James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania (now Buchanan's Birthplace State Park), in Franklin County, on April 23rd, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr. (1761–1821), a businessman, merchant, and farmer, and Elizabeth Speer, a literate woman (1767–1833). His parents were both of Ulster Scots descent, the father having emigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. Buchanan had six sisters and four brothers.
In 1797, the family moved to nearby Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The home in Mercersburg was later turned into the James Buchanan Hotel.
Buchanan attended the village academy (Old Stone Academy) and later Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Though he was expelled at one point for poor behavior, he pleaded for a second chance and subsequently graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. A dedicated Federalist, he initially opposed the War of 1812 because he believed it was an unnecessary conflict.
When the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit and served in the defense of Baltimore.
An active Freemason, he was the Master of Masonic Lodge No. 43 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Buchanan began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814–1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. He was elected to the 17th United States Congress and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4th, 1821 – March 4th, 1831), serving as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in the 21st United States Congress. In 1830, he was among the members appointed by the House to conduct impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri, who was ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek reelection and from 1832 to 1833 he served as Minister to Russia, appointed by Andrew Jackson.
With the Federalist Party long defunct, Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy and served from December 1834; he was reelected in 1837 and 1843, and resigned in 1845 to accept President James K. Polk's nomination of him as Secretary of State. He was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1836–1841.
After the death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin in 1844, Polk nominated him to fill the vacancy in March 1845, but he declined that nomination because he felt compelled to complete his collaboration on the Oregon Treaty negotiations. The seat was eventually filled by Robert Cooper Grier.
Buchanan served as Secretary of State under President Polk from 1845 to 1849, despite objections from Buchanan's rival, Vice President George Dallas. In this capacity, he helped negotiate the 1846 Oregon Treaty establishing the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the western U.S. No Secretary of State has become President since Buchanan, although William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, often served as Acting Secretary of State during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
In 1852, Buchanan was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and he served in this capacity until 1866, despite a false report that he was fired.
He served as minister to the Court of St. James's (Britain) from 1853 to 1856, during which time he helped to draft and then signed, with Pierre Soulé and John Mason, a memorandum that became known as the Ostend Manifesto. This document proposed the purchase from Spain of Cuba, then in the midst of revolution and near bankruptcy, declaring the island "as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present ... family of states." Against Buchanan's recommendation, the final draft of the Manifesto suggested that "wresting it from Spain" if Spain refused to sell would be justified "by every law, human and Divine". The Manifesto, generally considered a blunder overall, was never acted upon but weakened the Pierce administration and support for Manifest Destiny.
Democrats nominated Buchanan in 1856 as their nominee for President of the United States. He had been in England during the Kansas-Nebraska debate and thus remained untainted by either side. Pennsylvania, which had three times failed Buchanan, now gave its full support in its state convention. Though he never declared his candidacy, it is apparent from all his correspondence, that he was aware of the distinct possibility of his nomination by the Democratic convention in Cincinnati, even before heading home at the finish of his work as Minister to England.
Former president Millard Fillmore's "Know-Nothing" candidacy helped Buchanan defeat John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856, and he served from March 4th, 1857, to March 4th, 1861. Buchanan remains the most recent of the two Democrats (the other being Martin Van Buren) to succeed a fellow Democrat to the Presidency by election in his own right. President-elect Buchanan stated about the growing schism in the country: "The object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government." He set about this initially by maintaining a sectional balance in his appointments and persuading the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories and two justices had hinted to Buchanan their findings.
In his inaugural address, besides promising not to run again, Buchanan referred to the territorial question as "happily, a matter of but little practical importance" since the Supreme Court was about to settle it "speedily and finally", and proclaimed that when the decision came he would "cheerfully submit, whatever this may be". Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott Decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Such comments delighted Southerners and incited anger in the North.
Buchanan, in his view, preferred to see the territorial question resolved by the Supreme Court. He wrote to Justice John Catron in January 1857, inquiring about the outcome of the case and suggesting that a broader decision would be more prudent. Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10th that the Supreme Court's southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds if there was no support from the Court's northern justices - unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority. Buchanan then wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him, allowing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott's case to declare the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. The correspondence was not public at the time; however, at his inauguration, Buchanan was seen in whispered conversation with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney; when the decision was issued two days later, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Abraham Lincoln denounced him as an accomplice of the Slave Power, a supposed conspiracy to eliminate legal barriers to slavery.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created Kansas Territory, and allowed the settlers there to choose whether to allow slavery. This resulted in violence between "Free-Soil" (anti-slavery) and pro-slavery settlers.
The anti-slavery settlers organized a government in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton, Kansas. For Kansas to be admitted to statehood, a state constitution had to be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of residents.
