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James Buchanan

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James Buchanan
James Buchanan.jpg
15th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Vice President John Breckinridge
Preceded by Franklin Pierce
Succeeded by Abraham Lincoln
United States Minister to the United Kingdom
In office
August 23, 1853 – March 15, 1856
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Joseph Ingersoll
Succeeded by George Dallas
17th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 10, 1845 – March 7, 1849
President James K. Polk
Preceded by John Calhoun
Succeeded by John Clayton
United States Senator
from Pennsylvania
In office
December 6, 1834 – March 5, 1845
Preceded by William Wilkins
Succeeded by Simon Cameron
United States Minister to Russia
In office
January 4, 1832 – August 5, 1833
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by John Randolph
Succeeded by Mahlon Dickerson
Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary
In office
March 5, 1829 – March 4, 1831
Preceded by Philip Pendleton Barbour
Succeeded by Warren R. Davis
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 4th district
In office
March 4, 1823 fr – March 4, 1831
Preceded by James Mitchell
Succeeded by William Hiester
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1821 – March 4, 1823
Preceded by Jacob Hibshman
Succeeded by Daniel Miller
Personal details
Born (1791-04-23)April 23, 1791
Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died June 1, 1868(1868-06-01) (aged 77)
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting place Woodward Hill Cemetery
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Dickinson College
Profession Lawyer
Religion Presbyterianism
Signature Cursive signature in ink
Military service
Service/branch Volunteer
Battles/wars War of 1812
Buchanan statue in National Portrait Gallery

James Buchanan, Jr. (English pronunciation: /bjuːˈkænən/; April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th President of the United States (1857–1861). He is the only president from Pennsylvania and the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor.

He represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House of Representatives and later the Senate and served as Minister to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. He was also Secretary of State under President James K. Polk. After he turned down an offer for an appointment to the Supreme Court, President Franklin Pierce appointed him minister to the Court of St. James', in which capacity he helped draft the controversial Ostend Manifesto.

Buchanan was nominated in the 1856 election. Throughout most of Franklin Pierce's term he was stationed in London as a minister to the Court of St. James' and therefore was not caught up in the crossfire of sectional politics that dominated the country. Buchanan was viewed by many as a compromise between the two sides of the slavery question. His subsequent election victory took place in a three-man race with John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore. As President, he was often called a " doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, who battled with Stephen A. Douglas for the control of the Democratic Party. Buchanan's efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South alienated both sides, and the Southern states declared their secession in the prologue to the American Civil War. Buchanan's view of record was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal. Buchanan, first and foremost an attorney, was noted for his mantra, "I acknowledge no master but the law."

When he left office, popular opinion had turned against him, and the Democratic Party had split in two. Buchanan had once aspired to a presidency that would rank in history with that of George Washington. However, his inability to impose peace on sharply divided partisans on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst Presidents. Historians in both 2006 and 2009 voted his failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made.

Early life

James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap (now Buchanan's Birthplace State Park), Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr. (1761–1821), a well-to-do businessman, merchant, and farmer, and Elizabeth Speer, a literate and smart woman (1767–1833). His parents were both of Ulster Scots descent, the father having emigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. He was the second of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. 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. Expelled at one point for poor behavior, after pleading for a second chance, he graduated with honours 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.

Political career

Buchanan began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814–1816, serving as a Federalist. He was elected to the 17th United States Congress and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1821 – March 4, 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 (24th through 26th Congresses).

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin in 1844, Buchanan was nominated in March 1845 by President Polk to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He declined that nomination because he felt compelled to complete his collaboration on the Oregon Treaty negotiations. The seat was 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 James 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.

Presidential election of 1856

Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage for Buchanan in each county.

The Democrats nominated Buchanan ("Old Public Functionary") in 1856, for president. He had been in England during the Kansas-Nebraska debate and thus remained untainted by either side of the issue. Pennsylvania, which had three times failed Buchanan, now gave its full support in its state convention. Though he never formally 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. Nathaniel Hawthorne, then serving as American Consul in Liverpool, recorded in his diary that Buchanan visited him in January 1855:

He returns to America, he says, next October, and then retires forever from public regards his prospects for the Presidency, [h]e said that his mind was fully made up, and that he would never be a candidate, and that he had expressed this decision to his friends in such a way as to put it out of his own power to change it....that it was now too late, and that he was too old...although, really, he is the only Democrat, at this moment, whom it would not be absurd to talk of for the office.....I wonder whether he can have had any object in saying all this to me. He might see that it would be perfectly natural for me to tell it to General Pierce.

