The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/James Buchanan
James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, born near Mercersburg, Pa., April 23, 1791; died in Lancaster, Pa., June 1, 1868. The days of his youth were those of the nation's youth; his public career of forty years saw all our great extensions of boundary on the south and west, acquired from foreign powers, the admission of thirteen new states, the development of many important questions of internal and foreign policy, and the gradual rise and final culmination of a great and disastrous insurrection. He was educated at a school in Mercersburg and at Dickinson college, Pa., where he was graduated in 1809. He began to practise law in Lancaster in 1812. His early political principles were those of the federalists, who disapproved of the war; yet, as he himself said, “he thought it was the duty of every patriot to defend the country, while the war was raging, against a foreign enemy.” His first public address was made at the age of twenty-three, on the occasion of a popular meeting in Lancaster after the capture of Washington by the British in 1814. He urged the enlistment of volunteers for the defence of Baltimore, and was among the first to enroll his name. In October of the same year he was elected to the house of representatives in the legislature of Pennsylvania for Lancaster County.
Peace was proclaimed early in 1815, and on July 4 Mr. Buchanan delivered an oration before the Washington association of Lancaster. In it he spoke of the war as “glorious, in the highest degree, to the American character, but disgraceful in the extreme to the administration.” The speech excited much criticism, and in later life he said that “it contained many sentiments which he regretted, but that at the same time it could not be denied that the country was wholly unprepared for war at the period of its declaration, and the attempt to carry it on by means of loans, without any resort to taxation, had well nigh made the government bankrupt.” He was again elected to the legislature in October, 1815, and at the close of that session he retired to the practice of his profession, in which he gained early distinction, especially in the impeachment of a judge, whom he successfully defended. His intention at this time was not to re-enter public life, but the death of a young lady to whom he was engaged caused him to seek change and distraction of thought, and he accepted a nomination to congress, and was elected in 1820 for a district composed of the counties of Lancaster, York, and Dauphin, taking his seat in December, 1821. He was called a federalist, but the party distinctions of that time were not very clearly defined, and Mr. Buchanan's political principles, as a national statesman, were yet to be formed. Mr. Monroe had become president in 1817, and held that office during two terms, his administration being called “the era of good feeling.” The excitement and animosities of the war of 1812 had subsided, and when Mr. Buchanan entered congress there was no sectionalism to disturb the repose of the country. Questions of internal policy soon arose, however, and he took an able part in many important debates. Mr. Monroe's veto of a bill imposing tolls for the support of the Cumberland road, for which Mr. Buchanan had voted, produced a strong effect upon the latter's constitutional views. It was the first time that his mind had been brought sharply to the consideration of the question in what mode “internal improvements” can be effected by the general government, and consequently he began to perceive the dividing line between the federal and the state powers.
From a photograph by Brady, Washington, D. C.
Mr. Buchanan remained in the house of representatives ten years — during Mr. Monroe's second term, through the administration of John Quincy Adams, and during the first two years of Jackson's administration. In December, 1829, he became chairman of the judiciary committee of the house, and as such introduced a bill to amend and extend the judicial system of the United States, by including in the circuit-court system six new states, and by increasing the number of judges of the supreme court to nine. His speech in explanation of this measure — which was not adopted at the time — was as important as any that has been made upon the subject. Another measure, evincing a thorough knowledge and very accurate views of the nature of our mixed system of governments, was a minority report, presented by him as chairman of this committee, against a proposition to repeal the 25th section of the Judiciary act of 1789, which gave the supreme court appellate jurisdiction, by writ of error to the state courts, in cases where the constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States are drawn in question. This report caused the rejection of the bill by a vote of 138 to 51. During Mr. Adams's term the friends of the administration began to take the name of national republicans, while the opposing party assumed the name of democrats. Mr. Buchanan was one of the leaders of the opposition in the house of representatives. He was always a strong supporter and warm personal friend of Gen. Jackson.
