The Life of James Buchanan, Fifteenth President of the United States

Curtis, George Ticknor. The Life of James Buchanan, Fifteenth President of the United States. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883.
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    George Ticknor Curtis, Life of James Buchanan Fifteenth President of the United States (New York: Harper and Brothers, Franklin Square, 1883): 1-8.
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    AUTOBIOGRAPIIY, when it exists, usually furnishes the most interesting and reliable information of at least the  early life of any man. Among the papers of Mr. Buchanan,  there remains a fragment of an autobiography, without date,  written however, it is supposed, many years before his death. This sketch, for it is only a sketch, ends with the year 1816,  when he was at the age of twenty-five. I shall quote from it, in connection with the events of this part of his life, adding such further elucidations of its text as the other materials within my reach enable me to give.

    The following is the account which Mr. Buchanan gives of his birth and parentage:

    "My father, James Buchanan, was a native of the county Donegal, in the kingdom of Ireland. His family was respectable; but their pecuniary circumstances were limited. He emigrated to the United States before the date of the Definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain; having sailed from in the brig Providence, bound for Philadelphia, in 1783. He was then in the twenty-second year of his age. Immediately after his arrival in Philadelphia, he proceeded to the house of his maternal uncle, Mr. Joshua Russel, in York county. After spending a short time there, he became an assistant in the store of Mr. John Tom, at Stony Batter, a country place at the foot of the North Mountain, then in Cumberland (now in Franklin county.) "

    “He commenced business for himself, at the same place, about the beginning of the year 1788; and on the 16th of April, in the same year, was married to Elizabeth Speer. My father was a man of practical judgment, and of great industry and perseverance. He had received a good English education, and had that kind of knowledge of mankind which prevented him from being ever deceived in his business. With these qualifications, with the facility of obtaining goods on credit at Baltimore at that early period, and with the advantages of his position, it being one of a very few spots where the people of the western counties came with pack horses loaded with wheat to purchase and carry home salt and other necessaries, his circumstances soon improved. He bought the Dunwoodie farm for £1500 in 1794, and had previously purchased the property on which he resided at the Cove Gap. "

    “I was born at this place on the 23d of April, 1791, being my father's second child. My father moved from the Cove Gap to Mercersburg, a distance of between three and four miles, in the autumn of 1796, and began business in Mercersburg in the autumn of 1798. For some years before his death, which occurred on the 11th of June, 1821, he had quite a large mercantile business, and devoted much of his time and attention to superintending his farm, of which he was very fond. He was a man of great native force of character. He was not only respected, but beloved by everybody who approached him. In his youth, he held the commission of a justice of the peace; but finding himself so overrun with the business of this office as to interfere with his private affairs, he resigned his commission. A short time before his death, he again received a commission of the peace from Governor Hiester. He was a kind father, a sincere friend, and an honest and religious man.

    "My mother, considering her limited opportunities in early life, was a remarkable woman. The daughter of a country farmer, engaged in household employment from early life until after my father's death, she yet found time to read much, and to reflect deeply on what she read. She had a great fondness for poetry, and could repeat with ease all the passages in her favorite authors which struck her fancy. These were Milton, Pope, Young, Cowper, and Thomson. I do not think, at least until a late period of her life, she had ever read a criticism on any one of these authors, and yet such was the correctness of her natural taste that she had selected for herself, and could repeat, every passage in them which has been admired. "

    "She was a sincere and devoted Christian from the time of my earliest recollection, and had read much on the subject of theology; and what she read once, she remembered forever. For her sons, as they successively grew up, she was a delightful and instructive companion. She would argue with them, and often gain the victory; ridicule them in any folly or eccentricity; excite their ambition, by presenting to them in glowing colors men who had been useful to their country or their kind, as objects of imitation, and enter into all their joys and sorrows. Her early habits of laborious industry, she could not be induced to forego—whilst she had anything to do. My father did everything he could to prevent her from laboring in her domestic concerns, but it was all in vain. I have often, during the vacations at school or college, sat in the room with her, and whilst she was (entirely from her own choice) busily engaged in homely domestic employments, have spent hours pleasantly and instructively in conversing with her. She was a woman of great firmness of character and bore the afflictions of her later life with Christian philosophy. After my father's death, she lost her two sons, William and George Washington, two young men of great promise, and a favorite daughter. These afflictions withdrew her affections gradually more and more from the things of this world—and she died on the 14th of May, 1833, at Greensburg, in the calm but firm assurance that she was going home to her Father and her God. It was chiefly to her influence that her sons were indebted for a liberal education. Under Providence, I attribute any little distinction which I may have acquired in the world to the blessing which He conferred upon me in granting me such a mother."