Jonathan Foltz told Buchanan in November 1855: "The people have taken the next presidency out of the hands of the politicians...the people and not your political friends will place you there." While Buchanan did not overtly seek the office, he most deliberately chose not to discourage the movement on his behalf, something that was well within his power on many occasions.

An anti-Buchanan political cartoon from the 1856 election

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 4, 1857, to March 4, 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 what the decision would be.

Presidency 1857–1861

Inauguration of James Buchanan, March 4, 1857, from a photograph by John Wood. Buchanan's Inauguration was the first one to be recorded in photographs.

Dred Scott case

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 had written 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 10 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 then told Buchanan what the forthcoming result would be. Abraham Lincoln denounced him as an accomplice of the Slave Power, a supposed conspiracy to eliminate legal barriers to slavery.

Chaos in Kansas; Buchanan breaks with Stephen Douglas

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 (see " Bleeding Kansas").

The anti-slavery settlers organized a government in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton. 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 getting a constitution approved. Walker, who was from Mississippi, was expected to assist the pro-slavery faction in getting their Lecompton Constitution approved. However, most Kansas settlers were Free-Soilers. The Lecomptonites held a referendum with trick terms (which the Free-Soiler majority boycotted), and claimed their constitution was adopted. Walker resigned in disgust.

Nonetheless, Buchanan now pushed for Congressional approval of Kansas statehood under the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan made every effort, legal or not, 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 would choose to re-elect him or not. 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.

Buchanan's political views

James Buchanan (1859) by George Healy as seen in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Buchanan considered the essence of good self-government to be founded on restraint. The constitution he considered to be "...restraints, imposed not by arbitrary authority, but by the people upon themselves and their representatives... In an enlarged view, the people's interests may seem identical, but "to the eye of local and sectional prejudice, they always appear to be conflicting ... and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution."

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."

Nevertheless, in deference to the intentions of the typical slaveholder, he was quick to provide the benefit of much doubt. In his third annual message Buchanan claimed that the slaves were "treated with kindness and humanity... Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result".

Historian Kenneth Stampp wrote: "Shortly after his election, he assured a southern Senator that the "great object" of his administration would be "to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question in the North and to destroy sectional parties. Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain." In the northern anti-slavery idiom of his day, Buchanan was often considered a " doughface", a northern man with southern principles.

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 favour 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 honour of religion. If I were to unite with the church now, they would say 'hypocrite' from Maine to Georgia."

Panic of 1857

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.

Utah War

In March 1857, Buchanan received conflicting reports from federal judges in the Utah Territory that their offices had been disrupted and they had been driven from their posts by the Mormons. He knew that the Pierce administration had refused to facilitate Utah's being granted statehood and the Mormons feared the loss of their property rights. Accepting the wildest rumors and believing the Mormons to be in open rebellion against the United States, Buchanan sent the Army in November of that year to replace Brigham Young as Governor with the non-Mormon Alfred Cumming. While the Mormons' defiance of federal authority in the past had become traditional, some question whether Buchanan's action was a justifiable or prudent response to uncorroborated reports. Complicating matters, Young's notice of his replacement was not delivered because the Pierce administration had annulled the Utah mail contract. After Young reacted to the military action by mustering a two-week expedition destroying wagon trains, oxen and other Army property, Buchanan dispatched Thomas L. Kane as a private agent to negotiate peace. The mission succeeded, the new governor was shortly placed in office, and the Utah War ended. The President granted amnesty to all inhabitants who would respect the authority of the government, and moved the federal troops to a non-threatening distance for the balance of his administration.

Partisan deadlock

The division between northern and southern Democrats allowed the Republicans to win a plurality in the House in the election of 1858. Their control of the chamber allowed the Republicans to block most of Buchanan's agenda (including his proposals for expansion of influence in Central America, and for the purchase of Cuba). Buchanan thought the ideologies of the United States would bring peace and prosperity to these neighboring lands as they had in the Northwest and that without U.S. influence, the major European powers would intervene. The imperative of safe and speedy travel from east to west was of strategic importance to the country. These goals would not be reached. Buchanan, in turn, vetoed six substantial pieces of Republican legislation, causing further hostility between Congress and the White House.

