Alex Harris, A Biographical History of Lancaster County (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1872), 91-115.
| BUCHANAN, JAMES, 15th President of the United States,
was born in Franklin county, Pennsylvania, April 23, 1791. The place of
his birth is situated about three miles from the village of Mercersburg,
and in the midst of a wild and romantic mountain gorge, which, with its
beautiful scenery, may have served to arouse in his youthful mind, sentiments
of lofty aspirations and fervent patriotism. His father, James Buchanan,
was a native of the county of Donegal, Ireland, and was one of the early
settlers of Franklin county, having emigrated thither in the year 1783.
His mother, Elizabeth Speer, was the daughter of a respectable farmer of
Adams county, Pennsylvania. His father was a man of great enterprise and
industry, and speedily rose from the condition of an humble emigrant to
one of independence and prominence in the community. The mother of Mr.
Buchanan was a woman of remarkable native intellect, and although not possessed
of more than an ordinary English education, yet she was distinguished for
her masculine sense and rare literary taste. The most striking passages
in Pope, Cowper, Milton and Shakespeare, she could repeat from memory.
In 1798 the father of Mr. Buchanan removed with his family to Mercersburg, and there the subject of our notice received his first lessons in Greek and Latin. His more than ordinary rapid progress in his studies, indicated to his preceptors a mind of rare strength and vigor; and his father, accepting the suggestions of his teachers, determined to afford him the advantages of a collegiate education. At the age of fourteen, accordingly, he entered Dickinson College, at Carlisle, then a Presbyterian institution, under the presidency of Dr. Davidson. Here he at once took rank amongst the most indefatigable students, and rapidly rose in the estimation of his teachers as a young man of mark and great promise. In the studies of his classes he outstripped all his mates, and on no occasion was he found unprepared in his recitations. Whilst always prepared with his lessons, he was by no means what is known as a close student, but rather ranked with those who indulged most freely in sport and relaxation. His college tasks were no burden to him, being acquired as if by intuition; an his vigorous mind displayed itself in every department. He enjoyed all the honors of the literary society with which he was connected, and was presented by its unanimous vote to the faculty for the highest collegiate honors. He graduated in 1809, at the age of eighteen.
In December of the same year, he commenced the study of law in the office of James Hopkins, Esq., of Lancaster, then recognized as the leading lawyer of that bar. He was admitted to the practice of the profession, November 17th, 1812, when but little over twenty-one years of age. From the day of his admission a tide of success seemed to meet him; and until he retired from the profession his was a series of successive triumphs. There, perhaps, was never an instance of such a rapid rise in the legal profession as that afforded in his case. When a lawyer of four years’ standing, he was selected to conduct, unaided by senior counsel, the defense of a distinguished judge, who was tried on articles of impeachment before the Senate of Pennsylvania. His defense on this occasion was a masterly display of legal acumen and forensic ability that at once gave him a Statewide reputation, and ranked him as an intellect fit to cope with the ablest men of the nation. His reputation was fixed in that trial, and business poured in upon him with an increasing flood. So successful was he in his legal business, that by the time he was forty years of age, he had acquired a sufficient independence that enabled him to retire from the profession. During the tide of his practice his name occurs oftener in the Reports of the State than that of any other lawyer of his time.
Mr. Buchanan early displayed his patriotism and love of country. During the progress of the war between Great Britain and America, in 1812-14, the British had taken and destroyed the public buildings at Washington. This act aroused a feeling of indignation throughout the whole United States. A public meeting was held at Lancaster in favor of a vigorous prosecution of the war, which was addressed by Mr. Buchanan, and he was the first to enroll his name as a private soldier in a company raised upon the spot, and which, commanded by Capt. Henry Shippen, marched to the defence of Baltimore. In this company Mr. Buchanan served until the same was honorably discharged.
He was, in October, 1814, elected a member of the lower House of the State Legislature, and in that body maintained the same fearless and patriotic course that distinguished him throughout the war. When Philadelphia was threatened with invasion, and the State was left to its own defence, he urged upon the Legislature in the strongest manner, the adoption of efficient measures of relief. The National Treasury was at this time almost bankrupt, and on account of the opposition which the war encountered in the Eastern States, on the part of the Federalists, (of which party Mr. Buchanan was then a member), the soldiers in the public service were with great difficulty paid. Being re-elected to the Legislature, in 1815, he ardently supported a bill appropriating the sum of $300,000, as a loan to the United States, to pay the militia and volunteers of the State in the government service.
At this time Mr. Buchanan took ground against any unjust discrimination against naturalized foreigners, as compared with the native-born population, except that which relates to the office of the National Executive. The Governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut had transmitted to the Governor of Pennsylvania certain resolutions, recommending changes in the Federal Constitution, and among the rest, one which should render naturalized foreigners ineligible to the Senate or House of Representatives of the United States. This proposition was strongly disapproved of by Mr. Buchanan, and the position thus early assumed by him formed one of his cardinal and life-long principles. It was during the period of his second session in the Legislature, that he became impressed with the danger, the inexpediency, and the unconstitutionality of a United States Bank, an opinion he ever afterwards steadfastly defended.
