The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Buchanan, James

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820649The Encyclopedia Americana — Buchanan, James

BUCHANAN, James, 15th President of the United States: b. near Mercersburg, Pa., 23 April 1791; d. at Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pa., 1 June 1868. The Buchanans were a Scotch-Irish family of recent migration; James was the second of 11 children. He received a good education for that time in the schools of Mercersburg and at Dickinson College, where he was graduated at the age of 19. He then studied law in an office in Lancaster, and at the age of 21 was admitted to the bar. He practised his profession very little, for almost all of his mature life was spent in the public service of the State or of the United States. His public life began in 1814 with his election to the Pennsylvania legislature where he served two terms. In 1821 he began a 10-year period of service in Congress; in 1832-33 he was Minister to Russia; from 1834-44 he was United States senator from Pennsylvania; under President Polk he was Secretary of State, 1845-49; under President Pierce he was Minister to England, 1853-56; and from 1857 to 1861 he was President, the last Democratic President for 24 years. Before he became President his experience had been mainly in legislative service and in diplomacy. During the short periods when not in office his time was yet given largely to public matters and he continued a keen interest in current political problems.

In part his absorption in politics was probably due to the lack of close family ties; he was never married, his fiancée having died just before the time set for the wedding. There was a large family connection, but none of them except a niece, Harriet Lane, appears to have come much into his life. He was quiet, well-mannered; a conservative gentleman of the old school whose only ambition was to serve the state. He began his public career as a Federalist, and as a Federalist he was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature and to Congress. He criticised severely the Democratic-Republican conduct of the War of 1812, but urged its continuance to a victorious end, and even enrolled himself in the militia, though he was not called into service. Monroe's veto message on the internal improvement bill first called his attention to the political complications involved in the nature of the Federal Union. Buchanan then began a study of American constitutional law with the result that he gradually became a Democrat, a believer in the “strict construction” of the United States constitution and in the “reserved rights” of the States. It is difficult for one of the 20th century to understand the conscientious devotion of some early American statesmen to the letter of the law without much regard to the changing social conditions back of the law. But it was an age of lawyers; nearly all statesmen and politicians were trained in law, and naturally their views of government were legalistic and theoretical.

Buchanan's 20-year record as congressman and senator was one of useful but not of brilliant service. In the House his principal service was on the judiciary committee, of which he became chairman in 1829 and which under him was credited with having accomplished needed reforms of the Federal judiciary. In general he supported the policies of President Jackson, both financial and foreign, but an increasing tendency on his part toward “strict construction” is noticeable. He opposed a Federal bankruptcy law because of its tendency toward political consolidation and he believed it would injure the character of the farming class if the latter were able to disburden themselves of obligations under the law. He objected to protective tariffs because they were at the expense of the agricultural industry. When the controversies arose over anti-slavery petitions Buchanan voted to receive them, since to do so was plainly prescribed by the United States constitution, but on the other hand he held that Congress had the authority to keep incendiary anti-slavery literature out of the mails and should exercise this right. When President Tyler broke with the Whig party and an attack was made upon his use of the veto power, Buchanan was found defending the President's constitutional right to influence legislation by the veto. As senator he held that the State legislature had the right to instruct him to vote on all important questions. In a Senate which contained Clay, Calhoun and Webster, Buchanan was known as one of the useful, working members, but he scarcely attained the first rank.

Buchanan's first connection with foreign affairs was as Minister to Russia in 1832-33. At Jackson's request he retired from Congress to undertake negotiation of treaties with Russia. He was well received and well liked at the Russian capital, and succeeded in arranging a commercial treaty. Disliking the formal etiquette of the court, he resigned and on his way home traveled in the western countries of Europe and in England. In 1844 he was named by the Pennsylvania Democrats as their candidate for the Presidency and this, added to his other qualifications, caused President Polk to make him Secretary of State. In this position he handled the Oregon Boundary Question (q.v.) and the foreign affairs connected with the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War (q.v.). Polk and Buchanan developed a vigorous foreign policy, especially concerning Latin-America, and in so doing came into conflict with England and Spain. Buchanan opposed the activities of England in Central America and in California and favored the restoration and strengthening of the Central American Federation in order to resist the encroachments of European powers. Believing that Cuba could not be held by Spain he offered $100,000,000 for the island. As Secretary of State Buchanan acquired a reputation as an able diplomat and left office firmly convinced that the most important foreign problem for the United States was the acquisition of Cuba. President Pierce, having before his inauguration sought Buchanan's advice in regard to foreign affairs, was so impressed with his views that he asked him to accept the English mission, thus practically accepting the latter's Latin-American policy. Buchanan accepted reluctantly because he had an eye to the presidential campaign of 1856 and because the position of the United States in the Central American matters had been embarrased by the Clayton-Bulwer treaty which in the previous Whig administration had reversed the policy of Buchanan and Polk. In London he was successful in securing a somewhat favorable interpretation of the treaty and also in a contention over British enlistment of soldiers in the United States. But Buchanan attained greater notoriety at this period by his connection with the so-called Ostend Manifesto (q.v.). The Pierce administration was anxious to acquire Cuba, and a new cause of trouble with Spain had arisen — the episode of the Black Warrior — so Secretary Marcy suggested that Buchanan, Soule, Minister to Spain, and Mason, Minister to France, should meet for a consultation over the Cuban situation. The result was the Ostend Manifesto, which was not made public, however, until the papers were called for by Congress. In this report the three ministers suggested that the United States should offer Spain $120,000,000 for the island and seize it if Spain refused, since Cuba as then governed was a dangerous nuisance from the American viewpoint.