At the close of the 21st congress in March, 1831, it was Buchanan's wish to retire from public life, but, at the request of Gen. Jackson (who had become president in 1829), he accepted the mission to Russia. He embarked from New York in a sailing-vessel on April 8, 1832, and arrived at St. Petersburg about the middle of June. The chief objects of his mission were the negotiation of a commercial treaty that should promote an increase of the commerce between Russia and the United States by regulating the duties to be levied on the merchandise of each country by the other so far as to prevent undue discrimination in favor of the products of other countries; to provide for the residence and functions of consuls, etc.; and also the negotiation of a treaty respecting the maritime rights of neutral nations on the principle that “free ships make free goods.” The Russian minister for foreign affairs at this time was Count Nesselrode. He favored the treaty of commerce, and, though there was much opposition to it from some members of the Russian ministry, it was finally concluded on December 18, 1832. The negotiation concerning a treaty on maritime rights was not successful, because, as Mr. Buchanan wrote, “Russia is endeavoring to manage England at present, and this is an unpropitious moment to urge her to adopt principles of public law which would give offence to that nation, and which would in any way abridge her own belligerent rights.” His attractive manners and evident sincerity of character produced their effect on the Russians, especially the emperor and empress; and he wrote home: “I flatter myself that a favorable change has been effected in his [the emperor's] feelings toward the United States since my arrival”; and at his audience of leave the emperor told him to tell Gen. Jackson to send him another minister exactly like himself. He wrote to President Jackson: “Your foreign policy has had no small influence on public opinion throughout Europe.” Of Russia and the emperor Mr. Buchanan wrote: “There is no freedom of the press, no public opinion, and but little political conversation, and that very much guarded; in short, we live in the calm of despotism, though the Emperor Nicholas [I.] is one of the best of despots. Coming abroad can teach an American no other lesson but to love his country, its institutions, and its laws better, much better than he did before. I have not yet learned to submit patiently to the drudgery of etiquette. Foreign ministers must drive a carriage and four with a postilion.”
He left St. Petersburg on August 8, 1833, spent a short time in Paris and London, and reached home in November, The next year was spent in private occupations in Lancaster, except that he was one of the commissioners appointed by Pennsylvania to arrange with commissioners from New Jersey concerning the use of the waters of Delaware river. On December 6, 1834, the legislature of Pennsylvania elected him to the U. S. senate to succeed Mr. Wilkins, who had been appointed minister to Russia. This office was acknowledged by Mr. Buchanan afterward to be “the only public office he desired to occupy.” He took his seat December 15. He held very strongly the doctrine of instruction — that is, the right of a state legislature to direct the vote of a senator of the state in congress, and the duty of the senator to obey. There has never been a period in the history of the senate when more real power of debate was displayed, or when public measures were more thoroughly considered, than at this time. President Jackson's celebrated proclamation against nullification, and his removal of the public deposits from the bank of the United States into certain selected state banks, had been made during Mr. Buchanan's residence abroad. Jackson enjoyed great popularity and influence throughout the country, but a large majority of the senate were opposed to his financial measures. This opposing party, the old “national republicans” of John Quincy Adams's administration, were now called whigs, and included Mr. Clay, Mr. Webster, Mr. Clayton, of Delaware, Mr. Ewing, of Ohio, and Mr. Frelinghuysen and Mr. Southard, of New Jersey. Among the Jackson men, or democrats, were Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Wright, of New York, Mr. Benton, of Missouri, and Mr. King, of Alabama. Mr. Calhoun stood apart from both the political parties, a great and powerful debater who had been vice-president, and who was now senator from the “nullifying” state of South Carolina.
One of the first debates in which Mr. Buchanan took part in the senate (and one that has not yet lost its interest) was upon a bill requiring the president, when making a nomination to fill a vacancy occasioned by the removal of any officer, to state the fact of such removal and to render reasons for it. Mr. Buchanan opposed it. He contended that the constitution only made the consent of the senate necessary in the appointment of officers by the executive, not in their removal, that, if such consent were required, long and dangerous delays might occur when the senate was not in session; and that, if the president must assign reasons for removals, these reasons must be investigated, much time would be consumed, and the legislative branch of the government would thus exercise functions to which it has no claim. Another great discussion into which Mr. Buchanan entered related to the refusal of the legislative chambers of France to pay a certain sum that had been promised in 1831 by a convention between the United States and the government of King Louis Philippe for the liquidation of certain claims of American citizens against France. The United States waited three years in vain for the payment of this money; and finally, in January, 1836, the president recommended to congress a partial non-intercourse with France. Mr. Buchanan made a long and earnest speech, contending against Webster and Clay, in support of this measure, insisting that “there is a point in the intercourse between nations at which diplomacy must end and a nation must either consent to abandon her rights or assert them by force.” There was some danger for a time of war with France, but eventually Great Britain made an offer of mediation and the difficulty was amicably adjusted.
