Biography
 

Alfred Nevin, Men of Mark of Cumberland Valley, Pa., 1776-1876 (Philadelphia: Fulton Publishing Company, 1876), 231-234.

 
James Buchanan was born on the 23d day of April, 1791. His birth-place was a wild and romantic spot in a gorge of the Cove, or North Mountain, about four miles west of Mercersburg, and bearing the peculiar, but not inappropriate name of “Stony Batter.” His father, James Buchanan, Senior, was a native of Ireland, and one of the most enterprising, intelligent and influential citizens of that part of the state. His mother, Elizabeth Speer, remarkable for her superior intellect and genuine piety, was born in the southern part of Lancaster county.

Five years after his birth his parents removed into the town of Mercersburg, then recently laid out, where he was brought up and fitted for college. He entered Dickinson College, Carlisle, then under the Presidency of the Rev. Dr. Davidson, in 1805, being at the time of his fifteenth year. In 1809, he graduated with distinction, and in the same year commenced the study of law in Lancaster, in the office of James Hopkins, Esq. Three years after, or in 1812, he was admitted to the bar. He at once opened an office in Lancaster, and was almost immediately successful in obtaining business; his studious habits, his fine abilities, his agreeable manners and correct deportment, all combining to attract clients to him. He in a very short time took his place among the foremost at the bar, and had the command of as much business as he could attend to. There were soon very few important cases, either in Lancaster, or the neighbouring counties, in which he was not employed, or at least, in which there was not an effort made to secure his services. In a very few years, besides deservedly acquiring the reputation of being one of the ablest and best lawyers in the state, or in the country, he had, from being the possessor of very little, amassed what he considered a competence, and withdrew almost entirely from practice.

His first public employment of any kind was that of Prosecutor for Lebanon county, a position to which he was appointed in 1813, by Jared Ingersoll, Esq., then Attorney-General of the state under Governor Snyder. This office he probably retained but a short time. In the next year, at the age of twenty-three, and only two years after admission to the bar, he was nominated by his friends for the State Legislature, and elected. In the following year, or 1815, he was again nominated and elected. In both the sessions of the Legislature in which he sat, he was one of the most prominent members; by the sensibleness and justness of his views, and the force of his high character and eminent abilities, exerting, though so young a man, not a little influence. He was always, as on a more extended area in after life, at his post, and took an interest in everything that was done. His mode of expressing his views was then, as afterwards, clear and convincing. In the same year in which he was first elected to the Legislature, he went as a private in a company of volunteers to Baltimore, to aid in defending it against exposure of himself to danger, gave evidence of that fire of sincere and true patriotism, which, till the last day of his life, glowed fervidly in his bosom. In the year 1820, his fellow citizens of the Congressional district in which he lived, (composed of the counties of Lancaster, Chester and Delaware,) and without solicitation from him, conferred on him the further honour of electing him to the National House of Representatives. They elected him again in 1822, 1824, 1826 and 1828, when he declined further re-election. His term of service in the House expired on the 3d of March, 1831. He was from almost his first entrance into the House, on of its most prominent and leading members, taking rank with such men as Randolph, McDuffie, P. Barbour, and others, and expressing his views in a clear and forcible manner on all the important questions that came before it. His speeches then, as since, were models of lucidness, chasteness and force. One of the most remarkable of them was that delivered at the Bar of the Senate at the conclusion of the trial of Judge Peck, he being chairman of the able committee appointed to conduct the case before the Senate. This speech has rarely been excelled in ability and eloquence.

In the same year in which he ceased to be a member of the House, he was sent by President Jackson, as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. Petersburg, where he made a most favourable impression, both for himself and his country, and where he negotiated the first Commercial Treaty which this Government ever had with that of Russia. In 1833, he returned from Russia; and in the same year he was elected by the Legislature of Pennsylvania to fill the vacancy in the Senate of the United States, occasioned by the resignation of William Wilkins, who had been appointed to succeed him at the Court of the Czar. He was afterwards elected for the full term of six years; though soon after his second election, he resigned to take a place in the cabinet of President Polk. His whole term of service in the Senate was the same as it had been in the House; viz: ten years.

