James Buchanan Resource Center Banner Image

“Life of Buchanan.” The United States Democratic Review 38 (August 1856): 64-70.

We were in the office of one of New-York’s most distinguished sons, a few days since, when a friend of the author laid a complimentary copy of this book upon his table, and we heard from him the significant remark: “I thought, sir, we had nominated a man for President whose life need not be written.” Indeed, when we retrospect the history of our government for the past thirty years, looking into the preliminary struggles which led to the consummation of those great enactments, which, based upon the Constitution, have become the law of the land, we find JAMES BUCHANAN prominent in the conflict, and his impress is upon almost every enactment. His advice and counsel is unceasingly given to a defense of our great Charter and a maintenance of the union of this brotherhood of States. And singular and significant withal is the fact that every great measure of general welfare advocated by him has become a portion of the settled and wholesome policy of the government.

Daniel Webster and Henry Clay are occupying conspicuous places in history. We seek in vain for their superiors in eloquence. But with all their giant greatness, we find very little if any thing they actually did to perpetually bless this and succeeding generations. Have any of the monuments of national law, any of the acts of political economy, any of the salutary movements for settling upon principle the question of slavery, been indebted to them for paternity, or carried to success by their efforts? It is true they were great and successful compromisers, but we are now painfully realizing the fact that compromises are great calamities. The policy of these giant orators was mainly temporary and sectional. But when we turn to the record of Mr. Buchanan’s life, we find a tangible and permanent expression of his real greatness, evidencing itself in a life of labor for the success of the entire American Union, upon principles comprehensive in their scope and beneficent for all time.

In this volume we have a plain statement of facts in the life of Mr. Buchanan, with such extracts from his speeches as will enable the reader to judge of his ability as a statesman, the soundness of his political doctrines, the excellences of his character as a man, and the eminent services he has performed for the prosperity of the country. It opens with an account of his birth, parentage and education, and unparalleled success in his profession. Passing over reluctantly his career as a legislator in his native State, for we would gladly copy the facts of the heroic fortitude and manhood of his early life had we the space for extracts, but are compelled to notice only a few of his more prominent speeches while in Congress.

Mr. Buchanan entered Congress directly after the session of 1820, and took rank at once as one of the leading members of the House. Nearly the first speech of his on record is on the bankrupt law, where the distinctive doctrines of the Democratic party are ably vindicated by masterly and convincing arguments. After analyzing the bill, and exposing its unfair and injurious features, he gives us the following picture of the stimulus it would afford to speculation:

“It would tend again to arouse the spirit of wild and extravagant speculation, which has spread distress far and wide over the land. It will tend again to produce these evils for which its friends say it is intended to provide a remedy. What has been the history of this country? Upon this subject, let us not turn a deaf ear to the dictates of experience. It is the best teacher of political wisdom.

“Under our glorious Constitution, the human mind is unrestrained in the pursuit of happiness. The calm of despotism does not rest upon us. Neither the institution of the country, nor the habits of society, have established any castes within the limits of which man shall be confined. The human intellect walks abroad in its majesty. This admirable system of government, which incorporates the rights of man into the Constitution of the country, develops all the latent resources of the intellect, and brings them into active energy. The road to wealth and to honor is not closed against the humblest citizen – and Heaven forbid that it ever should be!

A few merchants, both in the cities and the country, have amassed splendid and princely fortunes. These have glittered in the fancy of the thoughtless and unsuspecting countryman, and have moved his ambition or his avarice. He never calculated that it requires a man of considerable parts, with great experience, to make an accomplished merchant; and that, with all these advantages, but few comparatively are successful. His son is taught book-keeping at a country school, and then he abandons the pursuit of his fathers. He leaves the business of agriculture, which is the most peaceful, the most happy, the most independent, and, I might add, the most respectable, in society, to become a merchant. He spurns the idea of treading in the path of his ancestors, and acquiring his living by the sweat of his brow. Wealth and distinction have become his idols, and turned his brain. Is not this the history of thousands in our country within the last twenty years? It was not difficult to predict what would be the melancholy catastrophe. Bankruptcy and ruin have fallen upon the thoughtless adventurers.”