The next political step in the career of Mr. Buchanan, is his election, in 1820, as a member of the lower House of the National Congress, in which body he took his seat in December, 1821. At the time he entered that body, an array of talent was assembled that would grace the halls of any nation. In the House were the distinguished names of McDuffie, Joel R. Poinsett, John Randolph, Philip R. Barbour, Andrew Stevenson, Louis McLane, and others equally noted. In the Senate, Rufus King, Martin Van Buren, Mahlon Dickinson, Samuel L. Southard, Nathaniel Macon, Richard M. Johnson, and others of equal ability were assembled. Among this assemblage of noble Romans, Mr. Buchanan took rank at once as one of the most industrious and indefatigable members of the House. He was always in his seat, and generally participated in the discussions that arose upon any important public question. His first elaborate speech, delivered January 11th, 1822, was upon a bill making appropriations to the military for deficiencies in the Indian department. So ably did he defend the course of Mr. Crawford, then Secretary of the Treasury, that the National Intelligencer departed from its usual course and gave a verbatim report of the speech. This speech at once enrolled him amongst the ablest men of the House, gave him a national reputation, and was an earnest of the future distinction that awaited him.
While Mr. Buchanan was strict in the expenditure of the national money, he was liberal where necessity was evident. When some members of Congress found fault with a bill authorizing the relief of soldiers disabled in the revolutionary war, he met the opposition with the remark, that the amount proposed “was a scanty pittance for the war-worn soldier,” and that he was altogether disinclined to oppose a measure that patriotism so imperatively demanded. Other things that early engaged his attention as a national legislator, and upon which he made speeches, were the Apportionment bill, Transactions in Florida, the Appropriation bill, and the Bankrupt bill. The debate upon this latter bill was long and animated, and one that called forth the abilities of the House in a remarkable manner. Many of the most distinguished members of that body were strong advocates of the bill. Mr. Buchanan did not participate in the discussion until near the close of the session, and just before the bill came up for final reading. He then delivered, March 12th, 1822, one of the most powerful and eloquent speeches of the session, and in this took grounds against the passage of so unjust a law, as he conceived. In this he said: “We are now called upon to decide the fate of a measure of awful importance. The most dreadful responsibility rests upon us. We are not now to determine merely whether a bankrupt law shall be extended to the trading classes of the community, but whether it shall embrace every citizen of the Union, and spread its demoralizing influence over the whole surface of society.” Immediately after this speech the vote was taken and the bill defeated.
The question of a tariff was a prominent one before the Eighteenth Congress, and was championed by the dauntless Clay, of Kentucky, who christened it with the captivating name of the “American System.” In the discussions on this question, which took place in Congress, we find Mr. Buchanan arrayed on the side of a protective policy, and giving utterance to sentiments that would not have met the approbation of the partisans with whom he afterwards affiliated. We find him thus expressing himself: “But, after all, Mr. Chairman, what do we ask by this bill for the manufacturers of iron? Not a prohibitory law, as the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Fuller) seems to suppose, which will exclude foreign iron from our market. We wish only to infuse into our own manufactures sufficient vigor to enable them to struggle against foreign competition. Protection, not prohibition, is our object.” Benton’s Abridgement of Debates, Vol. VII, p. 673.
In 1827 he again said: “Can any person really believe that because I supported protection in 1824 I am bound to advocate prohibition in 1827,” Benton’s Abridgement of debates, Vol. IX, p. 394.
In 1825, when the election of a President took place before the lower House of Congress, Mr. Buchanan urged that it should be conducted in the presence of the people, with the galleries of the House open to the people, and not in secret conclave, as was urged by some members and Senators. He was opposed to the Panama mission, a project that had been conceived by Mr. Clay, and supported by his flowing eloquence. In the second session of the nineteenth Congress a bill was introduced for the relief of the surviving officers of the revolution, and this Mr. Buchanan sustained in a speech of great eloquence and power, in which he triumphantly vindicated the duty of government in providing for the wants of its defenders.
About this time Mr. Buchanan took occasion to condemn, in Congress, the attiring of our foreign ministers in a military coat, covered with glittering gold lace, and decking them with a chapeau and small sword. Thus early did he give evidence of his republican sentiments; and afterwards, during his residence as Minister at the Court of St. James, he appeared, like Dr. Franklin before him, in the simple and unpretending garb of an American citizen.
In 1828 General Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States, and Mr. Buchanan aided in this result to the extent of his ability. The majority of 50,000, which Pennsylvania gave for Jackson, furnishes evidence of the efficiency of his support. He, himself, was re-elected to Congress in the same campaign, and during the following session was placed at the head of the Judiciary Committee, a position that had been filled by Daniel Webster. One of the most famed cases that had ever came before Congress, the impeachment of J.H. Peck, Judge of the District Court of the United States of Missouri, was one in the management of which Mr. Buchanan acted a conspicuous part, and secured himself a national reputation as a barrister of the first order. He, with Henry R. Storrs, of New York, Geo. McDuffie, of South Carolina, Ambrose Spencer, of New York, and Charles Wickliffe, of Kentucky, were chosen on the part of the House, as managers to conduct the prosecution before the Senate. William Wirt and Jonathan Meredith were for the defence. The trial was conducted on both sides with distinguished ability, Mr. Buchanan closing the case and confining himself to the legal and constitutional questions involved. He, in a masterly manner, pointed out the difference between the principles which govern English courts and those which, under the Constitution, must govern those of the United States. The Senate acquitted Judge Peck by a vote of 22 to 21, but shortly afterwards an act was passed obviating whatever technical objections stood in the way of conviction, so that no judge afterwards ventured to commit a similar offence.