In the body of which he was now a member, he took a similarly high rank to that which he had occupied in the House. He frequently measured arms with Clay, Webster and others, and without discredit or disadvantage to himself. He was, during most of the time, the principal leader of the Administration party, and expressed himself at large, and very ably, on all the important questions under discussion. During most of the time, he was chairman of the important Committee on Foreign Relations.

In 1845, he was tendered by the then recently inaugurated President, James K. Polk, the position in his cabinet of Secretary of State. This position he occupied with great honour to himself and advantage to the country. While in the State Department, the Oregon boundary question was finally settled, the war with Mexico was carried on and successfully terminated, and California acquired.

In 1849, at the expiration of Mr. Polk’s Presidential term, Mr. Buchanan retired to his country seat, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he remained until 1853, when President Pierce tendered him, of his own accord, the mission to the Court of St. James. This mission he was averse to accepting, but, on its being pressed upon him, he at length accepted it. He remained in England till the spring of 1856. while there he was treated with marked respect by all classes, from the Queen down. Lord Clarendon had reason to respect his abilities; for he found him more than a match in his diplomatic correspondence with him. His dispatches, while Secretary of War and Minister to England, have not been excelled by those of any other Cabinet or other Minister.

In June of the year he returned from England, he was nominated, (again, without any effort on his part) by the Democratic National Convention, which met at Cincinnati, as their candidate for the Presidency, and in the following November he was elected. And thus, from an humble beginning, after having previously occupied an unusual number of distinguished and honourable positions connected with the Government, he found himself at the age of sixty-five exalted to what is perhaps really the highest political position on earth. The duties of this high office he discharged with ability, and though much blamed for his course during the last few months of his administration (a period when the affairs of the country had come to the fearful crisis to which they had been long tending,) yet, in all he did, and in all he abstained from doing, he was actuated by the highest and purest motives of patriotism. He did that, and that only, which he believed he was authorized to do, and which he thought it best and his duty to do. He, himself, feared not the verdict of future times, as to his course and as to his policy, and on more than one occasion, within only a year or two of his death, he had been heard to say, that had he to pass through the same state of things again, he could not, before his God, say that he could act otherwise than as he did. In sincere and cordial love for the Union he was second to none. The principal respect in which he differed from many others was, as to what were the best and most legitimate means of preserving or restoring the Union.

At the expiration of his Presidential term, in March, 1861, he returned to his home at Wheatland, where he spent the remainder of his life, enjoying the society of his neighbours and friends, and employing himself with his books and pen. One of the books most frequently perused by him was the Bible; in the teachings of which he was a firm believer, and on the promises of which he cheerfully relied. He had always been a believer in the Holy Scriptures, and in the truth of the Christian religion, and besides being always strictly moral in his conduct, and been in many respects, a devout and religious, as well as a kind and charitable man. But he had never made an open profession of being a disciple of Christ until within the last few years of his life, when he became a communicant of the Presbyterian Church. He died calmly and peacefully on Monday, the first day of June, 1868. on the Thursday following, his remains were followed to the grave by such numbers of his fellow citizens, (including a large number of persons from abroad,) as indicated, that however he may have been censured by persons of opposite political opinions while living, he was yet one who, in public estimation, was both a great and a good man, one deserving for his acknowledged strict integrity and his well known, benevolence, esteem and regard, as for his learning, statesmanship, eloquence and talents, he commanded deference and respect.

On opening his will, it was found that he had remembered the poor of Lancaster, as well as the church of which he was a member, and had arranged that a handsome addition should be made to the fund which he had appropriated for their benefit, years before. It may be added that in person he was large, in manners courteous and polished, and that his stores of knowledge and his powers of conversation were such that no one could be long in his company without being deeply interested, and without receiving valuable information.-Rev. E. Y. Buchanan.