The position assumed by Mr. Buchanan thus early on the bankrupt law, shadows forth the purity of his Democratic principles, at a time when persons but indifferently acquainted with his political history charge him with Federalism. Few public men have borne so untainted a record through so long a period as he, and a careful reading of this volume has convinced us that, for systematic devotion to correct principles of statesmanship, he has never had a superior in our history.

He was reelected in 1823. During the subsequent year occurred the election of John Quincy Adams. On account of some circumstances attending which, Mr. Buchanan has been misrepresented and censured, we give Mr. Horton’s lucid statement, as a complete refutation of these electioneering slanders:

“The result of the election is well known to every one at all acquainted with political history. In the electoral college John Quincy Adams received 84 votes, William H. Crawford 41, Andrew Jackson 99, and Henry Clay 37. Adams, Crawford, and Jackson being the three candidates who had received the highest number of votes, and neither a majority, it devolved upon the House of Representatives to make a choice of a President. There were at that time twenty-four States, and Mr. Adams received the votes of thirteen, Mr. Crawford of four, and General Jackson of seven. Thus, though General Jackson was without doubt the popular choice, he was defeated, as was generally charged at that time, by an arrangement between the friends of Mr. Clay and Mr. Adams, by which the former was to receive the position of Secretary of State under the new administration. This charge was indignantly repelled by Mr. Clay and his friends, and as Mr. Buchanan has been stoutly charged with having originated the report, the facts of the case should be known. The truth is, that the idea of the friends of Mr. Clay and Mr. Adams uniting, originated in Washington, at first from surmises, founded as much as any thing upon the well-known hostility of Mr. Clay to ‘a military candidate.’ These Washington rumors were first communicated to the public by Hon. George Kremer, of Pennsylvania, in a letter to a Western newspaper, and they were mentioned by Mr. Buchanan to General Jackson, with whom he was on terms of much intimacy, and whose election he greatly desired. In the course of the conversation, General Jackson indignantly remarked, that before he would ‘be guilty of such an act, he would see the earth open and swallow up both Mr. Clay and his friends and himself with them.’

“The fact, however, that Mr. Clay accepted office in Mr. Adams’ administration was the principal ground upon which the charge was grounded. There had been opposing candidates at the Presidential election, and, however pure may have been the acts both of Mr. Adams and Mr. Clay, the fact of the latter going into Mr. Adams’ cabinet, and the fact of his friends having been the means of placing Mr. Adams in his distinguished position could not be separated in the minds of the people. It is doubtless true that no bargain existed. Mr. Benton, in his ‘Thirty Years’ View,’ does Mr. Clay the justice to say that he knew of his determination to vote for Mr. Adams, and not for General Jackson, before the 12th of December, 1824. Mr. Clay’s friends have always complained bitterly of the injustice done him by this rumor, and a few of the more malevolent have tried to connect Mr. Buchanan with it, but without the least foundation. He merely stated rumors to General Jackson, which were current in private circles, and which had even been published in the public journals. The fact is, that it was not so much the rumor of ‘bargain and sale’ that injured Mr. Clay, as it was the disregard of the will of the people in the election of Mr. Adams. General Jackson had the highest number of votes of any of the candidates, and the preferences of some of the States which had voted for Mr. Clay himself it was well know, were for General Jackson as their second choice. Yet the friends of Mr. Clay in Congress assumed to virtually decide that ‘military Presidents’ were dangerous, or, in other words, that the people did not know enough to choose their own public officers. Whatever may be said about the ‘bargain and sale’ story, this was the real issue of the election, and this disregard for the popular will was, doubtless, the error of Mr. Clay’s life, for he soon after joined the Whigs (then called National Republicans), and entirely lost the position in the Democratic party he once occupied. The election of Mr. Adams was, of course, perfectly legal, but the will of the people had, nevertheless, been defeated, and most proudly did they vindicate their sovereignty at the next election, when they sent ‘the hero of New-Orleans’ to the presidential chair, with a majority which no trafficking could destroy, or no chicanery evade. Mr. Buchanan, in a speech in Congress, in 1828, referring to Mr. Clay’s accepting office in Mr. Adams’ cabinet, exclaimed with true prophetic inspiration: ‘What brilliant prospects has that man not sacrificed!”