On the 3rd of March, 1831, Mr. Buchanan voluntarily retired from Congress, of which he had been a constant member for ten years. He was soon afterwards selected, by President Jackson, as minister to the Court of St. Petersburg. In this position he concluded the first commercial treaty between the United States and Russia, which secured to our merchantmen and navigators important privileges in the Baltic and Black seas. In 1833, upon his return from Russia, he was elected to a seat in the United States Senate, taking his seat in that body December 15th, 1834.
The subject of negro slavery came before the Senate in 1835, from the reference, in the message of General Jackson, in regard to the circulation through the United States mail, of incendiary publications designed to excite insurrection in the Southern States, and upon memorials for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. This aspect of the slavery question was a new one before Congress. How, most judiciously to deal with it, was the question to be decided. Mr. Buchanan saw, that if the question was permitted to come constantly before Congress, it would keep up throughout a never-ceasing agitation, which might, in the end, endanger the stability and perpetuity of the American Union. He, therefore, conceived as the best method to deal with it, that some legislation should be enacted that might stifle the agitation in the bud and prevent the question of slavery from being raised and discussed in that body. He favored the receiving of the petitions or memorials for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and then declaring, after respectfully considering them, that Congress had no power to legislate on the subject. “I repeat,” said he, “that I intended to make as strong a motion in this case as the circumstances would justify. It is necessary that we should use every constitutional effort to suppress the agitation which now disturbs the land. This is necessary as much for the happiness and future prospects of the slave as for the security of the master. Before this storm began to rise, the laws in regard to slaves had been really ameliorated by the slaveholding States; they enjoyed many privileges which were unknown in former times. In some of the slave States prospective and gradual emancipation was publicly and seriously discussed. But now, thanks to the efforts of the abolitionists, the slaves have been deprived of these privileges, and while the liberty of the Union is endangered, their prospects of final emancipation is delayed to an indefinite period. To leave this question where the Constitution has left it, to the slaveholding States themselves, is equally dictated by a humane regard for the slaves as well as for their masters.”
About this time Texas was passing through its war of independence, and Santa Anna, the President of Mexico, was using all his efforts to reduce it again beneath his authority. Mr. Buchanan sympathized, as an American, with the struggling Texans, and urged its recognition on the part of the United States as an independent government. He afterwards favored the admission of Texas as one of the States of the American Confederacy.
Towards the close of Gen. Jackson’s administration, the French indemnity question rose to one of the first magnitude. The French Chamber of Deputies, by a majority of eight votes, refused to sanction the recommendation of Louis Philippe, who had advised the payment of the American indemnity. This conduct on the part of the French, roused Gen. Jackson to the highest pitch of intensity, and he thereupon demanded an appropriation of $3,000,000 for the increase of the navy and for the defence of the maritime frontier. Mr. Buchanan supported the demand of the President in an able speech, and reviewed the whole ground of difficulty between France and the United States, and clearly established, by the law of nations, the error into which the French government had fallen; and that the money being justly owing to American citizens, it was incumbent upon the government to see that they receive their dues. The decided stand taken by President Jackson on French affairs, and the noble support accorded him by Mr. Buchanan and other leading men of the nation, hastened the settlement of the troublesome question.
One of the most important subjects that came before this Congress, was the admission of Michigan and Arkansas into the Union. The subject gave rise to much debate, in all of which Mr. Buchanan bore a conspicuous and distinguished part. It was objected to the admission of Michigan that aliens had participated in the formation of the Constitution; but Mr. Buchanan took the ground that aliens who were residents of the northwestern territory had a right, by virtue of the ordinance of 1787, to exercise the elective franchise. In this discussion Mr. Buchanan made use of the following language: “The older I grow, the more I am inclined to be what is called a State-rights man. The peace and security of of this Union depend upon giving to the Constitution a literal and fair construction, such as would be placed upon it by a plain and intelligent man, and not by ingenious constructions to increase the powers of this government, and thereby diminish those of the States. The rights of the States, reserved to them by that instrument, ought ever to be sacred. If, then, the Constitution leaves them to decide according to their own discretion, unrestricted and unlimited, who shall be electors, it follows as a necessary consequence that they may, if they think proper, confer upon resident aliens the right of voting.”