    The parents of Mr. Buchanan were both of Scotch-Irish descent, and Presbyterians. At what time this branch of the Buchanan family emigrated from Scotland to Ireland is not known ; but John Buchanan, the grandfather of the President, who was a farmer in the county of Donegal in Ireland, married Jane Russel, about the middle of the last century. She was a daughter of Samuel Russel, who was also a farmer of Scotch-Presbyterian descent in the same county. James Buchanan,  their son, and father of the President, was brought up by his mother's relatives. Elizabeth Speer, the President's mother, was the only daughter of James Speer, who was also of Scotch-Presbyterian ancestry, and who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1756. James Speer and his wife (Mary Patterson) settled at first on a farm ten miles from Lancaster, and afterwards at the foot of the South Mountain between Chambersburg and Gettysburg.  It is told in some memoranda which now lie before me, that in 1779, James Speer left the "Covenanted Church," on account of difficulties with Mr. Dobbins, his pastor, and was afterwards admitted to full communion in the Presbyterian congregation under the care of the Rev. John Black. This incident sufficiently indicates the kind of religious atmosphere in which Mrs. Buchanan grew up; and the letters of both parents to their son, from which I shall have occasion to quote frequently, afford abundant evidence of that deep and peculiar piety which characterized the sincere Christians of their denomination. They were married on the 16th of April, 1788, when Mrs. Buchanan was just twenty-one, and her husband twenty- seven. Eleven children were born to them between 1789 and 1811.  James, the future President, was born April 23d, 1791.

    Of his early education and his college life, he gives this account : "After having received a tolerably good English education, I studied the Latin and Greek languages at a school in Mercersburg.  It was first kept by the Rev. James R. Sharon, then a student of divinity with Dr. John King, and afterwards by a Mr. McConnell and Dr. Jesse Magaw, then a student of medicine, and subsequently my brother-in-law.  I was sent to Dickinson College in the fall of 1807, where I entered the junior class. "

    "The college was in a wretched condition; and I have often regretted that I had not been sent to some other institution. There was no efficient discipline, and the young men did pretty much as they pleased. To be a sober, plodding, industrious youth was to incur the ridicule of the mass of the students.  Without much natural tendency to become dissipated, and chiefly from the example of others, and in order to be considered a clever and a spirited youth, I engaged in every sort of extravagance and mischief in which the greatest proficients of the college indulged. Unlike the rest of this class, however, I was always a tolerably hard student, and never was deficient in my college exercises."
    "A circumstance occurred, after I had been a year at college, which made a strong and lasting impression upon me. During the September vacation, in the year 1808, on a Sabbath morning, whilst I was sitting in the room with my father, a letter was brought to him. lHe opened it, and read it, and I observed that his countenance fell. He then handed it to me and left the room, and I do not recollect that he ever afterwards spoke to me on the subject of it.  It was from Dr. Davidson, the Principal of Dickinson College.  He stated that, but for the respect which the faculty entertained for my father, I would have been expelled from college on account of disorderly conduct. That they had borne with me as best they could until that period; but that they would not receive me again, and that the letter was written to save him the mortification of sending me back and having me rejected. Mortified to the soul, I at once determined upon my course.  Dr. John King was at the time pastor of the congregation to which my parents belonged. He came to that congregation shortly after the Revolution, and continued to be its pastor until his death. He had either married or baptized all its members. He participated in their joys as well as their sorrows, and had none of the gloomy bigotry which too often passes in these days for superior sanctity. He was, I believe, a trustee of the college, and enjoyed great and extensive influence wherever he was known. To him I applied with the greatest confidence in my extremity. He gave me a gentle lecture—the more efficient on that account. He then proposed to me, that if I would pledge my honor to him to behave better at college than I had done, he felt such confidence in me that he would pledge himself to Dr. Davidson on my behalf, and he did not doubt that I would be permitted to return. I cheerfully complied with this condition; Dr. King arranged the matter, and I returned to college, without any questions being asked; and afterwards conducted myself in such a manner as, at least, to prevent any formal complaint. At the public examination, previous to the commencement, I answered without difficulty every question which was propounded to me. At that time there were two honors conferred by the college. It was the custom for each of the two societies to present a candidate, and the faculty decided which of them should have the first honor, and the second was conferred upon the other candidate as a matter of course. I had set my heart upon obtaining the highest, and the society to which I belonged unanimously presented me as their candidate. As I believed that this society, from the superior scholarship of its members, was entitled to both, on my motion we presented two candidates to the faculty. The consequence was, that they rejected me altogether, gave the first honor to the candidate of the opposite society, and the second to
    Mr. Robert Laverty, now of Chester county, assigning as a reason for rejecting my claims that it would have a bad tendency to confer an honor of the college upon a student who had shown so little respect as I had done for the rules of the college and for the professors. "

    "I have scarcely ever been so much mortified at any occurrence of my life as at this disappointment, nor has friendship ever been manifested towards me in a more striking manner than by all the members of the society to which I belonged. Mr. Laverty, at once, in the most kind manner, offered to yield me the second honor, which, however, I declined to accept. The other members of the society belonging to the senior class would have united with me in refusing to speak at the approaching commencement, but I was unwilling to place them in this situation on my account, and more especially as several of them were designed for the ministry. I held out myself for some time, but at last yielded on receiving a kind communication from the professors. I left college, however, feeling but little attachment towards the Alma Mater."