As evincing the consistency of Mr. Buchanan’s views, it is only necessary to refer to his position upon what in later days has been called the “Cuban Question.” It will be recollected that Mr. Monroe’s famous declaration, in regard to the colonization of European powers on this continent, was made when the Spanish-American provinces threw off the yoke of Spain. Mr. Clay formed a scheme for uniting us in a more entangling manner with these governments than was thought prudent. Mr. Buchanan opposed it, and in his speech upon the Mission to Panama, he made the following profound observations upon Cuba – a position he has always adhered to for thirty years, and though at that time he was considered behind the age, yet now he is denounced as a filibuster!

“The vast importance of the Island of Cuba to the people of the United States may not be generally known. The commerce of this island is of immense value, particularly to the agricultural and navigating interests of the country. Its importance has been rapidly increasing for a number of years. To the middle, or grain-growing States, this commerce is almost indispensable. The aggregate value of goods, wares, merchandise, the growth, produce, and manufacture of the United States, exported annually to that island, now exceeds three millions and a half of dollars. Of this amount, more than the one third consists of two articles, of pork and flour. The chief of the other products of domestic origin, are fish-oil, spermaceti candles, timber, beef, butter and cheese, rice, tallow candles, and soap. Our principle imports from that island are coffee, sugar, and molasses, articles which may almost be considered necessaries of life. The whole amount of our exports to it, foreign and domestic, is nearly six millions, and our imports nearly eight millions of dollars.

“The articles which constitute the medium of this commerce, are both bulky and ponderous, and their transportation employs a large portion of our foreign tonnage. More than one seventh of the whole tonnage engaged in foreign trade, which entered the ports of the United States during the year ending the last day of September, 1824, came from Cuba; and but little less than that proportion of the tonnage employed on our export trade sailed for that island. Its commerce is at present more valuable to the United States than that of all the Southern Republics united. How, then, can the American people even agree that this island shall be invaded by Colombia and Mexico, and pass under their dominion? Ought we not to avert impending fate, if possible?

“Important as the island may be to us in a commercial, it is still more important in a political, view. From its position it commands the entrance to the Gulf both of Mexico and Florida. The Report of our Committee of Foreign Relations truly says, ‘that the Moro may be regarded as a fortress at the mouth of the Mississippi.’ Any power in possession of this island, even with a small naval force, could hermetically seal the mouth of the Mississippi. Thus the vast agricultural productions of that valley, which is drained by the father of rivers, might be deprived of the channel which nature intended for their passage. A large portion of the people of the State, one of whose representatives I am, find their way to market by the Mississippi. For this reason I feel particularly interested in this part of the subject. The great law of self-preservation, which is equally binding on individuals and nations, commands us, if we can not obtain possession of this island ourselves, not to suffer it to pass from Spain, under whose dominion it will be harmless, and yet our government have never even protested against its invasion by Mexico and Columbia.

“There is still another view of the subject in relation to this island, which demands particular attention. Let us for a moment look at the spectacle which it will, probably, present, in case Mexico and Colombia should attempt to revolutionize it. Have they not always marched under the standard of universal emancipation? Have they not always conquered by proclaiming liberty to the slave? In the present condition of this island what shall be the probable consequence? A servile war, which, in every age, has been the most barbarous and destructive, and which spares neither age nor sex. Revenge, urged on by cruelty and ignorance, would desolate the land. The dreadful scenes of St. Domingo would again be presented to our view, and would again be acted almost in sight of our own shores. Cuba would be a vast magazine in the vicinity of the southern States, whose explosion would be dangerous to their tranquility and peace. Is there any man in this Union who could for one moment indulge the horrid idea of abolishing slavery by the massacre of the high-minded and chivalrous race of men in the South? I trust there is not one. For my own part, I would, without hesitation, buckle on my knapsack and march in company with my friend from Massachusetts (Mr. Everett) in defense of their cause.”

