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MacDonald, William. “The Works of James Buchanan, Comprising his Speeches, State Papers and Private Correspondence.” The American Historical Review 14 (October 1908): 147-149.


The basis of what will doubtless be the definitive edition of Buchanan’s writings, undertaken and carried through with the support of his niece, the late Mrs. Henry E. Johnston, formerly Harriet Lane, appears to be the Buchanan papers in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Professor Moore has been able to include, however, important papers from the Library of Congress, especially the Jackson and Van Buren collections, and from the Department of State; he has reprinted from Curtis’s biography what could not be found elsewhere; while for Buchanan’s speeches in Congress he has used the official reports. It is disturbing to find that Curtis should often have printed his documents carelessly or fragmentarily, but Professor Moore points out numerous instances of erroneous or partial reproduction. The arrangement of the papers, in these three volumes extending only to 1838, is strictly chronological, the source of each document is carefully indicated, and brief notes supply necessary data, mainly of a personal nature. As pieces of straightforward and attractive book-making the set promises to be in every way praiseworthy.

Buchanan entered upon his long career of public service in December, 1821, when, at the age of thirty, he took his seat in Congress as a representative from Pennsylvania, his native state. Of his writings previous to this time Professor Moore prints but two specimens: a letter to Jared Ingersoll, in 1813, soliciting an appointment as deputy attorney-general, and a fragment of a Fourth of July oration, 1815, in which his early Federalist sympathies appear. In Congress he soon won distinction as a man of legal ability and laborious industry. A speech of March 12, 1822, against the pending bankruptcy bill (I. 24), he declared in his autobiography to be one of the best ever delivered by him in Congress. He favored the tariffs of 1824 and 1828 (I. 56, 233, 330), and at first gave his support to internal improvements (I. 252); but in 1829, after considering Monroe’s constitutional objections (I. 383), he opposed further appropriations for the Cumberland Road, and urged the cession of the road to the states through which it ran. His close acquaintance with Jackson, first instanced here in a cordial letter of May 29, 1825 (I. 138), involved him in the scandal of the “corrupt bargain”. October 16, 1826, we find him writing to Duff Green that, although he (Buchanan) had seen Jackson in regard to the Clay vote a few days before the decision to vote for Adams was known, “I had no authority from Mr. Clay or his friends to propose any terms to General Jackson, in relation to their votes, nor did I make any such proposition” (I. 219). As to a “corrupt bargain”, that, he says, was a natural inference, but will never be proved by direct evidence. He returned to the subject again the following July in a letter to Ingham (I. 260), in which he still shows anxiety not to be thought an emissary of Clay. He championed without reserve, however, Jackson’s view of the election of 1825, and in 1828 spoke several times in favor of retrenchment and against the alleged extravagance of the Adams administration.

That Buchanan could on occasion take a position which, if it correctly represented his opinion, was indicative of a curious mental twist, is shown by a remarkable speech of 1830 (I. 440), in which the withdrawal of the Supreme Court justices from circuit duty was strongly opposed on the ground, among others, that by living always at Washington they would lose touch with the people, be unable to keep up with the course of state legislation, and become in time wholly subservient to the President! For the most part, however, his course was consistent and increasingly influential. In 1830, as chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, he drew the articles of impeachment in the case of Judge Peck; and in January, 1831, courageously resisted the famous attempt to repeal the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, regulating appeals to the Supreme Court (II. 67). The same broad views of public policy as distinct from party advantage dictated his opposition, in February, 1831, to the proposal to strike out the appropriation for the salary of John Randolph, the minister of Russia.

In May of the same year Buchanan was himself offered the Russian post, and accepted it. His diary, beginning March 21, 1832, supplements for this period his public and private correspondence. As minister he had a chance to display the tact of diplomatic skill which Professor Moore notes as his special gift, and his success, particularly in the negotiation of a treaty of commerce and navigation, was gratifying. A treaty of maritime rights, however he was unable to secure. The business methods of the Department of State were evidently unsatisfactory, for Buchanan repeatedly complains that necessary books and documents are not sent to him, and on December 20, 1832, writes: “I have not received the scrape of a pen from the Department of State since I left home” (II. 307). He found time to correspond with Jackson and others about American politics, commended the bank veto (II. 241), and noted the praise of European newspapers for the nullification proclamation and messages (II. 316).

Buchanan returned to the United States in the autumn of 1833. Although already several times mentioned as a vice-presidential possibility, he had himself been inclined to think that his public career was over (II. 333), and had considered opening a law office in New York or Baltimore. In December, 1834, however, he was chosen a United States senator. In response to a letter from Jacob Kern and others, informing him of his election, he admitted the right of the legislature to instruct its senators (II. 402); and in February, 1838, he yielded to a resolution of the assembly and voted against the Subtreasury Bill, which he had previously supported (III. 380). In the Senate he at once championed Jackson’s course in relation to France (II. 408), maintaining that the time for a vigorous assertion of American rights had come. In January, 1837, he spoke at length in support of Benton’s expunging resolution, voting, as he observed, “not cheerfully” but from “imperious duty” (III. 168). In 1836 he opposed the recognition of Texan independence (III. 60), though sympathizing with Texas; and he was still in opposition on March 1, 1837 (III. 247), and voted against the resolution which prevailed. He was already on record as approving Jackson’s course with the bank, and his letters contain a number of references to the popular approval which he detected. Like Jackson, too, he came to believe in the wisdom of a complete divorce of the federal government from the banks.

The question of slavery Buchanan could not dodge even had he wished to do so, and his treatment of the subject at this time was at least as enlightened as that of most of his party associates. In February, 1836, we find him opposing petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (III. 1), notwithstanding the fact that in 1819, at Lancaster, he had been one of a committee which drafted strong resolutions against slavery in new states and territories; but the opposition in the Senate to the reception of abolition memorials called out his unqualified condemnation (III. 553). He agreed with Calhoun, however, in desiring the exclusion of anti-slavery matter from the mails (III. 83). There is nothing to show that he as yet saw much below the surface of events. Jackson had written to him exultantly on March 21, 1833, “Thus die nullification and secession”, and Buchanan saw no reason to fear that the dead would rise.

A useful feature of this edition is an index to Buchanan’s career in Congress, extending to 1845. The documents in volume III. stop with June, 1838.

William MacDonald