Covode Committee

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 17 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 didn't 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.

Disintegration: election of 1860

John C. Breckinridge, Vice President of the United States under Buchanan

Sectional strife rose to such a pitch that the Democratic Party's national convention in 1860 led directly to a schism in the Party. Buchanan played little part at the national convention, meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. The southern wing walked out of the convention and nominated its own candidate for the presidency, incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge. Another faction nominated former Speaker of the House John Bell, who took no position on slavery; his only focus was on saving the Union. The remainder of the party finally nominated Buchanan's archenemy, Stephen Douglas. For his part, President Buchanan supported Breckinridge's candidacy. When the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a near certainty that he would be elected.

As early as October, the army's Commanding General, Winfield Scott, warned Buchanan that Lincoln's election would likely cause at least seven states to secede. He also recommended to Buchanan that massive amounts of federal troops and artillery be deployed to those states to protect federal property, although he also warned that few reinforcements were available (Congress had since 1857 failed to heed both men's calls for a stronger militia and had allowed the Army to fall into deplorable condition.) Buchanan, however, distrusted Scott (the two had long been political adversaries) and ignored his recommendations. After Lincoln's election, Buchanan directed War Secretary Floyd to reinforce southern forts with such provisions, arms and men as were available; however, Floyd convinced him to revoke the order.

With Lincoln's victory, talk of secession and disunion reached a boiling point. Buchanan was forced to address it in his final message to Congress. Both factions awaited news of how Buchanan would deal with the question. In his message, Buchanan denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the federal government legally could not prevent them. He placed the blame for the crisis solely on "intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States", and suggested that if they did not "repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments ... the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union." Buchanan's only suggestion to solve the crisis was "an explanatory amendment" reaffirming the constitutionality of slavery in the states, the fugitive slave laws, and popular sovereignty in the territories. His address was sharply criticized both by the north, for its refusal to stop secession, and the south, for refuting its right to secede. Five days after the address was delivered, Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb resigned, feeling that his views and the President's had become irreconcilable.

Columbia as Little Bo Peep; her lost sheep are the Southern states. Buchanan as "dog buck" tries in vain to herd states back into the Union.

Efforts were made by statesmen such as Sen. John J. Crittenden, Rep. Thomas Corwin, and former president John Tyler to negotiate a compromise to stop secession, with Buchanan's support; all failed. Failed efforts to compromise were also made by a group of governors meeting in New York. Buchanan employed a last-minute tactic, in secret, to bring a solution. He attempted in vain to procure President-elect Lincoln's call for a constitutional convention or national referendum to resolve the issue of slavery. Lincoln declined.

South Carolina declared its secession on December 20, 1860, followed by six other slave states, and, by February 1861, they had formed the Confederate States of America. As Scott had surmised, the secessionist governments declared eminent domain over federal property within their states; Buchanan and his administration took no action to stop the confiscation of government property.

Beginning in late December, Buchanan reorganized his cabinet, ousting Confederate sympathizers and replacing them with hard-line nationalists Jeremiah S. Black, Edwin M. Stanton, Joseph Holt and John A. Dix. These conservative Democrats strongly believed in American nationalism and refused to countenance secession. At one point, Treasury Secretary Dix ordered Treasury agents in New Orleans, "If any man pulls down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." The new cabinet advised Buchanan to request from Congress the authority to call up militias and give himself emergency military powers, and this he did, on January 8, 1861. Nevertheless, by that time Buchanan's relations with Congress were so strained that his requests were rejected out of hand.

Fort Sumter

Before Buchanan left office, all arsenals and forts in the seceding states were lost (except Fort Sumter, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and three island outposts in Florida), and a fourth of all federal soldiers surrendered to the Texas militia. Knowing that secessionist fervor was strongest in South Carolina, Buchanan made a quiet pact with South Carolina's legislators that he would not reinforce the Charleston garrison in exchange for no interference from the state. However, Buchanan did not inform the Charleston commander, Major Robert Anderson, of the agreement, and on December 26 Anderson violated it by moving his command to Fort Sumter. Southerners responded with a demand that Buchanan remove Anderson, while northerners demanded support for the commander. On December 31, in an apparent panic and without consulting Anderson, Buchanan ordered reinforcements.