We have not space, however, to follow Mr. Buchanan’s career through all his subsequent public life. We must pass over his profound speech upon the “Impeachment of Judge Peck,” where as opposing counsel to the great and eloquent William Wirt, he acquitted himself so nobly, and earned the distinction of presenting the most able and learned disquisitor in jurisprudence on record. He served ten years in the lower house of Congress, and, declining a reelection, was appointed by Gen. Jackson, Minister to Russia. Mr. Buchanan took his seat in the Senate in 1834, and for ten years was one of the leading men in that body, at the time that such names as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Silas Wright, were upon its rolls. He was the leader of the Democratic party in the great debate with Mr. Clay, on the bank question, and during Mr. Tyler’s administration fought for the true constitutional principles with heroic spirit. It was during Mr. Van Buren’s administration, in the debate on the Independent Treasury Bill, one of the most beneficent monetary arrangements ever planed, that the vile charge of “low wages” was raised. Probably there never was a more triumphant vindication of the rights of labor than that contained in his speech upon this subject, as well as in his reply to John Davis of Massachusetts. We are glad to see that this work before us presents the whole matter so fully. These speeches should be read by every laboring man, and if the volume was extensively circulated we do not doubt it would have great influence on the presidential election. Mr. Buchanan’s friends need not shrink from a single line or syllable of his speech, for it is from first to last a noble monument to its author, and the very fact that the principles herein advocated have been adopted, and are now the settled policy of the government, should silence his enemies for ever.

In 1845 Mr. Buchanan entered Mr. Polk’s cabinet, and to his wise statesmanship are we indebted for our vast empire on the Pacific. As a chief in that cabinet, that carried through the brilliant campaign in Mexico, he has won for himself a renown which even the Presidency can not increase.

In looking over the life and public services of Mr. Buchanan, there will two prominent points strike the mind of the reader. First, an instinctive opposition to the abolition delusion, from its very commencement; and, secondly, a steady and uncompromising denial of the right to prescribe persons on account of birth-place or religion. Both these positions were taken by Mr. Buchanan before any political parties were formed upon the questions, and through all the changes of party politics for thirty years he has steadily adhered to them. In regard to sectionalism it is only necessary to quote the following noble sentiment:

“If I know myself, I am a politician neither of the East, nor of the West, of the North, nor the South: I therefore shall for ever avoid any expressions, the direct tendency of which must be to create sectional jealousies, sectional divisions, and at length disunion, that worst and last of all political calamities.”

And the above promise, made more than thirty years ago on the floor of the House of Representatives, has been scrupulously fulfilled.

Upon the compromise measures of 1850, upon the Wilmot Proviso, etc., we find Mr. Buchanan adhering to sound democracy, and while the waves of faction have broken over other States, his has remained as firm as the eternal hills of its own Alleghanies. Mr. Buchanan’s mission to England has been highly commended by all parties; indeed no one will question that, of all American statesmen, there is not one who has so profound a knowledge of all our diplomatic and governmental policy as he.

It is such a man that the American people are called upon to place in the Presidential chair. That they will do it can not be doubted. All who value our Constitution and our dearly purchased liberties will not risk it and them into the hands of one who, in his thirst for “exploration,” may desire to rush in where “angels fear to tread.” In the language of Mr. Buchanan’s biographer we say:

“This Union, with its inestimable blessings, its patriotic associations, its trial of the capacity of men for self-government, is so invaluable to the cause of suffering humanity throughout the world, that should the American people, with sacrilegious hands, tear down this noble temple of liberty, they would deserve, as they would undoubtedly receive, the just contempt and execration of posterity.

To restore peace to our already distracted country, to unite once more the bonds of fraternal feeling between all sections, and, in the language of the immortal Washington, ‘to frown indignantly upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,’ we can not but believe that an overwhelming majority, North as well as South, will insist upon placing in the Presidential chair the consistent statesman, the pure patriot and the honest man, James Buchanan.