Mr. Buchanan was early in his advocacy of specie payments by the general government, instead of depreciated bank paper. In this he went hand-in-hand with Thomas H. Benton, the Ajax of American Democracy. He depicted, in forcible language, the evils that flow from the increase of banking capital to the laboring man, and, indeed, to all classes save the speculators. “Banks,” he said, “could make money plenty at one time and scarce at another; at one moment nominally raise the price of all property beyond its real value, and the next moment reduce it below that standard, and thus prove most ruinous to the best interests of the people. The increase of banking capital was calculated to transfer the wealth and property of the country from the honest, industrious and unsuspecting classes of society, into the hands of speculators, who knew when to purchase and when to sell.”
Upon the opening of the Twenty-fourth Congress, December 5th, 1836, Mr. Buchanan was chosen to the honorable and responsible position of chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations. The principal feature of this session was the discussion of Mr. Benton’s celebrated “Expunging Resolution,” which the indomitable Senator from Missouri had introduced, time after time, for the purpose of having expunged from the journal of the Senate the stain which had been affixed upon General Jackson, for his removal of the deposits from the United States Bank. In this noble effort he had the cooperation of Mr. Buchanan, who, in a speech of masterly power, and of rich and graceful eloquence, defended the hero of Orleans from all unjust aspersion, and proved, by the most convincing logic, that an imperative justice demanded of the American Senate that it erase from its records the base brand of obloquy that had been stamped upon the conduct of the National Executive. His oration upon this occasion has always been considered as one of the finest specimens of eloquence that was ever witnessed upon the floor of the United States Senate. Immediately, after the delivery of Mr. Buchanan’s speech, the vote on the “Expunging Resolution” was taken, and the odious record stricken from the journal of the Senate.
Martin Van Buren succeeded General Jackson, as President, March 4th, 1837. It was a time of great financial distress; greater, if possible, than that of 1820-21, which followed the war of 1812-14. The general flooding of the country with excessive issues of paper currency had stimulated one of those periods of general speculation which had covered the land with universal desolation. The President summoned an extra session of Congress, in order that measures might be devised to remedy the pressure of the financial crisis. Almost the first bill introduced was the “Sub-Treasury Act.” Mr. Buchanan favored the passage of the bill in a speech of great power, and therein explained the causes of the monetary embarrassment in a most profound and statesmanlike manner, and presented a clear conception of the power of the General Government in regard to the question under consideration. His views upon this measure were of the most matured character, and his clear exposition of the powers of government aided greatly in securing the passage of the bill.
In the regular session of 1837, the relations of the American government with Mexico came under consideration. In the course of a debate upon this subject, Mr. Buchanan traced the conduct of the Mexican government towards our citizens, and showed that the American flag was no protection to them, and that after being insulted and robbed, no satisfaction or apology was given. In reply to Mr. Clay, who suggested that owing to our deranged state of the currency we had better avoid war, he indignantly replied: “If the national honor demanded vindication, he would not be deterred by any such consideration. He, for one, would not consent to see American citizens plundered with impunity.”
The question of the preemption right of settlers came up in the Senate about this time, and Mr. Buchanan defended this right, and was unwilling that any distinction should be made between American settlers and those of foreign birth. It was, as he conceived, a just right that should be accorded to the hardy pioneers, whether native citizens or those who braved tide and tempest, in order to seek a home in the wilds of our western county.
Another important question arose under Van Buren’s administration, in regard to the alleged interference of federal officers in elections. A bill was introduced which proposed penalties upon any officer of the United States government, below the rank of a District Attorney, who should attempt to persuade a citizen to vote for any person to be elector of President and Vice President of the United States or for other certain officers. This measure was opposed by Mr. Buchanan with all the powers of his mind, and it was soon thereafter abandoned.
The last Congress, under Mr. Van Buren’s administration, commenced its first session December 2nd, 1839. It proved a very important session, as business of an interesting character engaged the attention of Congress. On the bill introduced by Silas Wright, of New York, “to more effectually secure the public money in the hands of the officers and agents of the government,” long and violent discussion was had. It was the call for marshaling the old warriors of bank and anti-bank. The contest was again terrific and was another Trojan struggle renewed.
Mr. Buchanan’s speech on the Independent Treasury, of the 22nd of January, 1840, was able, dignified and profound. It is considered as containing the best synopsis of science of political economy, and the relation between capital and labor that any American statesman had yet produced. At least it had never been surpassed. At the period of the delivery of this speech, Mr. Buchanan had been familiar with the working of the government for twenty years. He had passed through financial revulsions before, and having studied the effect of extravagant bank expansions, he was able to place his finger upon the errors of the past, and like a skillful mariner, direct how to avoid the shoals and quick-sands that might lie in the future. It was out of this speech of Mr. Buchanan’s, on the Independent Treasury, that his enemies gathered material which served to fasten upon him the charge of having advocated a reduction of the wages of labor. No charge was ever more unjust. John Davis, Senator of Massachusetts, was foremost amongst those who pursued him with this accusation. The manner, however, in which he defended himself from the justness of this charge, upon the floor of the United States Senate, in reply to Senator Davis, and the rejoinders he administered to the latter, are not yet forgotten by the older of our citizens.