In January, 1837, Mr. Buchanan delivered a speech that may be regarded as his ablest effort in the senate. It was in support of Col. Benton's “expunging” resolution, which proposed to cancel in the journal of the senate Mr. Clay's resolution of censure against President Jackson for his removal of the public deposits from the bank of the United States. In this argument Mr. Buchanan separated, in a remarkable degree, that which was personal and partisan in the controversy from the serious questions involved. He contended that the censure passed by the senate in 1834 upon the president was unjust, because he had violated no law; and that the senate, in recording such a mere censure, adopted in its legislative capacity, had rendered itself incompetent to perform its high judicial function of impeachment. He concluded with a very ingenious and elaborate criticism of the word “expunge.” The “expunging” resolution was adopted by a party vote.
Toward the end of Jackson's administration the subject of slavery began to be pressed upon the attention of congress by petitions for its abolition in the District of Columbia. One memorial on this subject was presented by Mr. Buchanan himself from some Quakers in his own state. Mr. Calhoun and others objected to the reception of these petitions. Mr. Buchanan, though he disapproved of slavery, yet contended that congress had no power under the constitution to interfere with slavery within those states where it existed, and that it would be very unwise to abolish it in the District of Columbia — “a district carved out of two slave-holding states and surrounded by them on all sides”; but, nevertheless, he also contended, in a long and forcible speech, for the people's right of petition and the duty of congress, save under exceptional circumstances, to receive their petitions. In June, 1836, Mr. Buchanan argued, against Mr. Webster, for a bill, introduced in conformity with a special recommendation from President Jackson, prohibiting the circulation through the mails of incendiary publications on the subject of slavery. In a very sarcastic speech against a bill to prevent the interference of certain federal officers with elections, even in conversation, Mr. Buchanan thus expressed his political faith: “I support the president because he is in favor of a strict and limited construction of the constitution, according to the true spirit of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. I firmly believe that if this government is to remain powerful and permanent it can only be by never assuming doubtful powers which must necessarily bring it into collision with the states. I oppose the whig party, because, according to their reading of the constitution, congress possesses, and they think ought to exercise, powers which would endanger the rights of the states and the liberties of the people.”
The most important and far-reaching of President Jackson's executive measures was his veto in 1832 of a bill for renewing the charter of the bank of the United States. Jackson removed the national deposits into certain state banks, which produced financial distress throughout the land. Mr. Buchanan was conspicuous in the senate as a supporter of Jackson's financial policy throughout his administration and that of his successor, Mr. Van Buren, of the same party. Mr. Buchanan had been re-elected to the senate in January, 1837, by a very large vote and for a full term, his first election having been to a vacancy, and he was the first person that had ever received a second election from the legislature of Pennsylvania. In 1839 Mr. Van Buren offered Mr. Buchanan the attorney-generalship, which Mr. Grundy had resigned. Mr. Buchanan answered that he “preferred his position as a senator from Pennsylvania; that nothing could induce him to waive this preference except a sense of public duty, and that he felt that he could render a more efficient support to the principles” of the administration “on the floor of the senate than he could in an executive office.” The great commercial distress of the country produced, in the elections of 1840, a political revolution, and on March 4, 1841, the whigs came into power under President Harrison. His death in April placed in the executive chair Mr. Tyler, who proved to be opposed to a national bank, and vetoed two bills: the first for a national bank, and the second for a “Fiscal Corporation of the United States.” Mr. Clay made frequent attacks upon Mr. Tyler's vetoes, and even proposed a joint resolution for an amendment of the constitution requiring but a bare majority, instead of two thirds, of each house of congress to pass a bill over the president's objections.
