The New International Encyclopædia/Buchanan, James
BUCHANAN, James (1791-1868). The fifteenth President of the United States (1857-1861). He was born near Mercersburg, Pa., April 23, 1791, graduated at Dickinson College in 1809, was educated for the bar, and began to practice law in Lancaster, Pa., in 1812. Though a professed Federalist, he served as a private in the second war with England. In 1814, as also in 1815, he was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, and in 1820 was elected to Congress, where he served through five terms. In 1828 he favored Jackson for President, and in the Congress of 1829-1831 made important proposals as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. After leaving Congress he was sent by Jackson as Minister to Russia, where he concluded the first commercial treaty between the two countries, securing valuable privileges in the Black and Baltic seas. Returning home in 1833, he was in the following year chosen to the United States Senate, to which he was twice reëlected. He uniformly supported Jackson, especially in the latter's claim that as President he had power to remove executive officers without reference to the Senate, and in his financial measures.
When it was proposed to exclude from Congress petitions for the abolition of slavery, Buchanan upheld the right of petition, but declared that Congress had no control over slavery in the States, and that petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia should be uniformly rejected. He favored the bill prohibiting the use of the mails for the distribution of abolitionist literature. He supported the ‘expunging resolution’ of Senator Benton, and in the affair of the American claims on France he supported Jackson's emphatic demand for payment, and his implied threat of war in case of a persistent refusal on the part of the French Government. During Van Buren's administration Buchanan supported the independent treasury scheme and favored the preemption of public lands.
He sustained the veto power under Tyler, and opposed the ratification of the Ashburton Treaty, which settled the dispute concerning the northeastern boundary. When the question of the annexation of Texas came to the Senate, Buchanan was the only member of the Senate Committee of Foreign Affairs to report in favor of annexation. He had declined the office of Attorney-General in 1839, and in 1844 was mentioned for the Presidency. Finally he left the Senate in 1845 to become Polk's Secretary of State. In this capacity he had to deal with the northwestern boundary question, whence arose the famous partisan cry “54° 40' or fight.” Both England and the United States had formally claimed the territory between the Pacific Coast and the Rocky Mountains up to the Russian boundary, but after much negotiation the line of 49° was agreed upon. During the war with Mexico Buchanan was successful in avoiding or preventing the interference of other nations. He was in private life during the discussion and adoption of the Compromise Measures of 1850, but fully approved them. When Pierce became President, in 1853, Buchanan was sent as Minister to Great Britain, where he was engaged in endeavors to settle a series of questions concerning Central American affairs. With J. Y. Mason and Pierre Soulé, he signed the Ostend Manifesto (q. v.), recommending the acquisition of Cuba, but although the measure was so evidently pro-slavery in tendency and unjust to Spain that it met with the disapproval of Marcy, the Secretary of State, nevertheless it helped Buchanan to gain the Democratic nomination for President, while his absence in England during the Kansas-Nebraska excitement was also in his favor, and he was nominated in 1856. The electoral vote was: For Buchanan, 174; for John C. Frémont (candidate of the newly organized Republican Party), 114; for Millard Fillmore (Native American), 8. The popular vote was: Buchanan, 1,838,169; Frémont, 1,341,264; Fillmore, 874,534; majority against Buchanan, 377,629; plurality for him. 496,905. He had the votes of every slaveholding State except Maryland, which went for Fillmore. The vote also gave Buchanan Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, California, and New Jersey. In the executive chair he was uniformly subservient to Southern politicians, and allowed their threats of secession to influence his actions. Among other acts of his administration were the temporary suppression of the Mormon troubles and the vetoing of the Homestead Bill. After Lincoln's election Buchanan was more than ever anxious to stifle the slavery discussion, and in his last message to Congress pointedly charged the North with having brought about the existing crisis in national affairs by a discussion which had “produced its malign influence on the slaves, and inspired them with a vague idea of freedom.” While holding that the States had no right to secede, he weakly added that the nation had no power to prevent it; for it could not employ force, he said, except upon the demand of the lawful authorities of the State, and in South Carolina no such authority then existed. A few days later he was confronted by commissioners from South Carolina (that State having passed an act of secession on December 20, 1860), who came to demand the surrender by the President to the seceded State of all public property, and to negotiate for the continuance of “peace and amity between that Commonwealth and the Government at Washington.” His reply was that he had no power, and could only refer the matter to Congress; he could only receive them as “private gentlemen of the highest character,” and treat respectfully such propositions as they might make. He did, however, decline to accede to their demand for the removal of the troops from Charleston Harbor. The Cabinet was immediately reorganized. Cass was Secretary of State, but resigned when the President refused to order reinforcements to the Charleston forts; the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of the Interior had already gone, and the Secretary of War also resigned. Under the influence of the reorganized Cabinet, including J. S. Black, John A. Dix, J. Holt, and E. M. Stanton, Buchanan displayed less timidity, attempted a reinforcement of Sumter, refused to surrender the United States property to South Carolina, and announced his intention to protect it i
t assailed, measures which gained for his administration, during its last months, more of the confidence of the nation. After the accession of Lincoln Mr. Buchanan wrote to John A. Dix: “The present administration had no alternative but to accept the war initiated by South Carolina or the Southern Confederacy. The North will sustain the administration almost to a man, and it ought to be sustained at all hazards.”
Buchanan's administration was marked by considerable activity in diplomatic affairs. He secured a satisfactory commercial treaty with China and the recognition by England of the rights of neutral ships. Relations with Mexico continued to be important as well as unsatisfactory. In his attitude toward the struggle in Kansas and his action upon the Lecompton Constitution (q. v.) Buchanan subjected himself to severe criticism. Shortly after his retirement, he published what may be termed a defense, entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (New York, 1866). The chief authority for his life is the Memoir by George Ticknor Curtis (2 vols., New York, 1883). In 1888 the messages of Mr. Buchanan were collected and published by J. Buchanan Henry, with an appendix containing a number of letters from members of his Cabinet at the close of his Presidential term (New York, 1888). He died in Lancaster, Pa., June 1, 1868. See United States.