Back to top

James Buchanan (Ellis, 1897)

Reference

Edward Sylvester Ellis, J.O. Hall, Lives of the Presidents of the United States (Chicago: A. Flanagan Company, 1897), 129-137.

JAMES BUCHANAN.
FIFTEENTH PRESIDENT.—1857-1861.
James Buchanan was born near Mercersburg, Pa., April 23, 1791. He received his early education at the school near his home, and, entering Dickinson College, was graduated at the age of eighteen [eighteen]. He took up the study of law, and, being admitted to the bar, opened an office in Lancaster, in 1812. Although the fifteenth President is not generally regarded as a military man, yet he made an impassioned patriotic address to his townsmen, when the news of the capture of Washington reached Lancaster, and was among the first to enroll his name for the defense of Baltimore. Happily, perhaps, his services were not needed in the military branch, and so it is impossible to conjecture to what heights of fame he might have attained as a leader of soldiers and a creator of campaigns.

In the autumn of 1814, Mr. Buchanan was elected as a member of the State Legislature, and re-elected a second term, after which he gave his attention to the practice of his profession, in which he attained marked success. He was devotedly attached to a young lady, to whom he became engaged in marriage, but she died unexpectedly, and, true to her memory, Mr. Buchanan remained a bachelor to his death. To lessen his grief, he gave up his intention of withdrawing from politics, and, accepting a nomination for Congress, was elected in 1820.

He was classed as a Federalist, though he had been an ardent supporter of the war of 1812; but he entered Congress, it will be remembered, during the "era of good feeling," under Monroe. There was little sectional feeling at that time, the attentionof the country being turned to internal improvements and the development of its wonderful resources. He remained in Congress for ten years, which carried him into the first part of Jackson's administrations. He was a strong supporter of Jackson, who held him in so high esteem that, in 1831, he appointed him minister to Russia. He negotiated a treaty of commerce, and so won the good opinion of the Emperor that when he departed,in 1833, the Emperor asked him to request the President to send another minister just like him.

Few public men have been so continually in office as Mr. Buchanan. He had been at home a little more than a year, when, in December, 1834, he was appointed to the United States Senate. In that body he did not hesitate to measure swords with the greatest debaters, such as Clay, Webster and Benton, and he held his own against them. He continued loyal to President Jackson throughout his whole aggressive course, and was equally faithful to Van Buren, his successor.

Mr. Buchanan's first appointment to the Senate was to fill a vacancy, but the legislature re-elected him in 1837, it being the first time that such action had been taken by that body. Van Buren tendered the place of attorney-general to him, but he declined, preferring that of Senator, where he believed he could render more efficient service to the party in whose principles he believed. He was elected Senator for a third term, in 1843, and was put forward as the choice of Pennsylvania for the Presidential nomination in the year succeeding, but withdrew his name in order not to injure the chances of Polk.

When President Polk formed his Cabinet, he asked Mr. Buchanan to take the place of Secretary of State. He accepted and was called upon to meet two questions of the utmost delicacy and difficulty. The first was the settlement of the boundary dispute between Oregon and the British possessions. This was settled by treaty in 1846, which fixed the boundary as it is at present. Great Britain and the United States each gave up a part of its claim, and settled upon a middle line as the true boundary. The second was the questionrespecting the annexation of Texas. That, as already shown, resulted in the Mexican War, and finally in the acquisition of more territory by us than equalled [equaled] the area of the whole country at the close of the Revolution.

The election of 1848 resulted in the success of the Whigs, and Mr. Buchanan withdrew to Wheat-land, near Lancaster, where he had purchased a small estate and owned a house. He did not abate his interest in politics, but maintained a large correspondence with the political leaders of the country, his influence being very great. He warmly favored Clay's Compromise measures of 1850. He declared himself opposed to the continual slavery agitation in the North and insisted that the fugitive slave law should be strictly obeyed. His pleas on these questions, although ably put, were as useless as trying to whistle down the whirlwind.

The name of Mr. Buchanan was presented to the national convention, which, in 1852, placed Franklin Pierce in nomination. Naturally, Mr. Buchanan did all he could to bring about the election of Pierce. He took the ground that one of the most dangerous mistakes possible for Americans to make is to elect a man President for no other reason than that he had been successful in war.

