James Buchanan – America’s 15th President
James Buchanan held a firm belief that the rights of the individual States should not be overruled by the Federal Government. This would ultimately lead him to become vilified in the nation’s history books. This would be exacerbated by his continued support of the Southern States and their belief in slavery.
Historians almost single-handedly lay the blame for the Civil War at his door. Due to his inability or unwillingness to address the issue of slavery and the South’s secession. The country spiraled into armed conflict within weeks of James Buchanan leaving office, in 1861.
Looking at the events and the sentiment that escalated, during those years prior, a civil war was probably inevitable. But, James Buchanan’s continued intervention and open support of the South and their views did not expunge him of blame.
A lifelong native of Pennsylvania, he went on to represent the State in various positions. Yet, James Buchanan’s focus was always fixed further down with the Southern States. His lack of support for the North and an open distrust of New England would ensure that the Northern States would always have a poor opinion of him.
Fortunately, he vowed to serve just one term. But in that short time in political office, he would exacerbate the nation’s fractious sentiment. This would plunge the country into a bitter and bloody war.
Political & Diplomatic Career Begins
In 1809, after building a strong local practice as a lawyer he would enter politics. In 1814, James Buchanan won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Six years later he would enter the Capitol and join the House of Representatives. Here he would quickly express support for Andrew Jackson and his political powers grew. During this time, he would assist in formulating the Democratic party as well as becoming the Ambassador to Russia.
The Pennsylvania State would elect James Buchanan as their Senator which he served for a decade. It would be during this time that his early sentiments became clear. His fervent belief in State rights led him to oppose all aspects of ‘Abolitionist” and anti-slavery action.
Though quietly trying to be a presidential nominee, the 1844 Democratic Candidate, and eventual winner, would be James Polk who offered James Buchanan the position of Secretary of State.
During the single term, they would almost double the landmass of the Union. Treaties were signed which brought more of the midwest and western areas of America under Federal control.
In 1848, he would try again for the Democratic candidacy but lost out and the party would lose the election as well. James Buchanan would return to his private life and concentrate on his legal practice.
For the following Democratic nomination, in 1852, he would try again. But though he had strong support from his “friendly” Southern States it would not be enough and he would lose out to Franklin Pierce. Democrats would win this election and President Pierce would appoint James Buchanan as Ambassador to the UK.
This would take James Buchanan out of the country for the next three years. During this time he would work on Polk’s behalf to extend the nation’s territory.
James Buchanan would become a Party favorite for the 1856 Democratic nomination. President Pierce was hoping for reelection and Stephen Douglas was another possible candidate. But powerful senators backing Buchanan felt he was the best candidate to appeal to both the North and the South. He would go on to win the candidacy but, in a bid to appease the other two camps, would put John Breckinridge on the ticket as Vice-President.
The election was a decisive victory for James Buchanan as he won 174 of the 296 Electoral votes and 45% of the popular vote. His victory speech was a foretaste of what was to come. He denounced the actions of the Republican Party and their “unfair actions” against the South. He vowed to restore harmony to the Union.
James Buchanan’s Inauguration speech would have an immediate and drastic effect on the issues of the day. He stated his abhorrence to the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories. He reiterated his firm belief that Congress should not get involved in such matters as this was the right of the State only to do as they wished. Also, he wanted to strengthen the legal rights of the slave-owners. So that even if their slaves would flee to a Free State they would still be perceived as belonging to them.
Scott vs Sandford
The Supreme Court was mulling over a case of this kind (Dred Scott), at that time. Within days of the speech, they would make their ruling in favor of the slave-owner. James Buchanan, maybe naively, thought this would be the end of the slavery issue and he could press on with more important matters. But, when Republicans would publish the fact of how much influence Buchanan had in the decision, it would have the opposite effect.
The appointment of his Cabinet reflected his motivations. He made sure there was a strong Southern flavor and any affiliations to the North were removed or minimized. This would ostracize Vice President Breckinridge. He would have little influence in the Administration.
Panic of 1857
James Buchanan’s first crisis to attend to was the nation’s first financial collapse. During the summer, 1,400 banks would close while 5,000 businesses went bust. But he did not offer any help to resolve the recession and the large increase in the unemployed. He would concur with his Southern counterparts and lay the blame with the North. He said it was due to their over-speculation and what was required was “reform not relief”.
It would take several years before citizens would recover from the collapse and the Government would endeavor to pay off their own debts. Though he hoped to reduce it, by the time James Buchanan left Office the deficit had ballooned to $17 million.
War With Utah
During the previous decade, The Latter-Day Saints had made a permanent home for themselves in Utah. Their leader, Brigham Young, had grown increasingly hostile to Federal intervention. His hostile acts prompted James Buchanan into acton, who was already opposed to polygamy and militarism. He decided to replace Young as Governor with one of his own choosing – Alfred Cumming.