The election of 1840 swept, as by a hurricane, the Democratic party from power. General Harrison was elected President of the United States, and the Whig party had the ascendancy in both houses of Congress. Almost immediately after his election, the new President issued a proclamation for Congress to meet in extra session, May 31st, 1841. Congress met, but Harrison was already in his grave. The first movement was the introduction of a bill for the repeal of the Independent Treasury. Early in the same session Mr. Clay presented his plan of a “Fiscal Bank.” The Democracy, though in the minority, fought the friends of the bank again, but in vain would have been their resistance but for the assistance of Vice President John Tyler, now President, who came to their rescue. In opposition to Clay’s “Fiscal Bank,” Mr. Buchanan made one of his great speeches, and reiterated his constitutional objections to the establishment of a National Bank.
The repeated vetoes of John Tyler of the favorite measures of the Whig party, so exasperated the leaders, that Mr. Clay introduced a proposition to abolish the veto power, conferred upon the President by the Constitution. On the 2nd of February, 1842, Mr. Buchanan made an elaborate reply to Mr. Clay’s proposition, reviewing our whole system of government and showing the intimate relations existing between its parts. This logical and profound speech manifested on the part of Mr. Buchanan an accurate knowledge of the fundamental laws and maxims of civil government.
The most important feature of Mr. Tyler’s administration consisted in the steps taken for the annexation of Texas. As heretofore stated, Mr. Buchanan was one of the earliest advocates of that measure. In his remarks upon this subject he said: “While the annexation of Texas would afford that security to the Southern and Southwestern slave States which they have a right to demand, it would, in some respects, operate prejudicially upon their immediate pecuniary interests; but to the Middle and Western, and more especially to the New England States, it would be a source of unmixed prosperity. It would extend their commerce, promote their manufactures and increase their wealth. The New England States resisted with all their power the acquisition of Louisiana; and I ask, what would those States have been at this day without that territory? They will also resist the annexation of Texas with similar energy; although, after it has been acquired, it is they who will reap the chief pecuniary advantages from the acquisition.” The admission of Texas was not consummated until after the election of James K. Polk to the Presidency.
The election of 1844 again brought the Democratic party into power. James K. Polk, as soon as he was inaugurated President, selected for the responsible position of Secretary of State, the man whose career we are sketching, James Buchanan. So intimately connected were the actions of Mr. Buchanan and the administration of President Polk, that full justice could not be done the former otherwise than in a complete history of that administration. He was the acknowledged head of the Cabinet Council, and nothing of importance was undertaken without his sanction being had and approbation obtained. Of the many able State papers of which he was author during his premiership, time and space forbid our speaking. At the close of Mr. Polk’s administration, he retired to private life, at Wheatland.
Mr. Buchanan, although now basking in the shades of rural life, was by no means an indifferent spectator of public affairs. He still continued to watch the current of political opinions with the same eager eye as ever, and discussed public questions with his friends with the same warmth as in his younger years. After the passage of the compromise measures of 1850, Mr. Buchanan was among the first to endorse them, and to spread throughout Pennsylvania a public sentiment in their favor. In a letter written by him in November, 1850, to a public meeting in Philadelphia, he expressed himself feely upon the compromise, and gave it his fill and unqualified approbation.
Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire, was elected President of the United States in the autumn of 1852. Upon his taking the presidential chair, in March following, one of his first acts was the appointment of Mr. Buchanan as Minister to England. One of the principal questions that engaged his attention in London, was the Central America question, which the Clayton-Bulwer treaty had complicated but not settled. He was also one of the Ministers who conferred together at Ostend, regarding the Island of Cuba, and the result of the deliberations of which Conference has popularly been known as the Ostend Manifesto.
The question of slavery was one which James Buchanan ever viewed from a conservative stand-point. From the time he first presented in Congress the petition from the Caln quarterly meeting of Friends, till his death, he regarded the subject of slavery as one over which the National Government had no legitimate control, viewing it as within the sole jurisdiction of the States in which the institution had existence. These views he proclaimed when he presented in Congress the above petition to which allusion has been made, and maintained, and which was in unison with the sentiments of the framers of the constitution and the principal statesmen of the old Democratic and Whig parties.
Mr. Buchanan was one of those statesmen who regarded the question of slavery as one that existed by virtue of compromise, and he desired to see nothing done to violate the compacts of faith that had been solemnly ratified between the Northern and Southern sections of the Union. The Compromise measures of 1850 had his hearty adhesion, as in these he seemed to recognize the settlement of the only question that could, perhaps for ages, jeopardy the national integrity. With the greatest anxiety and dread, was it therefore that he heard, whilst in Europe, of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854. In a letter written to a leading statesman of his party, about the time that the repeal began to be mooted, he uttered solemn words of warning, and strongly remonstrated against the abrogation of this time-honored compact. He depicted in strong colors the dangers that he apprehended would result, should this unwise attempt be consummated. From an intimate knowledge of the feelings of the people of the North, he predicted the terrible storm that would be excited throughout the country by such an opening up of the slavery agitation as this would occasion.
