“The Works of James Buchanan.” The Independent 65 (September 24, 1908): 717-718.
THE WORKS OF JAMES BUCHANAN
| James Buchanan was so essentially a diplomatist that it
was quite fitting to hand over the task of editing his writings to the
most eminent of American jurists. Professor Moore has much more than a
national reputation as an international lawyer, while his monumental compilations
upon arbitration and the law of nations have fully established his standing
as an able and conscientious editor. In the four volumes now ready he has
arranged the papers of Buchanan for the years before 1842.
The public life of James Buchanan covered those forty critical years between the Missouri compromise and the Civil War. He entered Congress from Pennsylvania in 1821. Of his writings previous to his first speech in the House his editor has found ten pages. During the years covered by these volumes his reputation as a Pennsylvania politician was being established, and in 1841 he had for six years been a Senator of the United States. Yet in these twenty years of public life there had been no time when Buchanan had played an important part in national affairs. His speeches and letters might as well have been those of any politician of good ability, honesty and fortune.
The documents here presented, then, have their interest in the light they throw upon the ordinary workings of life and government in the thirties and forties. Even here their new interest is slight, for most of them are merely the speeches already accessible in the pages of the Annals of Congress, and without special concern for the general public. The Library of Congress and the Pennsylvania State Historical Society have given up some manuscripts which here see the light, but these are so few in number that we are forced to conclude that Buchanan took no special care for the preservation of his correspondence.
The earliest letters of interest are those which portray the rising young Democrat in the years of Adams’s administration, 1825-29. A few letters here show how carefully Buchanan established his connection with Jackson and looked after his own future by tying himself to the chief, now abused, but soon to be triumphant. The unsavory scandal raised by the Jackson men over the alleged bargain by which Clay received the portfolio of State in return for his support to Adams made life difficult for the Pennsylvanian. He allowed himself to approach Jackson in a way which might be misinterpreted as being an embassy from Clay hinting at a promise on Jackson’s part which might secure to Jackson the aid of Clay and an election to the Presidency. Jackson misunderstood the approach and stated in public that Clay had made overtures to him thru Buchanan. For Buchanan it was a nice problem in practical politics to correct the statement of his chief without losing his friendship. It has a curious ring today, to hear a Pennsylvania Congressman, in this connection, declare: “I feel proud that my native State has thus early shewn herself to the world to be true to her principles and to be beyond the influence of executive patronage.”
Before the thirties had ended Buchanan had begun to show great interest in affairs of diplomacy. The fourth volume is full of speeches on international matters, such as the Maine boundary, the Texas recognition, and the McLeod case. In this last controversy he displayed the jurist overcome by the State rights Democratic politician. Webster, as Secretary of State, realized fully the danger to the Federal Government if New York should hang for murder a man who had acted under orders as a British soldier, and whose responsibility had been shouldered by the British Government. One of the weak spots in the Federal Constitution is the ease with which a disgruntled State might involve the whole United States in unnecessary complications. But Buchanan was in the opposition, and charged it against the statecraft of Webster that Demosthenes, another orator, had been a coward and had accepted a bribe, while Cicero had been timid and irresolute. After this convincing argument he tried to prove that McLeod ought to hang whether England assumed responsibility for his act or not.
As editor, Professor Moore has in most instances contented himself with giving the source of the documents which he prints. We have no complaint to make of his editing or of the printing. But unless subsequent volumes shall bring to light large quantities of new manuscript materials, we are inclined to doubt the need for issuing Buchanan’s works on this elaborate scale. It is hardly worth while to reprint the Annals and the Globe, even to gratify the family piety which provided for this work.