Toward this end, Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker as territorial Governor, with the mission of reconciling the settler factions and approving a constitution. Walker, who was from Mississippi, was expected to assist the pro-slavery faction in gaining approval of their Lecompton Constitution. However, most Kansas settlers were Free-Soilers. The Lecomptonites held a referendum, which Free-Soilers boycotted, with trick terms and claimed their constitution was adopted. Walker resigned in disgust.
Nevertheless, Buchanan now pushed for Congressional approval of Kansas statehood under the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan made every effort to secure Congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments and even cash for votes. The Lecompton bill passed through the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate, where it was opposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, leader of the northern Democrats. Douglas advocated "popular sovereignty" (letting settlers decide on slavery- nicknamed "squatter sovereignty" by Douglas' opponents); he rejected the fraudulent way the Lecompton Constitution was supposedly adopted.
The battle over Kansas escalated into a battle for control of the Democratic Party. On one side were Buchanan, most Southern Democrats, and northern Democrats allied to the Southerners ("Doughfaces"); on the other side, Douglas and most northern Democrats plus a few Southerners. The struggle lasted from 1857 to 1860. Buchanan used all his patronage powers to weaken Douglas.
Douglas's Senate term ended in 1859; so the Illinois legislature elected in 1858 had to choose whether or not to re-elect him. The Senate choice was the primary issue of the legislative election, marked by the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Buchanan, working through Federal patronage appointees in Illinois, ran candidates for the legislature in competition with both the Republicans and the Douglas Democrats. (They were known as "Danites".) This could easily have thrown the election to the Republicans - which showed the depth of Buchanan's animosity toward Douglas.
In the end, however, the Danite vote was insignificant. Douglas Democrats won the legislative election and Douglas was re-elected to the Senate. Douglas forces took control throughout the North, except in Buchanan's home state of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was reduced to a narrow base of southern supporters.
One of the greatest issues of the day was tariffs. Buchanan condemned both free trade and prohibitive tariffs, since either would benefit one section of the country to the detriment of the other. As the Senator from Pennsylvania, he thought: "I am viewed as the strongest advocate of protection in other states, whilst I am denounced as its enemy in Pennsylvania."
Buchanan, like many of his time, was torn between his desire to expand the country for the benefit of all and his insistence on guaranteeing to the people settling the expanded areas their rights, including slavery. On territorial expansion, he said, "What, sir? Prevent the people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might just as well command the Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny." On the resulting spread of slavery, through unconditional expansion, he stated: "I feel a strong repugnance by any act of mine to extend the present limits of the Union over a new slave-holding territory." For instance, he hoped the acquisition of Texas would "be the means of limiting, not enlarging, the dominion of slavery".
The President, however, also felt that "this question of domestic slavery is the weak point in our institutions, touch this question seriously ... and the Union is from that moment dissolved. Although in Pennsylvania we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, we can never violate the constitutional compact we have with our sister states. Their rights will be held sacred by us. Under the constitution it is their own question; and there let it remain."
Buchanan was irked that the abolitionists, in his view, were preventing the solution to the slavery problem. He stated, "Before [the abolitionists] commenced this agitation, a very large and growing party existed in several of the slave states in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery; and now not a voice is heard there in support of such a measure. The abolitionists have postponed the emancipation of the slaves in three or four states for at least half a century."
Buchanan's indifference to educational issues was demonstrated by his veto of a bill passed by Congress to create more colleges, for he believed that "there were already too many educated people."
Near the end of his administration he had a serious exchange with the Rev. William Paxton. After what Paxton described as quite a probative discussion, Buchanan said, " Well, sir ... I hope I am a Christian. I have much of the experience you have described, and as soon as I retire, I will unite with the Presbyterian Church." Paxton asked why he delayed, to which he replied, "I must delay for the honor of religion. If I were to unite with the church now, they would say 'hypocrite' from Maine to Georgia."
The Panic of 1857 began in summer of that year, brought on mostly by the people's over-consumption of goods from Europe to such an extent that the Union's specie was drained off, overbuilding by competing railroads, and rampant land speculation in the west. Most of the state banks had overextended credit, to more than $7.00 for each dollar of gold or silver. The Republicans considered the Congress to be the culprit for having recently reduced tariffs.
Buchanan's response, outlined in his first Annual Message to Congress, was "reform not relief". While the government was "without the power to extend relief", it would continue to pay its debts in specie, and while it would not curtail public works, none would be added. He urged the states to restrict the banks to a credit level of $3 to $1 of specie, and discouraged the use of federal or state bonds as security for bank note issues. The economy did eventually recover, though many Americans suffered as a result of the panic. The South, due to an agriculture-based economy, was considered to have been less severely affected than the North, where manufacturers were hardest hit. Buchanan, by the time he left office in 1861, had accumulated a federal deficit of $17 million.