Cumming was escorted by the US Army to Utah. But Brigham Young had no idea about these machinations. This was due to the postal service to Utah having been canceled by the previous Administration. Fearing the worst, Young would start militia attacks on the incoming forces.
In September 1857, 120 settlers traveled from Arkansas to California. They were massacred by Mormon settlers., believing they were involved with the Federal Government.
The hostilities would only come to a conclusion after James Buchanan intervened. He would send a private agent to negotiate peace and the succession of the new governor. Those responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre faced justice.
In 1854, America created a new area as the Kansas Territory came into being. Federal Government would allow the new territory to decide for itself whether slavery would be legal or not. This would give rise to five years of civil unrest and bloody confrontation. this was written down in the annals of American history as ‘Bleeding Kansas’.
The opposing ideology on slavery would create a divide within the territory that would lead to two defacto capitals. Topeka, in the North, was anti-slavery and Lecompton who were fiercely pro-slavery. But, to become part of the union, the territory needed a unanimous vote to enter. They also needed a unified constitution, not to mention a unified Capital.
James Buchanan would do all he could to get the pro-slavery city of Lecompton to be approved as the State’s constitution. This entailed all kinds of subterfuge. He labeled Topeka as being “revolutionary” as he personally accepted Lecompton’s constitution. But, in trying to get Congress to approve this he would try everything to get this done. He offered favors, patronage appointments, and even cash for votes.
The approval was achieved in the Senate though opposition parties in the House were able to reject it. But, using a new Bill (English Bill), James Buchanan tried to bribe the citizens of Kansas. To accept the new constitution he offered them free land – it was resoundingly rejected.
In 1858, his fiercest adversary, Stephen Douglas, was up for reelection. James Buchanan would do his utmost to wreck his chances as well as compete against the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. These machinations failed to work and Douglas held his Senate seat. But the divisions within the Democratic Party, between the North and the South, would allow the Republicans to gain seats in Congress.
In 1860, the Administration would be investigated for impeachable offenses. To do this the House impaneled the ‘Covode Committee’. They would investigate allegations of bribery and extortion of Representatives. This was met by vociferous bipartisan complaints from both sides of the aisle.
The committee would not be able to establish grounds to impeach James Buchanan. But the report that would be published alleged corruption and abuse of power from members of his cabinet. The document contained allegations from Republicans that bribery had been attempted during the Lecompton debate. While Democrats did not refute the allegations, they felt that the evidence was scarce.
At its conclusion, James Buchanan would hail this as a vindication of his innocence. This whole issue would have a major impact on the upcoming presidential election.
James Buchanan would step down after this election, although his influence in the final weeks would still have momentous consequences for the country.
Stephen Douglas would finally become the Democratic Nominee. But, with divisions still deep within the party, he had no chance of winning and it would be a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who won the election.
In October, the outgoing president was given a stark warning by the Army’s Commanding General, Winfield Scott. He told him that, with Lincoln winning the election, there could be as many as seven States that would secede from the Union. His recommendations were to deploy massive amounts of artillery and troops to those States. So that they could protect Federal property. But, he warned that there were very few reinforcements available. During Buchanan’s tenure, the militia had fallen into a deplorable condition. Congress had failed to heed calls to strengthen their Forces. But. General Scott was an opponent of his and James Buchanan would ignore these recommendations.
With Lincoln’s victory, the cries of secession and disunion were reaching a tipping point. This would prompt James Buchanan to address these issues in his final speech to Congress on 10th December 1860. He intoned that the States did not have the right to secede but the Federal Government had no power to prevent them from doing this. He laid the blame for the crisis squarely on the people of the North interfering with the issue of slavery in the South.
He said that,
“if the North must repeal their obnoxious and unconstitutional enactments, the South must try all peaceful and constitutional means, to get redress. If that fails then the injured States, would be justified to revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union”.
He felt the only way to avert this was for Congress to pass legislation to affirm the constitutionality of slavery in those States.
His speech was derided by both sides equally, with the North for refusing to stop the secession and the South angry that their secession was denied.
Within 10 days South Carolina, the large and radical southern state, had seceded from the Union. By the end of January 1861, despite the efforts of Unionist senators and James Buchanan, six more States would secede.
As Buchanan eventually agreed to bolster Fort Sumter (after initially wanting to surrender it), the US ship was fired upon. These were the first shots of anger in the Civil War to come.
He became a vocal supporter to fight the Confederacy urging his Pennsylvania Democrats to join in the patriotic fight. Though he would still defend his own actions leading up to the war until his dying day.