere chattel is anathema to nearly everyone in modern society. Yet slavery was accepted by the Founding Fathers as an unpleasant reality. If they had insisted on abolishing it when crafting the U.S. Constitution, that document may never have been ratified and our nation may never have come into existence. Numerous laws were passed- from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act to help tamp down the flames ignited by slavery which were surging across America. Yet they grew higher and burned more fiercely with each succeeding year. Southern plantation owners considered slavery a critical tool that allowed their businesses to thrive- and felt any laws that curtailed slavery were a direct threat to their economic well-being. Extreme views existed on both sides, leading politicians to fumble for temporary relief from the crisis. Our government moves forward slowly, by incremental changes which generally are intended to help improve the rights of citizens. Sometimes laws are enacted and decisions are made which not only harm people, they cause enormous tension and conflict which undermine the very stability of that system, making the situation worse. Such was the state of American society in the late 1850s when Buchanan took office.
Buchanan could and should have been much more adept at handling the problem of slavery. Instead he appeared to side most often with slave owners, as noted in his Third Annual Message to Congress in 1859: “I cordially congratulate… the final settlement by the Supreme Court of the United States of the question of slavery in the Territories… The right has been established of every citizen to take his property of any kind, including slaves, into the common Territories…” This message was delivered after the events at Harper’s Ferry shocked the nation, when John Brown attempted to take over the Federal arsenal and start a war against slave owners. Some insights on this dilemma might come from considering Buchanan’s ‘home turf.’ His home in Lancaster County was not far from the Mason-Dixon Line, close to Maryland, where the practice was widely accepted. In his final State of the Union Address in December 1860, Buchanan seemed to not only side with slave owners, he exacerbated the problem by explicitly stating that the issue was not slavery itself, but those who opposed slavery by voicing their opinions. He felt that opponents of slavery made the problem worse, yet he offered no solutions. “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects.” Just over two weeks later, South Carolina seceded from the Union; several other states followed suit and formed the Confederacy in February 1861. On April 12th of that year, rebels fired upon the Federal installation at Fort Sumter, starting the most disastrous war in American history.
Buchanan is today ranked among the worst Presidents in U.S. history. In several polls of historians, including ones conducted by the Wall Street Journal in 2000 and 2005, he is ranked near the bottom of the group. Why? Because he did almost nothing to resolve the enormous problem of slavery plaguing the nation under his tenure in office. He also did not make a cohesive argument against secession, saying that the government was powerless to prevent it. Even though he attempted to relieve the U.S. soldiers at Fort Sumter surrounded by rebel forces with a ship bringing supplies, he let the vessel sail unarmed into Confederate territory, where it was fired upon and forced to turn back. The skilled attorney with wide ranging experience in world affairs could not make a strong rationale for its curtailment, took no steps to ameliorate the situation and did nothing to prevent the fracturing of the Union as he was about to leave office. All Presidents are considered not only the political, but the ‘moral’ leaders of our country. When they fail to take a firm stance to correct troubling situations, the problems generally get worse. Such was the case with Buchanan, the gifted statesman who could not- or at least would not- take effective action against the scourge which nearly destroyed America.
|Wheatland - Buchanan's Home|
Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is called Wheatland. It is only a 40-minute drive northwest from Kennett Square. You can go there today and take a tour of the lovely Federal style red brick house which holds numerous period furnishings from the mid-late 19th century. His birthplace is memorialized with a monument at James Buchanan State Park in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, south of Harrisburg. Buchanan died on June 1, 1868 at the age of 77 in his home, telling a friend the day before that he felt history would vindicate him and judge his decisions to be the right ones for the country. That hasn’t happened, but fittingly, just over a month after his passing, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting equal rights and protection under the law to all- including former slaves. Perhaps someday historians and citizens alike will come to better understand this highly tumultuous period in American history, what might have been done to resolve its many problems and how that critical time shaped the world we know today.