In March 1860, the House created the Covode Committee to investigate the administration for evidence of offenses, some impeachable, such as bribery and extortion of Representatives in exchange for their votes. The Committee, with three Republicans and two Democrats, was accused by Buchanan's supporters of being nakedly partisan; they also charged its chairman, Republican Rep. John Covode, with acting on a personal grudge (since the president had vetoed a bill that was fashioned as a land grant for new agricultural colleges, but was designed to benefit Covode's railroad company). However, the Democratic committee members, as well as Democratic witnesses, were equally enthusiastic in their pursuit of Buchanan, and as pointed in their condemnations, as the Republicans.
The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan; however, the majority report issued on June 17th exposed corruption and abuse of power among members of his Cabinet as well as allegations (if not impeachable evidence) from the Republican members of the Committee, that Buchanan had attempted to bribe members of Congress in connection with the Lecompton constitution. (The Democratic report, issued separately the same day, pointed out that evidence was scarce but did not refute the allegations; one of the Democratic members, Rep, James Robinson, stated publicly that he agreed with the Republican report even though he did not sign it.)
Buchanan claimed to have "passed triumphantly through this ordeal" with complete vindication. Nonetheless, Republican operatives distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Committee report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year's presidential election.
Buchanan appointed one Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States, Nathan Clifford. Buchanan appointed only seven other Article III federal judges, all to United States district courts. He also appointed two Article I judges to the United States Court of Claims.
The Civil War erupted within two months of Buchanan's retirement. He supported it, writing to former colleagues that "the assault upon Sumter was the commencement of war by the Confederate states, and no alternative was left but to prosecute it with vigor on our part." He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to "join the many thousands of brave & patriotic volunteers who are already in the field.
However, Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War, which was even referred to by some as "Buchanan's War". He began receiving angry and threatening letters daily, and stores displayed Buchanan's likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word "TRAITOR" written across his forehead. The Senate proposed a resolution of condemnation (it failed), and newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy. His former cabinet members, five of whom had been given jobs in the Lincoln administration, refused to defend Buchanan publicly.
Initially so disturbed by the attacks that he fell ill and depressed, Buchanan finally began defending himself in October 1862, in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott that was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. He soon began writing his fullest public defense, in the form of his memoir Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, which was published in 1866.Buchanan caught a cold in May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1st, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball in the White Swan Inn, Lancaster, and the two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturing businessman Robert Coleman (and a protective father) and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan's colleagues from the House of Representatives. By 1819, the two were engaged, although both were beyond marrying age for the time. Buchanan spent little time with her during the courtship: he was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects during the Panic of 1819, which took him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded, suggesting that he was marrying her for her money, because his own family was less affluent, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, but letters from Ann revealed she was paying heed to the rumors.
After Buchanan paid a visit to the wife of a friend, Coleman broke off the engagement. She died suddenly soon afterward, on December 9th, 1819. The records of a Dr. Chapman, who looked after her in her final hours, and who said just after her death that this was "the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death", reveal that he theorized, despite the absence of any valid evidence, the woman's demise was caused by an overdose of laudanum, a concentrated tincture of opium. Buchanan was prevented from attending the funeral service. In a letter to her father he wrote however, that "I feel happiness has fled from me forever."
After Coleman's death, Buchanan never courted any more women or seemed to show any emotional or physical interest. A rumour, without basis, circulated of an affair with the widow of President James K. Polk. It has been suggested that Anne's death in fact served to deflect awkward questions about his sexuality and bachelorhood. While Buchanan may have been asexual or celibate, there are many indicators that suggest he was perhaps homosexual. The argument has been put forward by biographer Jean Baker, supported by Shelley Ross. Meanwhile, Gail Collins has claimed him as the first homosexual U.S. president.
The day before Buchanan's death, Buchanan predicted that "history will vindicate my memory". Nevertheless, historians criticize Buchanan for his unwillingness or inability to act in the face of secession. Historical rankings of United States Presidents, considering presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures and faults, consistently place Buchanan among the least successful presidents. In an academic poll of 47 British academics specializing in American history and politics in 2011 it was reported that he came last (40th). They were asked to evaluate the performance of every president from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, both of whom died shortly after taking office) in five categories: vision/agenda-setting, domestic leadership, foreign policy leadership, moral authority and positive historical significance of their legacy.
Buchanan is remembered today for other missed opportunities rather than any significant accomplishments. He vetoed the Morrill Act and the Homestead Act, both of which Lincoln signed into law only a few years later, and which would proved to be two of the most influential pieces of legislation passed in the United States in the nineteenth century. The Homestead Act accelerated westward expansion, while the Morrill Act accelerated agricultural and engineering research and education to develop the young nation.
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