But the admonitions of Mr. Buchanan were unheeded. The Kansas-Nebraska act was passed by Congress on the 25th of May, and received the signature of President Pierce on the 30th of the same month. The windows of slavery agitation were thereby all opened, as he had predicted, and the deluge that began to pour upon the land was frightful and terrific. The anti-slavery press of the Northern States teemed full of abuse of the men who had dared in the glare of the light and advancement of the nineteenth century, to attempt to favor the cause of slavery; for in no other aspect could the action of the National Congress be viewed. It seemed in their eyes an unholy effort to turn back the dial of the age, and an effort to open up all the territory of the west to the abomination of slavery. The storm of abolitionism thus aroused, blew and gathered strength by distance, and the strong oaks of the Democratic party were bending beneath its blasts.
In the midst of this vast hurricane of partisan fury, the Democratic Convention assembled at Cincinnati in 1856, and placed in nomination James Buchanan as their candidate for the presidency. By skillful management, the old party of Jefferson, in the face of all opposition was again victorious, and its nominee, the subject of our notice, was elected. On the 4th of March, 1857, he was inaugurated the 15th President of the United States.
After the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Territory of Kansas became the battle-ground between the anti-slavery and pro-slavery parties. Emigrants were hurried into the territory by both parties, each aiming at gaining the ascendancy within its borders; the one party seeking to make it a free and the other a slave State. The one persistently contended that slavery was local in its character, and therefore if a slaveholder brought his slaves with him these became instantly free. The other, quite as strongly maintained that slavery was recognized by the constitution, and therefore the owner of slaves had the same right to carry his slaves with him into the territory as any other property. Without this right the Southern people insisted that the equality of the States would be destroyed, and they would sink form the rank of equals to that of inferiors. In this view the pro-slavery party were sustained by the solemn adjudication of the Supreme Court. They yielded acquiescence in the territorial government appointed over them by Congress; whereas, the anti-slavery party having held a convention at Topeka, formed a State constitution and applied for admittance into the Union. They were, however, rejected. The regular Territorial Legislature, on the 27th of February, 1857, passed an act for the election of delegates in June of that year to frame a State constitution.
This was the condition of affairs in Kansas when Mr. Buchanan was inaugurated President, on the 4th of March, 1857. A majority of the pro-slavery delegates were elected in June, 1857, because the anti-slavery party refused to participate in the election. When the convention assembled, they adopted what was known as the Lecompton Constitution; and as slavery was the main question at variance between the parties, it was determined that this should be submitted in December of that year, and the anti-slavery party, still persisting in their refusal to vote, the result was 6226 votes in favor of slavery, and but 569 against it. At the election held on the first Monday in January, 1858, under the new constitution, the anti-slavery party voting, a large majority of the members of the Legislature elected, belonged to this party. On the 30th of January, of the same year, the Lecompton Constitution was transmitted to Mr. Buchanan, as the National Executive, from the president of the convention, with the request that it be submitted to the consideration of Congress. This was done in a message of the 2nd of February, 1858, and therein President Buchanan recommended the admission of Kansas as a State, under the Lecompton Constitution. He said: “The people of Kansas have in their own way and in strict accordance with the organic act, framed a Constitution and State Government; have submitted the all-important question of slavery to the people, and have elected a governor, a member to represent them in Congress, members of the State Legislature and other State officers. * * * For my own part, I am decidedly in favor of its admission, and thus terminating the Kansas question.”
This message occasioned a long, exciting and violent debate, in both Houses of Congress, between the slavery and anti-slavery members, which lasted nearly three months. It was but the reecho of the storm that was raging throughout the land. Mr. Buchanan was bitterly denounced as truckling to the slave power, and as lending the weight of his high office towards fixing upon the people of Kansas the curse of slavery against their will. Members of Congress were classified, during this controversy, as Lecompton and anti-Lecompton, as they favored or opposed the administration of Kansas. A wing of his own party separated from Mr. Buchanan on this point, and among these Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois. Kansas was not admitted under this Lecompton Constitution, and was only admitted a short time before the close of Mr. Buchanan’s administration, with a free constitution.
But events were gradually culminating during Mr. Buchanan’s administration towards a catastrophe of one kind or another. The slavery question was now the one all paramonnt. All other questions merged into insignificance, and it is only in the light of the slavery agitation of the period that his administration is estimated. No other act of his as President is ever remembered, and from that standpoint alone will he ever be judged. In the midst, however, of the terrible commotion of the period, it soon became clear that even in the ranks of the Democratic party a schism, in fact, existed, and but time was required to develop it. This was also occasioned by the slavery question, and by many was considered as occasioned by an effort to compromise on the question. Senator Douglas became prominent as the advocate of what he chose to term squatter sovereignty, but which principle found no sanction in the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. His arguments were, however, very captivating and attractive, and he succeeded in carrying with him a large body of the Democratic party. To this interpretation of the Constitution the Southern people were almost equally hostile as towards the out-and-out principles of the Republican party. They simply regarded Senator Douglas as bidding for the Presidency before the abolition sentiment of the North, and therefore they bore him an unquenchable ill-will and steady opposition.