    In regard to the danger of his expulsion from the college, which Mr. Buchanan has frankly recorded in his autobiographical fragment, I find no other reference to it. But I have seen in the note-books of his studies and in the notes which he kept of lectures that he attended, abundant proof that he was, as he says, " a tolerably hard student."  He seems to have had a strong propensity to logic and metaphysics, and of these studies there are copious traces in his own handwriting. The incident which he relates concerning his disappointment in not receiving one of the highest of the college honors at his graduating commencement, is thus touched upon in a letter from his father:

    MERCERSBURG, September 6, 1809.
    DEAR Son:—
    Yours is at hand (though without date) which mortifies us very much for your disappointment, in being deprived of both honors of the college, especially when your prospect was so fair for one of them, and more so when it was done by the professors who are acknowledged by the world to be the best judges of the talents and merits of the several students under their care. I am not disposed to censure your conduct in being ambitious to have the first honors of the college; but as it was thought that Mr. F. and yourself were best entitled to them, you and he ought to have compounded the matter so as to have left it to the disposition of your several societies, and been contented with their choice. The partiality you complain of in the professors is, no doubt, an unjust thing in them, and perhaps it has proceeded from some other cause than that which you are disposed to ascribe to them.

    Often when people have the greatest prospects of temporal honor and aggrandizement, they are all blasted in a moment by a fatality connected with men and things; and no doubt the designs of Providence may be seen very conspicuously in our disappointments, in order to teach us our dependency on Him who knows all events, and they ought to humble our pride and self-sufficiency I think it was a very partial decision, and calculated to hurt your feelings. Be that as it will, I hope you will have fortitude enough to surmount these things. Your great consolation is in yourself, and if you can say your right was taken from you by a partial spirit and given to those to whom it ought not to be given, you must for the present submit. The more you know of mankind, the more you will distrust them. It is said the knowledge of mankind and the distrust of them are reciprocally connected…..

    I approve of your conduct in being prepared with an oration, and if upon delivery it be good sense, well spoken, and your own composition, your audience will think well of it whether it be spoken first, or last, or otherwise…..

    We anticipate the pleasure of seeing you shortly, when I hope all those little clouds will be dissipated.
    From your loving and affectionate father,

    Following Mr. Buchanan's sketch of his early life, we come to the period immediately after he graduated from Dickinson College.

    "I came to Lancaster to study law with the late Mr. Hopkins, in the month of December, 1809, and was admitted to practice in November, 1812. I determined that if severe application would make me a good lawyer, I should not fail in this particular; and I can say, with truth, that I have never known a harder student than I was at that period of my life. I studied law, and nothing but law, or what was essentially connected with it. I took pains to understand thoroughly, as far as I was capable, everything which I read; and in order to fix it upon my memory and give myself the habit of extempore speaking, I almost every evening took a lonely walk, and embodied the ideas which I had acquired during the day in my own language. This gave me a habit of extempore speaking, and that not merely words but things. I derived great improvement from this practice."

    It would seem that young Buchanan remained at home with his parents after he had graduated until the month of December, when he went to Lancaster and entered himself as a student at law, in the office of Mr. Hopkins. The following letters from his parents give all that I am able to glean respecting the period of his law pupilage, and the choice of a permanent residence after he had been admitted to practice, which was, it seems, in November, 1812.

    March 12, 1810.
    …….I am very glad to hear you are so well pleased with Lancaster, and with the study of the law.

    …….I hope you will guard against the temptations that may offer themselves in this way, or any other, knowing that without religion all other things are as trifles, and will soon pass away. Your young acquaintances often talk of you, and with respect and esteem. Go on with your studies, and endeavor to be eminent in your profession.

    Mr. Buchanan was admitted to the bar in the year which saw the commencement of the war with Great Britain, under the Presidency of Mr. Madison. His early political principles were those of the Federalists, who disapproved of the war. Yet, as the following passages in his autobiography show, he was not backward in his duty as a citizen:

    "The first public address I ever made before the people was in 1814, a short time after the capture of Washington by the British. In common with the Federalists, generally, of the Middle and Southern States, whilst I disapproved of the declaration of war under the circumstances in which it was made, yet I thought it was the duty of every patriot to defend the country, whilst the war was raging, against a foreign enemy. The capture of Washington lighted up a flame of patriotism which pervaded the whole of Pennsylvania. A public meeting was called in Lancaster for the purpose of adopting measures to obtain volunteers to march for the defence of Baltimore. On that occasion I addressed the people, and was among the first to register my name as a volunteer. We immediately formed a company of dragoons, and elected the late Judge Henry Shippen our captain. We marched to Baltimore, and served under the command of Major Charles Sterret Ridgely, until we were honorably discharged. This company of dragoons was the avant courier of the large force which rushed from Pennsylvania to the defence of Baltimore."

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