Mr. Buchanan, on February 2, 1842, replied to Mr. Clay in a speech that may be ranked very high as an exposition of one of the most important parts of our political system. He showed that the president's veto was the people's safeguard, through the officer who “more nearly represents a majority of the whole people than any other branch of the government,” against the encroachments of the senate. The veto power “owes its existence,” said he, “to a revolt of the people of Rome against the tyrannical decrees of the Roman senate. The president of the United States, elected by his fellow-citizens to the highest official trust in the country, is directly responsible to them for the manner in which he shall discharge his duties; and he will not array himself, by the exercise of the veto power, against a majority in both houses of congress, unless in extreme cases, where, from strong convictions of public duty, he may be willing to draw down upon himself their hostility.” Mr. Buchanan was one of those that opposed the ratification of the treaty with England negotiated by Mr. Webster and Lord Ashburton in 1842. In 1843 he was elected to the senate for a third term, and in 1844 his name was brought forward as the democratic candidate of Pennsylvania for the presidential nomination; but before the national convention met he withdrew in order that the whole strength of the party might be concentrated upon one candidate. James K. Polk was elected; he asked Mr. Buchanan to become his secretary of state, and the invitation was accepted.
In this responsible position Mr. Buchanan had two very important questions to deal with, and they required the exercise of all his political tact and indefatigable industry. One was the settlement of the boundary between the territory of Oregon and the British possessions. The other was the annexation of Texas, which resulted in the Mexican war. Texas had been for nine years independent of Mexico, and now sought admission into our union. The difficulties that attended this question were, on the one hand, the danger of increasing the excitement, already considerable, against slavery (for Texas would be a slave-holding state); and, on the other, the danger of interference on the part of England if Texas should remain independent and resume her war with Mexico. The adoption by Texas of the basis of annexation proposed by the United States was followed by the refusal of the Mexican government to receive Mr. Slidell, sent by Mr. Polk as envoy extraordinary, with the object of avoiding a war and to settle all questions between the two countries, including the western boundary of Texas. The result of the Mexican war was the cession to the United States of California and New Mexico and the final settlement of the Texan boundary.
The policy of Mr. Polk's administration toward the states of Central America and on the subject of the Monroe doctrine was shaped by Mr. Buchanan very differently from that adopted by the succeeding administration of Gen. Taylor, whose secretary of state was Mr. Clayton, the American negotiator of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty with Great Britain. Acting under Mr. Buchanan's advice, President Polk, in his first annual message, in December, 1845, reasserted the Monroe doctrine that no European nation should henceforth be allowed by the United States to plant any colony on the American continent or to interfere in any way in American affairs. This declaration was intended to frustrate the attempts of England to obtain a footing in the then Mexican province of California by an extensive system of colonization. England's aims were defeated for the time. Two years afterward, when the Mexican war was drawing to a close, Mr. Buchanan turned the attention of President Polk to the encroachments of the British government in Central America, under the operation of a protectorate over the kingdom of the Mosquito Indians. Great disturbances followed in Yucatan, and the Indians began a war of extermination against the whites. If not actually incited by the British authorities, the savages were known to be supplied with British muskets. The whites were reduced to such extremities that the authorities of Yucatan offered to transfer the dominion and sovereignty of the peninsula to the United States, as a consideration for defending it against the Indians, at the same time giving notice that if this offer should be declined they would make the same proposition to England and Spain. The president recommended to congress the appeal of Yucatan, but declined to recommend the adoption of any measure with a view to acquire the dominion and sovereignty over the peninsula. In April, 1847, the United States appointed a chargé d'affaires to Guatemala, and Mr. Buchanan instructed him to “promote, by his counsel and advice, should suitable occasions offer, the reunion of the states that formed the federation of Central America; to cultivate the most friendly relations with Guatemala and the other states of Central America; and to communicate to the state department all the information obtainable concerning the British encroachments upon the Mosquito kingdom.”
The new chargé was prevented from reaching Guatemala until late in Mr. Polk's administration, and the plan wisely conceived by Mr. Buchanan was not carried out. In the meantime the British government seized upon the port of San Juan de Nicaragua, the only good harbor along the coast. Instead of carrying out the policy of President Polk and Mr. Buchanan, the administration of President Taylor, without consulting the states of Central America, entered in 1850 into the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, the ambiguous language of which soon gave rise to such complications and misunderstandings between England and the United States that Mr. Buchanan was obliged to go, subsequently, as minister to London, to endeavor to unravel them. Instead of a simple provision requiring Great Britain absolutely to recede from the Mosquito protectorate, and to restore to Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica their respective territories, the treaty declared that neither of the parties should “make use of any protection which either affords or may afford, or any alliance which either has or may have, to or with any state or people, for the purpose of erecting or maintaining any fortifications, or of occupying, fortifying, or colonizing any part of Central America, or of assuming or exercising any dominion over the same.” It soon became the British construction of this clause that it recognized the existence of the Mosquito protectorate for all purposes other than those expressly prohibited; and down to the time when Mr. Buchanan was sent by President Pierce as minister to England this claim was still maintained.