President Pierce, upon assuming office, appointed Mr. Buchanan minister to England. He arrived in that country in August, 1853, and remained until the spring of 1856. He filled the responsible office with dignity, and was treated with distinguished courtesy by Queen Victoria and the representatives of Her Majesty's government. When Mr. Buchanan reached his native land, he was a personage of general interest, for many saw in him the next nominee of the Democratic party for the Presidency. He put forth no effort to secure the nomination, and did not believe it would go to him. He was nominated, however, and in the electoral college received 174 votes, to 114 cast for Fremont and 8 for Millard Fillmore.

President Buchanan's management of our foreign relations was remarkably successful, but the dreadful condition of our domestic affairs, with the black cloud of civil war overspreading the sky, riveted the attention of every one. Rapidly and inevitably the chasm opened between the two sections, and events seemed to unite to drive the North and South apart. In 1857, the Supreme Court rendered the Dred Scott Decision, as it was called. Dred Scott was a negro slave, whose master, a surgeon in the army, in the course of his duties, took him into one of the free States. Scott brought suit for his freedom on the ground that slavery was illegal in the State to which his owner had gone with him. Several varying decisions were made until finally the question passed up to the United States Supreme Court, the highest tribunal in the land. There were eight members of this Court, six of whom were slaveholders, and they agreed upon the decision, the other two dissenting.

This decision was to the effect that slaves were not persons, but property, and that a slave owner could take them wherever he chose in the Union, without losing ownership in them, and, furthermore, Congress had no right to forbid slavery in any of the Territories. It followed, as a consequence, that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and that a slave owner could go Boston, New York, Philadelphia or any part of the free States, with his slaves, and that he would not forfeit his rights in them any more than if they were so many cattle or a part of his household furniture.

This decision was gratifying to the South, but so abhorrent to the North that it refused to accept or be bound by it. Many northern Democrats ceased to affiliate with the southern wing. They clearly saw that no more northern elections could be carried upon that issue. Some of them joined the Republicans, who rapidly increased in numbers. Others rallied round Douglas, who argued that the Dred Scott Decision did not mean as much as the southern Democrats claimed. Politics were more jumbled than ever, and it looked as if the whole country was going to ruin.

John Brown, born in 1800, in Connecticut, was a fanatic on the subject of slavery. He and his sons had taken an aggressive part in the fierce warfare in Kansas, on the side of freedom. He formed the wild scheme of freeing all the slaves in the South, by inciting them to rise against their masters. He fixed upon Harper's Ferry, in Virginia, as a good place to begin his crusade, and secretly gathered a small force opposite the town, one night in October, 1859. Crossing the river, they seized Harper's Ferry and took possession of the United States arsenal.

The startling news soon spread and a force of marines was sent from Washington under Colonel Robert E. Lee, who besieged Brown in an engine house, and after a desperate resistance, captured him. He and several of his men were placed on trial, found guilty and hanged at Charlestown, Va., December 2, 1859.

Although Brown was responsible alone for this act, yet the South believed it was an inevitable result of abolition agitation and many believed that leading Republicans had instigated the frightful attempt to array the slaves against their masters and their families. The breach yawned still wider between the North and South.

The political matters were so awry and topsyturvy that in the autumn of 1860, four tickets were placed in the presidential field. The American party nominated John Bell, of Tennessee, on the platform of "the Constitution, the Union and the enforcement of the laws." The northern Democrats put forward Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, who believed that each Territory should decide the question of slavery for itself, but they were willing to let the Supreme Court decide the question. The southern Democrats, with John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky, as their candidate, declared that the United States government should protect slavery in the Territories, whenever a slave owner went thither. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, and insisted that Congress should forbid slavery in the Territories.

In the electoral college, Lincoln received 180 votes, Breckinridge 72, Bell 39 and Douglas 12. During the remaining days of his term, President Buchanan did all he could to stem the swelling tide of disunion; but several members of his Cabinet were violent Secessionists and used every effort to strengthen the South and hasten the disruption of the Union. South Carolina seceded within the month following the election of Lincoln, and others did the same, until, by the 4th of March, 1861, seven States had declared themselves out of the Union.

Finally, President Buchanan laid down the cares of his most trying office and went to his home at Lancaster, where he died June 1, 1868.

Tabs

How to Cite This Page: "James Buchanan (Ellis, 1897)," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/14762.