Biography
 

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: James T. White & Company, 1897), 5: 1-3.

 
Buchanan, James, fifteenth president of the United States, was born near Mercersburg, Pa., Apr. 23, 1791. James Buchanan’s parents were of Scotch-Irish descent. His father was born in the county Donegal, Ireland, in 1761, and emigrated to America in 1783, settling in Cumberland county, Pa., where he married and was blest with eleven children. His son James was the second of these children and his father seems to have been well-to-do, as the boy was educated first at a good school in Mercersburg and afterward, in 1807, entered the junior class in Dickinson College, from which he was graduated two years later. He went to Lancaster where he studied law, and in 1812 was admitted to the bar in that town. This was the time of the war with England, and Buchanan’s political principles being those of the federalist party, were against war, yet his first public address in Lancaster was in behalf of the enlistment of volunteers, and he enrolled his name as one of the earliest to take up this duty. This was in 1814, and in October of that year he was elected a member of the lower house of the Pennsylvania legislature, and re-elected in 1815. After the close of the session he retired to Lancaster and returned to the practice of his profession in which he was already becoming well known and somewhat distinguished. About this time occurred the romantic experience which caused him to always remain unmarried, and had an important influence in shaping his career. He was engaged to a young lady of fine personal character and great beauty, and it was his intention to devote himself entirely to his profession and not to again enter public life, when the death of this young lady changed all his plans, and being offered the nomination for congress he accepted it gladly and was elected to the seventeenth congress, being at the time twenty-nine years old. At this time the country was politically quiet; war excitement was forgotten; there was no sectional disturbance and the turn of legislation was rather toward improvements and bills for the amelioration of conditions, than anything more grave. An illustration of this was a bill introduced in December, 1821, for the purpose of establishing uniformity in the matter of bankruptcy. The discussion of this act continued nearly three months and brought Mr. Buchanan forward as a debater. The measure itself included commercial insolvency only, and in this form would doubtless have passed, but an amendment intended to cover all insolvent debtors was the cause of a great deal of feeling. Mr. Buchanan was in favor of the bill but opposed to the amendment, claiming that the measure had a very wide bearing, and that if it should become a law it would virtually amount to a judicial consolidation of the Union, an object which showed the tendency of Mr. Buchanan’s mind at this early period of his career, and which was displayed just forty years later when the question of the absolute disintegration of the Union was on the tapis. In speaking to the bill in question Mr. Buchanan said: “Let a bankrupt be presented to the view of society who has become wealthy since his discharge and who, after having ruined a number of his creditors, shields himself from the payment of his honest debts by a certificate, and what effects would such a spectacle be calculated to produce? Examples of this nature must at length demoralize any people. The contagion introduced by the laws of the country would for that very reason spread like a pestilence, until honesty, honor, and faith will at length be swept from the intercourse of society. Leave the agriculture interests pure and uncorrupted, and they will forever form the basis on which the constitution and liberties of your country may safely repose. Do not, I beseech you, teach them to think lightly of the solemn obligations of contracts. No government on earth, however corrupt, has ever enacted a bankrupt law for farmers. It would be a perfect monster in this country where our institutions depend altogether upon the virtue of the people. We have no constitutional power to pass the amendment proposed by the gentleman from Kentucky, and if we had we never should do so, because such a provision would spread a moral taint through society which would corrupt it to its very core.” In considering the subject of protection Mr. Buchanan said that he should consider himself a traitor to his country in giving any support to a bill which should compel the agricultural to bow down before the manufacturing interest. Concerning slavery he said: “I believe it to be a great political and a grave moral evil. I thank God my lot has been cast in a state where it does not exist, but while I entertain these opinions I know it is an evil at present beyond remedy.” Mr. Buchanan was one of the most efficient supporters of President Jackson in congress. He was chairman of the judiciary committee of the house, and in that position was able to introduce and advocate important measures. In August, 1831, Mr. Buchanan received the appointment to the Russian mission from General Jackson, with the additional duty of negotiating a commercial treaty with that country. The mission succeeded and Mr. Buchanan remained at the Russian court until the autumn of 1833 when, after making a short tour of the continent and England, he returned to the United States. In 1834 Mr. Buchanan was chosen senator from Pennsylvania, and as a democrat found himself opposed to such men as Clay, Webster, Clayton, Tom Ewing, Frelinghuysen and other eminent debaters. He