On the accession of the whig party to power under Taylor, in March, 1849, Mr. Buchanan retired for a time from official life. His home, from the age of eighteen, had been the city of Lancaster, where he owned a house. In the autumn of 1848 he purchased a small estate of twenty-two acres, known as Wheatland, about a mile from the town. The house was a substantial brick mansion, and, on Mr. Buchanan's retirement from the cabinet, this became his permanent abode when he was not occupying an official residence in London or in Washington. Mr. Buchanan never married. The death of the lady whom he had intended to marry was a deep and lasting sorrow. The loss of his sister, Mrs. Lane, in 1839, and of her husband two years later, gave him the care of their four children; and the youngest of these, afterward widely known as Miss Harriet Lane, became an inmate of his household. James Buchanan Henry, the son of another sister, who died about the same time, was also taken into his family; and these two cousins were brought up by their uncle with the most wise and affectionate care. Mr. Buchanan's letters to his niece, begun when she was a school girl, and, after Miss Lane had grown up, written almost daily during her absences from him, give a charming picture of his private life.
WHEATLAND, NEAR LANCASTER, PA., THE HOME OF JAMES BUCHANAN
During the few years of Mr. Buchanan's unofficial life, passed chiefly at Wheatland, he does not appear to have devoted much time to the law. His correspondence was large; and this, with a constant and lively interest in public affairs, rendered him, even in retirement, very busy. He lent considerable influence to his party as a private individual; but his exertions were not marked by purely partisan feeling. He strenuously opposed the Wilmot proviso, which aimed at excluding slavery from all newly acquired territory; and favored Mr. Clay's “Compromise Measures of 1850,” which provided for the admission of California as a free state, and the abolition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia; but, by the fugitive slave law, secured the return to their owners of slaves that had escaped into free states. He wrote many influential public letters, in one of which he declared that “two things are necessary to preserve the union from danger: 1. Agitation in the north on the subject of southern slavery must be rebuked and put down by a strong and enlightened public opinion; 2. The fugitive slave law must be enforced in its spirit.”
In the presidential election of 1852 Mr. Buchanan was a candidate for the democratic nomination; but Gen. Franklin Pierce received the nomination and was elected. The most important service rendered by Mr. Buchanan to his party in this election — and with him a service to his party was alike a service to his country — was a speech made at Greensburgh, Pa., in October, 1852, in opposition to the election of Gen. Winfield Scott, the whig candidate. This speech exhibited in a very clear light the whole political history of that period, and asserted a principle which he said ought to be an article of democratic faith: “Beware of elevating to the highest civil trust the commander of your victorious armies,” drawing a distinction between one “who had been a man of war, and nothing but a man of war from his youth upward,” and such as had been “soldiers only in the day and hour of danger, when the country had demanded their services, and who had already illustrated high civil appointments”; and then criticising exhaustively each of Gen. Scott's avowed political opinions, and quoting Mr. Thurlow Weed, “one of Gen. Scott's most able supporters,” as acknowledging that “there was weakness in all Scott said or did about the presidency.”
When, in 1853, Franklin Pierce became president, he appointed Mr. Buchanan minister to England. Buchanan, though social in his nature, was a man of simple republican tastes, and the formality and etiquette of life at a foreign court, never agreeable, now, at the age of sixty-two, appeared to him particularly distasteful; besides, he considered that his duty to his young relatives as well as to his only surviving brother, a clergyman in delicate health, required his presence at home. But with Mr. Buchanan duty to his country always outweighed every other consideration, and Mr. Pierce's urgent appeal to him to accept what was at that time a very important mission at length prevailed. Mr. Buchanan sailed for England from New York on August 5, 1853, and landed in Liverpool on the 17th. There were three important questions to be settled with England at this time: the first related to the fisheries; the second was the desire of England to establish reciprocal free trade in certain enumerated articles between the United States and the British North American provinces, and thus preserve their allegiance and ward off the danger of their annexation to the United States; and this Mr. Buchanan was very desirous to use as a powerful lever to secure the third point, which the United States earnestly desired, viz., the withdrawal of all British dominion in Central America, and the recognition of the Monroe doctrine, which the Clayton-Bulwer treaty had not firmly established.