When the Democratic convention met at Charleston, in April, 1860, it was not long till the want of harmony in the party showed itself in the representative body. An attempt was made to agree upon a platform of principles, but without effect, and therefore the withdrawal of the delegates from the cotton States was the consequence of this disagreement. The convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore, in the hope of yet securing harmony in the actions of that body. It re-assembled in June, at Baltimore, but without any better success than at Charleston. The breach had become too great and could not be remedied. Both wings of the party nominated their candidates, Stephen A. Douglas being the nominee of the one, and John C. Breckinridge of the other. The sympathies of Mr. Buchanan were with the wing of the party that nominated Breckinridge, but no hopes of success could be anticipated by either, and the result was the election of Abraham Lincoln as President.
As soon as the election of Abraham Lincoln was made known, the Southern people prepared to inaugurate the movement of secession. The first to secede were the cotton States, and on the 4th of March, 1861, these organized a government at Montgomery, Alabama, with Jefferson Davis as President. The people of the Southern States had long harbored the belief that the Republican party alone would be unable to prevent a dissolution of the Union, because they did not believe that the Democrats of the North would give their adhesion to the prosecution of a war for the restoration of the Union.
It was one of the cardinal principles of the Democratic party, that States could not be coerced by the general government, and one which had been solemnly reiterated again and again in its conventions, and they did not believe that the party could go back of its pledges and resolutions. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798, the one sketched by Madison and the other by Jefferson, clearly denied the coercion of States by the general government. These resolutions had ever formed the political bible, as it were, of the Democratic party. Jame Buchanan, however, better understood the tone of the Northern people, and he frequently assured the Southern leaders that the first gun fired upon Fort Sumpter or Moultrie would heal all political divisions in the North, and render it a unit in support of a war for the preservation of the national integrity. He had mingled so long in politics as to have discovered that the promises of most politicians are unreliable, and therefore was it that he uttered his cautions to those who depended upon aid from the Northern States.
As to the doctrine of coercion, he clearly laid down the correct principle of the party in his last annual message to Congress. In this he says: “The question fairly stated is: has the constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission, which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the Confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that power has been conferred upon Congress to make war against a State. After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress, or to any other department of the Federal Government. It is manifest, upon an inspection of the constitution, that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress; and it is equally apparent, that its exercise is not ‘necessary and proper for carrying into execution’ any one of these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was expressly refused by the convention which framed the constitution.
“ It appears from the proceedings of that body, that on the 31st of May, 1787, the clause ‘authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent State’ came up for consideration. Mr. Madison opposed it in a brief but powerful speech, upon which I shall extract but a single sentence. He observed: ‘The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would, probably, be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.’ Upon his motion the clause was unanimously postponed, and was never, I believe, again presented. Soon afterwards, on the 8th of June, 1787, when incidentally adverting to the subject, he said: ‘Any government for the United States, formed upon the supposed practicability of using force against the unconstitutional proceedings of the States, would prove as visionary and fallacious as the government of Congress,’ evidently meaning the then existing Congress of the old Confederation.”
The above was the old Democratic doctrine, and when he had give utterance to it, if he believed it, he should have maintained it. But so great at that time was the popular clamor in favor of coercion, that in his special message to Congress of the 8th of January, 1861, he attempts to evade the above, and draws the distinction between coercing a State and the individuals of the State. A weak distinction, indeed. What is the State but the individuals who compose it? If no authority was delegated to the general government to coerce a State, whence is the authority derived to coerce the individuals of the State, the very ones who form a State? In this backing down of Mr. Buchanan from the position first assumed by him, he exhibited a weakness not creditable to one who filled the exalted position of the Presidency of a nation. If his doctrine as regarded coercion was true, it remained so, though all the North should declare the contrary. Then why not maintain it? Though its maintenance should have been pronounced treason, and death the penalty, he of all others should have defended it. Many brave men before had suffered for opinion sake, and did they sink in history on that account? They were only the more remembered and respected for their heroism and staunch defence of principle.
Mr. Buchanan repeatedly asked of congress additional authority to enable him to collect the duty in the Southern ports, where all the federal officers had resigned, but to this Congress gave no attention. At least the additional authority was not granted. His condition as President at that time was a very trying and perplexing one. Elected as a Democrat, upon principles that always gave satisfaction to the people of the Southern States, it is not to be supposed that he would desire to fight with the South the battle of the Republican party. The genuine Democratic party and the South had no quarrel; and James Buchanan, belonging to that school, had none either. Should he provoke a war with the South during the remnant of his term of office? Surely not. He and his party had done all in their power to avert the calamity then coming upon the country, and were able still to settle the troubles if they had the power. But that had passed from their hands, an it was the new power that the South designed to resist. Not the nation did they mean to resist, but simply the power of the Republican party.
It is no wonder, therefore, if James Buchanan would feel a pleasure in being relieved from an office at a time of such embarrassment. He is said to have remarked to the new President: “If you, sir, feel as happy in entering upon the office of President as I do in retiring therefrom, then you are a happy man to-day.”