On January 5, Buchanan sent civilian steamer Star of the West to carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter, which, located in Charleston harbour, was a conspicuously visible spot in the Confederacy. On January 9, 1861, South Carolina state batteries opened fire on the ship, causing it to withdraw and return to New York. Buchanan was again criticized by both north (for lack of retaliation against the hostile South Carolina batteries) and south (for attempting to reinforce Fort Sumter), further alienating both factions. Paralyzed, Buchanan made no further moves either to prepare for war or to avert it.

On Buchanan's final day as president, March 4, 1861, he remarked to the incoming Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man."

Presidential cabinet

The Buchanan Cabinet
Office Name Term
President James Buchanan 1857–1861
Vice President John C. Breckinridge 1857–1861
Secretary of State Lewis Cass 1857–1860
Jeremiah S. Black 1860–1861
Secretary of Treasury Howell Cobb 1857–1860
Philip Francis Thomas 1860–1861
John Adams Dix 1861
Secretary of War John B. Floyd 1857–1860
Joseph Holt 1860–1861
Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black 1857–1860
Edwin M. Stanton 1860–1861
Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown 1857–1859
Joseph Holt 1859–1860
Horatio King 1861
Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey 1857–1861
Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson 1857–1861
President Buchanan and his Cabinet
From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)

Judicial appointments

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.

States admitted to the Union

  • Minnesota – May 11, 1858
  • Oregon – February 14, 1859
  • Kansas – January 29, 1861

Final years

Buchanan in his later years

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 1, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.


The day before Buchanan's death he predicted that "history will vindicate my memory." Nevertheless, historians continue to 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 specialising in American history and politics in 2011 it was reported that he came last (40th). They "were asked to rate the performance of every president from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both 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 biographer Philip Klein puts these rankings into context: "Buchanan assumed leadership ... when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement. His weaknesses in the stormy years of his presidency were magnified by enraged partisans of the North and South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents, were quickly overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of civil war and by the towering Abraham Lincoln."

However, Buchanan's contemporaries similarly criticized him. James K. Polk confided to his diary: "Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matter without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid." The National Intelligencer, the leading Whig newspaper of the day ridiculed Buchanan on January 24, 1859, for his follies, citing a series of his "magnificent" proposals that all failed:

We must retrench the extravagant list of magnificent schemes which received the sanction of the Executive ... the great Napoleon himself, with all the resources of an empire at his sole command, never ventured the simultaneous accomplishments of so many daring projects. The acquisition of Cuba ... ; the construction of a Pacific Railroad ... ; a Mexican protectorate, the international preponderance in Central America, in spite of all the powers of Europe; the submission of distant South American states; ... the enlargement of the Navy; a largely increased standing Army ... what government on earth could possibly meet all the exigencies of such a flood of innovations?

A bronze and granite memorial residing near the Southeast corner of Washington, D.C.'s Meridian Hill Park was designed by architect William Gorden Beecher and sculpted by Maryland artist Hans Schuler. Commissioned in 1916 but not approved by the U.S. Congress until 1918, and not completed and unveiled until June 26, 1930, the memorial features a statue of Buchanan bookended by male and female classical figures representing law and diplomacy, with the engraved text reading: "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law", a quote from a member of Buchanan's cabinet, Jeremiah S. Black.

Buchanan memorial, Washington, D.C.

The memorial in the nation's capital complemented an earlier monument, constructed in 1907–08 and dedicated in 1911, on the site of Buchanan's birthplace in Stony Batter, Pennsylvania. Part of the original 18.5-acre (75,000 m2) memorial site, is a 250-ton pyramid structure which stands on the site of the original cabin where Buchanan was born. The monument was designed to show the original weathered surface of the native rubble and mortar.

Three counties are named in his honour: Buchanan County, Iowa, Buchanan County, Missouri, and Buchanan County, Virginia. Another in Texas was christened in 1858 but renamed Stephens County, after the newly elected Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, in 1861.


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