President Pierce considered it best that the reciprocity and fishery questions should be settled at Washington; but Mr. Buchanan was intrusted with the negotiation of the Central American question in London. Mr. Buchanan's main object was to develop and ascertain the precise difference between the two governments in regard to the construction of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, but the Crimean war so long delayed the negotiations with this country that nothing could be accomplished while he remained in England. As the war approached and when it was finally declared, the principles of neutrality, privateering, and many other topics came within the range of the discussion; and it was very much in consequence of the views expressed by Mr. Buchanan to Lord Clarendon, and by the latter communicated to the British cabinet, that the course of England toward neutrals during that war became what it was. When Lord Clarendon, in 1854, presented to Mr. Buchanan a projet for a treaty between Great Britain, France, and the United States, making it piracy for neutrals to serve on board of privateers cruising against the commerce of either of the three nations when such nation was a belligerent, the very impressive reasons that Mr. Buchanan opposed to it caused it to be abandoned. An American minister at the English court, at periods of exciting and critical questions between the two nations, is very likely to experience a considerable variation in the social barometer. But the strength of Mr. Buchanan's character, and the agreeable personal qualities which were in him united with the gravity of years and an experience of a very uncommon kind, overcame at all times any tendency to social unpleasantness that might have been caused by national feelings excited by temporary causes. Throughout his residence in England Mr. Buchanan was treated with marked attention, not only by society in general, but the queen and the prince consort. Miss Lane joined him in the spring of 1854, and remained with him until the autumn of 1855.
Mr. Buchanan arrived in New York in April, 1856, and there met with a public reception from the authorities and people of the city that evinced the interest that now began to be everywhere manifested in him as the probable future president. Prior to the meeting of the national democratic convention at Cincinnati in June, 1856, there was lack of organization on the part of Mr. Buchanan's political friends; and Mr. Buchanan himself, though willing to accept the nomination, made no efforts to secure it, and did not believe that he would receive it. The rival claimants were President Pierce and Senator Douglas, of Illinois. Chiefly through the efforts of Mr. Slidell, Mr. Buchanan was nominated. By this time the whig party had disappeared, the old party lines were obliterated, and the main political issue had come to be the question of slavery or no slavery in the territories. The anti-slavery party now called themselves republicans, and their candidate was Gen. Frémont. The result of the election shows, with great distinctness, the following facts: 1. That Mr. Buchanan was chosen president because he received the electoral votes of the five free states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and California (sixty-two in all), and that without them he could not have been elected. 2. That his southern vote (that of every slave-holding state excepting Maryland) was partly given to him because of his conservative opinions and position, and partly because the candidate for the vice-presidency, Mr. Breckinridge, was a southern man. 3. That Gen. Frémont received the electoral vote of no southern state, and that this was due partly to the character of the republican party, and partly to the fact that the republican candidate for the vice-presidency, Mr. Dayton, of New Jersey, was a citizen of a non-slave-holding state. Gen. Frémont himself was nominally a citizen of California.
This election, therefore, foreshadowed the sectional division that would be almost certain to happen in the next one if the four years of Mr. Buchanan's administration should not witness a subsidence in the sectional feelings between the north and the south. It would only be necessary for the republicans to wrest from the democratic party the five free states that had voted for Mr. Buchanan, and they would elect the president in 1860. Whether this was to happen would depend upon the ability of the democratic party to avoid a rupture into factions that would themselves be representatives of irreconcilable dogmas on the subject of slavery in the territories. Hence it is that Mr. Buchanan's course as president, for the first three years of his term, is to be judged with reference to the responsibility that was upon him so to conduct the government as to disarm, if possible, the antagonism of section to section. His administration of affairs after the election of Mr. Lincoln is to be judged simply by his duty as the executive in the most extraordinary and anomalous crisis in which the country had ever been placed.