After the 4th of March, 1861, James Buchanan returned to Lancaster, where he met with a reception befitting his rank and condition, and upon this occasion made his last public address to his fellow-citizens of Lancaster. He reviewed the condition of public affairs at some length, and returned, in conclusion, his warmest thanks for the honors his countrymen had showered upon him. The remainder of his days he passed at his residence, called “Wheatland,” near Lancaster. During the years he lived in retirement he was frequently visited by his Democratic friends, whom he ever received with great cordiality and friendship. After his retirement he prepared a history of his administration, but did not publish the same until the close of the rebellion. It is entitled, “Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion.” In this he essays the task of defending the policy he maintained, especially as regards the slavery question and the rebellion consequent upon its agitation. Of the rectitude of his conduct as regards his attitude on the slavery question, he was ever firmly convinced. In the presence of some friends, after his return from Washington, and after the inauguration of war, he remarked: “Well, gentlemen, I am fully convinced that the American people will yet justify me for the attitude I have maintained as regards the slavery question.” Mr. Buchanan enjoyed his usual good health for several years. Even his last illness was short. He died June 1, 1868. His funeral was the largest ever seen in Lancaster.
A sketch of the distinguished subject of our notice would be imperfect unless he would be delineated according to his deserts. As a statesman there is no doubt that Mr. Buchanan is deserving of ranking amongst the ablest to whom America has given birth. The great secret of his success as a statesman, was his sagacity to discover the political current before he too fully committed himself. It was this same trait, however, on the other hand, that has occasioned him more abuse than all else. This was his characteristic timidity, for there is no use in concealing the fact, that Mr. Buchanan would advance his opinions, let them be popular or otherwise. Had he been a man of that boldness, it is scarcely probable that he would ever have filled the presidential chair; or if he had filled it, his actions as President would have commanded more respect than it did.
In private life, even so exceedingly reticent was Mr. Buchanan at all times during the rebellion, that his opinion could not be elicited at any time as to the results of the war. When an opinion was sought of him, he would usually give an evasive reply, and left it only to be guessed what his real opinion was, and it is doubtful even if his most confidential friends knew whether he favored the prosecution of the war for the restoration of the Union or not. If his sentiments were the same as most of the leading Democrats of his school, he could not have favored what he must have regarded as a violation of the Federal Constitution. Yet if such were his opinions, he chose to conceal them; for otherwise in the inflamed condition of Northern sentiment during the war, he felt that his person and property would have been in jeopardy. Indeed, frequent threats were made against his life, but these were ever regarded as the temporary ebullition of passion that would soon subside. Many were the letters he received denouncing him and threatening vengeance upon his head, but to none of them did he ever give any heed. They may, however, have somewhat more firmly sealed his lips during the rebellion, as during all this period he seemed to be particularly close-mouthed. The great fault of Mr. Buchanan was his extreme timidity, which did not permit him to do sometimes what he desired to do.
As a citizen, Mr. Buchanan had no superiors. He was kind-hearted, generous and humane, and a worthy object would never escape his recognition. He was not one of those who blindly became attached to friends, but he had a universal and sympathetic feeling for mankind. He was regarded by many as cold and phlegmatic, and that he had no regard for friends or enemies. Such was not James Buchanan. Many found fault with him because they had not at his hands received such favors as they had hoped. It was not in his power to favor all his friends, but he did all in that way that he possibly could; and that he could have done vastly more would have been a great pleasure to him. That he was entirely blameless in all his actions could not be expected. He was human and liable to err, as all are; but that his faults were many, none will contend. He was perfectly honest and upright in all his actions and dealings, and in these particulars he is worthy of imitation by all. But few men live a more irreproachable life than Mr. Buchanan. He was highly esteemed by men of all parties, and none were so hardy as not to concede him honesty of purpose.
As a lawyer, he ranked amongst the ablest of the whole country; and when engaged in the practice he read little but the books pertaining to his profession. He never was a man of great miscellaneous reading, and save law and politics his knowledge was limited. His extensive intercourse with leading minds and his residences in Europe, had give him a very general information upon all current topics, but he was in no sense either a scholar or a student. His knowledge, which was very considerable, was more what might be called picked-up, then acquired by dint of his own reading. He was an American, fully imbued with American ideas, and he cared little for knowing that which he could not turn to practical account. Indeed, he made no pretensions to scholarship or profundity. He therefore knew nothing of many matters that engage the attention of students who are such from choice. His opinions upon no point except law and politics are therefore to be estimated. He knew much of the world, and for an American, as its society is now constituted, he was the man for the times.
Had he been the stern and outspoken advocate of principle at all times, he would have been left in inglorious obscurity, and would perhaps never have been heard of save in his own county, or at most his State, as a sound, able lawyer. He is simply the production of American life and customs; and what he might have been under another form of government we have no means of estimating. He, however, must remain the type of American statesmen, and other times and regulations, perhaps another form of government, will be required to develop a very different one. That Mr. Buchanan had the ability to achieve distinction in any pursuit, and under any form of government, is readily conceded. His ability was of the very first order, at least in the department of statesmanship.