Buchanan returned from England in 1856 to become a candidate for the Presidency. For years he had been considered as a presidential possibility, and in 1852 he was really the strongest candidate, though Pierce, “a dark horse,” received the Democratic nomination. He was stronger than ever with his party and in the country at large. He was moderate in his views on the slavery issue, and his attempts to secure Cuba had gained him some support in the South. Though he supported the legislation of 1850 and 1854 relating to the extension of slavery in the territories he had not been connected with any of the bitter controversies over those measures and their results in Kansas. Pierce now received the support of the majority of the Southern Democrats, but Buchanan was easily nominated by the pressure of the conservative Democrats, North and South, and at the last received the support of Douglas. He was undoubtedly the best candidate that the party could have selected. In the campaign that followed he emphasized the fact that the Democracy constituted a national party as against the new Republican party led by Fremont which was frankly sectional. In both sections Buchanan received the support of many Whigs whose party had been wrecked on the slavery question. He was elected President by 112 electoral votes from the South and 62 from the North, against 114 from the North for Fremont, and 8 from Maryland for Fillmore, the candidate of the American party. The result showed that the Democratic party was still a national one but that the danger of sectionalization was very great. Buchanan believed it to be his task to check this trend toward separation.

Buchanan's program as President was to settle the slavery question according to the principles of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska legislation of 1854, to supervise the conduct of foreign affairs himself, with a vigorous policy against European influence in Latin-American affairs, to acquire Cuba if possible, and to prevent any further alienation of North and South. But he was destined to fail in the most important of all.

He, as a legalist would do, expected to settle the Kansas troubles by accepting the Lecompton Constitution (q.v.) and the Dred Scott Decision (q.v.). But in this many of his party would not follow him and he finally broke with Douglas on the Kansas issue. His desire to acquire Cuba alienated many Northern Democrats and the Conservative Whigs who had supported him in 1856. Fires of the controversy over slavery fed by the stories from Kansas would not be extinguished; sectionalization proceeded rapidly; the John Brown raid in 1859 crystallized Southern and much Northern opinion; the break with Douglas split the Democratic party and in the elections of 1860 the sectional alignment was definite. Buchanan supported the Breckinridge ticket, believing that the South had been unwisely irritated by such measures as the “personal liberty” laws and by the violent anti-slavery agitation. Though his sympathies were with the South, he denied that the latter could find a remedy in secession from the Union in case of Lincoln's election. When it was known that Lincoln had been elected Buchanan expected that an attempt at secession would be made, but hoped that conservative influences in the South aided by a considerate attitude of the North would prevent it or confine the movement to a narrow area. His conduct of affairs during the last three months of his administration has been severely criticized. Even at this day it is impossible to arrive at a satisfactory estimate of his policy. When South Carolina began the secession movement on 20 Dec. 1860, his cabinet was almost evenly divided in sympathy between the North and South. He was intensely anxious to prevent civil war. He denied the possibility of peaceable secession but held that under the constitution and laws he had no power to force a State back into the Union. It would seem he confused the coercion of a State with the forcible administration of Federal law. He would hold and defend all Federal posts but would inaugurate no policy that might precipitate war. He asked Congress for legislation to deal with the situation but secured none, though the Republicans who controlled the lower house might have given it had they so desired. Even so, he appeared to believe that delay would undermine and weaken the secession movement. Consequently, he favored the Crittenden Compromise (q.v.), the Virginia Peace Convention (q.v.), and other measures designed to avoid the issue of civil war; though he refused to give any official recognition to the Confederacy. Changes in his cabinet during the last weeks brought in new advisers — Black, Dix, Stanton and Holt — who stiffened Buchanan's policy somewhat, but he was glad to turn over the administration with its responsibilities to Lincoln before war began. It is worth noting that for several weeks Lincoln made little change in policy. Buchanan retired to Wheatland, where he announced his support of Lincoln's administration and where he spent his last years writing a defense of his own administration. During these years he was vilified as if he were a traitor, and accused of cowardice and weakness of character; but in passing judgment one must remember that Buchanan, like Andrew Johnson and other notable Democrats of the strict constructionist school, was so firmly grounded in his political principles that it was hardly possible for him to act otherwise than as he did. Consult Buchanan, James, ‘Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion’ (New York 1866); Curtis, George Ticknor, ‘Life of President Buchanan’ (2 vols., New York 1883); Moore, John Bassett, ‘The Works of James Buchanan’ (12 vols., Philadelphia 1908-11); Rhodes, James Ford, ‘History of the United States, 1850-1871’ (Vols. I-III, New York 1907).

Walter L. Fleming,
Professor of History, Vanderbilt University.


Fifteenth President of the United States