Mr. Buchanan was inaugurated on March 4, 1857. The cabinet, which was confirmed by the senate on March 6, consisted of Lewis Cass, of Michigan, secretary of state; Howell Cobb, of Georgia, secretary of the treasury; John B. Floyd, of Virginia, secretary of war; Isaac Toucey, of Connecticut, secretary of the navy; Aaron V. Brown, of Tennessee, postmaster-general; Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, secretary of the interior; and Jeremiah S. Black, of Pennsylvania, attorney-general. The internal affairs of the country during Buchanan's administration occupied so much of the public attention at the time, and have since been a subject of so much interest, that his management of our foreign relations has been quite obscured. The wisdom displayed in this branch of his duties was such as might have been expected from one who had had his previous experience in the state department and in important diplomatic posts. His only equals in the executive office in this respect have been Mr. Jefferson and Mr. John Quincy Adams. During an administration fraught with the most serious hazards to the internal relations of the states with each other, he kept steadily in view the preservation of peace and good will between the United States and Great Britain, while he abated nothing from our just claims or our national dignity. He left to his successer no unsettled question between these two nations that was of any immediate importance, and he also left the feeling between them and their respective governments in a far better condition than he found it on his accession to the presidency.
The long-standing and dangerous question of British dominion in Central America, in the hope of settling which Mr. Buchanan had accepted the mission to England, was still pending, but it was at length amicably and honorably settled, under his advice and approbation after he became president, by treaties between Great Britain and the two Central American states, in accordance with the American construction of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty. Another subject of contention that had long existed between the two countries was removed by President Buchanan in a summary and dignified way. The belligerent right of search had been exercised by Great Britain in the maritime war of 1812. In process of time she undertook to assert a right to detain and search, on the high seas, in time of peace, merchantmen suspected of being engaged in the slave-trade. In 1858 she despatched some cruisers with such orders to the coast of Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. President Buchanan, always vigilant in protecting the commerce of the country, but mindful of the importance of preventing any necessity for war, remonstrated to the English government against this violation of the freedom of the seas. Then he sent a large naval force to the neighborhood of Cuba with instructions “to protect all vessels of the United States on the high seas from search or detention by the vessels of war of any other nation.” The effect was most salutary. The British government receded, abandoned the claim of the right of search, and recognized the principle of international law in favor of the freedom of the seas.
During the whole of Mr. Buchanan's administration our relations with Mexico were in a complicated and critical position, in consequence of the internal condition of that country and of the danger of interference by European powers. Great outrages were committed in Mexico upon our citizens and their property, and their claims against that government exceeded $10,000,000. Mr. Buchanan recommended to congress to send assistance to the constitutional government in Mexico, which had been forcibly superseded by military rule, but which still held the allegiance of the majority of the people, and to enforce redress for the wrongs of our citizens. He saw very clearly that, unless active measures should be taken by the government of the United States to reach a power with which a settlement of all claims and difficulties could be effected, some other nation would undertake to establish a government in Mexico, and the United States would then have to interfere, not only to secure the rights of their citizens, but to assert the principle of the Monroe doctrine. He also instructed the Mexican minister, Mr. McLane, to make a “Treaty of Transit and Commerce” and a “convention to enforce treaty stipulations, and to maintain order and security in the territory of the republics of Mexico and the United States.” But congress took no notice of the president's recommendation, and refused to ratify the treaty and the convention. Mexico was left to the interference of Louis Napoleon; the establishment of an empire, under Maximilian, followed, for the embarrassment of President Lincoln's administration while we were in the throes of our civil war, and the claims of American citizens were to all appearance indefinitely postponed.
Our relations with Spain were also in a very unsatisfactory condition at the beginning of Mr. Buchanan's term. There were many just claims of our citizens against the Spanish government for injuries received in Cuba, and Mr. Buchanan succeeded in having a “convention concluded at Madrid in 1860, establishing a joint commission for the final adjudication and payment of all the claims of the respective parties.” The senate refused to ratify this convention also, probably because of the intense excitement against slavery, the convention having authorized the presenting before the commissioners of a Spanish claim against the United States for the value of certain slaves. In the settlement of claims against the government of Paraguay the president's firm policy was seconded by congress, and he was authorized to send a commissioner to that country accompanied by “a naval force sufficient to exact justice should nego tiation fail.” This was entirely successful; full indemnification was obtained without any resort to arms. Mr. Buchanan's negotiations with China, conducted through William B. Reed as minister, were also successful; a treaty was concluded in 1858, which established very satisfactory commercial relations with that country and secured the liquidation of all claims. June 22, 1860, Mr. Buchanan vetoed a bill “to secure homesteads to actual settlers in the public domain, and for other purposes.” The other purposes contemplated donations to the states. The ground of the veto was that the power “to dispose of” the territory of the United States did not authorize congress to donate public lands to the states for their domestic purposes. In the senate the bill failed to receive the two thirds majority necessary to pass it over the veto.