was, however, able to hold his own, even against such powerful opposition, and although offered in 1839 by President Van Buren the position of attorney-general of the United States, he preferred to remain in the senate. In 1845 President Polk offered Mr. Buchanan the position of secretary of state, which he accepted, and in that position found himself obliged to handle two very important national questions, one being the settlement of the Oregon boundary and the other that of the annexation of Texas. In the treatment of these delicate questions and others Mr. Buchanan exhibited a tact and good judgment which increased his already high reputation as a statesman and diplomatist. In 1852 Mr. Buchanan was a candidate with Gen. Cass, Senator Douglas, Gov. Marcy and others before the Baltimore convention for the nomination for the presidency, but it was soon found necessary to accept a compromise candidate, and Franklin Pierce received the nomination. Mr. Buchanan at once expressed his satisfaction with this action on the part of the convention, and declared his intention to aid in the election of Mr. Pierce, who was opposed by Gen. Scott as a whig candidate, against whom Mr. Buchanan delivered an important and influential speech at Greensburgh, Pa. President Pierce, being elected, offered Mr. Buchanan the mission to England which, after much deliberation, the latter consented to accept. He arrived in London in August, 1852, and continued to represent the United States at the court of St. James until the spring of 1856 with marked ability, being recognized by the diplomatic corps at that court as the equal of any. At the national democratic convention in Cincinnati in 1856 Mr. Buchanan was nominated for the presidency. It was an exciting period and Mr. Buchanan felt the responsibility which he would assume if he should be elected. In opposition to him the newly formed republican party entered the field with Gen. John C. Frémont, hoping to carry the country by the enthusiasm which it expected to provoke through the use of the name of the explorer, but in this they were unsuccessful, and Mr. Buchanan was elected, obtaining an electoral vote of all the slave-holding states together with the states of California, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The situation was ominous. The preceding administration had witnessed the repeal of the Missouri compromise, which opened the sectional struggle, quieted during the existence of that measure. The troubles in Kansas were at their height, and in his management of the delicate question there involved Mr. Buchanan brought down upon himself severe denunciation from the press and pulpits of the North. In a general way in his treatment of this question, as later in his handling of the greater sectional question which arose in the last days of his administration, Mr. Buchanan showed his chief failings-weakness of character, and a tendency to “trim”. During his administration the Clayton-Bulwer treaty closed the perplexing and irritating question inherited from former administrations. Mr. Buchanan’s industry during the whole time of his occupancy of the presidential chair was incessant and untiring, and at one period, after the resignation of Gen. Cass, he was virtually his own secretary of state. It was during his administration that the first success of the Atlantic cable was established, Aug. 5, 1858. In the same year Minnesota was admitted to the Union, followed by Oregon in 1859. The events of the latter part of his administration became to Mr. Buchanan sources of serious misgiving and constant worriment. The Dred Scott decision by the supreme court greatly excited the North, while John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry stimulated the anti-slavery and anti-southern feeling. Under these conditions the campaign of 1860 became a period of wide-spread anxiety. Mr. Lincoln was elected, and on the 20th of December South Carolina seceded. By the 1st of February, 1861, this had been followed by the secession of the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The Confederate government was organized with Jefferson Davis as president and Alexander H. Stephens as vice-president. Meanwhile the national government was apparently paralyzed, and the friends of the South in the cabinet and in both houses of congress were able to do much in the interest of their cause by increasing the inefficiency of the army and navy while distracting the president with diverse counsels. All the military posts and ports in the southern states with four exceptions were seized by the Confederate authorities. One decided movement was made by Mr. Buchanan in the direction of positive action in the attempt to reinforce the garrison at Fort Sumter by sending the steamer Star of the West with men and provisions to Charleston harbor, but on being fired upon she was compelled to return. On the 9th of March, 1861, Mr. Buchanan retired from Washington to his country-seat at Wheatland, leaving the country on the eve of a revolution, for which he was at that time held to be responsible. Feeling the injustice of the prevailing opinion Mr. Buchanan spent a portion of his leisure after his retirement in writing a vindication of his policy under the title “Buchanan’s Administration,” which was published in 1866. During his incumbency of the White House, being unmarried, Mr. Buchanan was assisted most gracefully and charmingly in dispensing its hospitalities by his niece, Miss Harriet Lane, long remembered as one of the most agreeable and accomplished ladies who ever undertook this onerous duty. Mr. Buchanan died in Lancaster, Pa., June 1, 1868.