In internal affairs the preceding administration of President Pierce had left a legacy of trouble to his successor in the repeal of the Missouri compromise, which was followed by a terrible period of lawlessness and bloodshed in Kansas, under what was called “squatter sovereignty,” the slavery and the anti-slavery parties among the settlers struggling for supremacy. The pro-slavery party sustained the territorial government and obtained control of its legislature. The anti-slavery party repudiated this legislature and held a convention at Topeka to institute an opposition government. Congress had recognized the authority of the territorial government, and Mr. Buchanan, as president, had no alternative but to recognize and uphold it also. The fact that the legislature of that government was in the hands of the pro-slavery party made the course he adopted seem as if he favored their pro-slavery designs, while, in truth, he had no object to subserve but to sustain, as he was officially obliged to sustain, the government that congress had recognized as the lawful government of the territory. Now, throughout the north, the press and the public began to teem with denunciation of the new president, who had not allowed revolutionary violence to prevail over the law of the land, and this was kept up throughout his administration. The anti-slavery party gained ground, and the election of 1860 resulted in the triumph of Mr. Lincoln.
Mr. Buchanan was a conservative and far-seeing man, who, though opposed to slavery, believed that the blind and fanatical interference of the northern abolitionists in the domestic affairs of the southern states would excite the latter in a manner dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the union. His messages constantly recommended conciliatory legislative measures; but congress paid no attention to his advice. Finally the election of Mr. Lincoln was seized upon as the signal in South Carolina for the breaking out of her old doctrine of secession. She passed her ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. Mr. Buchanan never for a moment admitted that a state had any power to secede from the union. South Carolina had once and forever adopted and ratified the constitution of the United States, and he maintained that she had by this act permanently resigned certain powers to the federal government, and that she could not, by her own will and without the consent of the other states, resume those powers and declare herself independent. She could, if actually oppressed by the general government, seek to redress her wrongs by revolution; but never by secession. He refused to receive, in their assumed official capacity, the commissioners sent by South Carolina, in December, 1860, to treat with him as with a foreign power.
In October, 1860, before the election, Mr. Buchanan received from Gen. Scott, the general-in-chief of the army, a communication saying that, in the event of Mr. Lincoln's election, Gen. Scott anticipated that there would be a secession of one or more of the southern states; and that, from the general rashness of the southern character, there was danger of a “preliminary” seizure of certain southern forts. This paper became known as “General Scott's Views.” It was the foundation, at a later period, of a charge that President Buchanan had been warned by Gen. Scott of the danger of leaving the southern forts without sufficient garrisons to prevent surprises, and that he had neglected this warning. Mr. Buchanan, who had publicly denied the right of secession, could not furnish the southern states with any justification of such a proceeding by prematurely re-enforcing the forts as if he anticipated secession. But, even if the president had wished to adopt such a measure, there were, as Gen. Scott himself said, but five companies of regular troops, or 400 men, available for the garrisoning of nine fortifications in six highly excited southern states. The remainder of the army was scattered over the western plains. Scott's views were clearly impracticable, and produced no impression upon the president's mind.
Mr. Buchanan has been often and severely reproached for a “temporizing policy” and a want of such vigor as might have averted the civil war; but the policy of Mr. Lincoln's administration, until after the attack on Fort Sumter, was identical with that of Mr. Buchanan. In his annual message of December 5, 1860, Mr. Buchanan stated clearly and forcibly his denial of the right of secession, and also his conviction that if a state should adopt such an unconstitutional measure the federal government had no power, under the constitution, to make aggressive war upon her to compel her to remain in the union; but at the same time drawing a definite distinction between this and the right of the use of force against individuals, in spite of secession, in enforcing the execution of federal laws and in the preservation of federal property. This doctrine met the secessionists upon their own ground; for it denied that a state ordinance of secession could absolve its people from obeying the laws of the United States. Mr. Buchanan thus framed the only justifiable basis of a civil war, and left upon the records of the country the clear line of demarcation that would have to be observed by his successor and would make the use of force, if force must be used, a war, not of aggression, but of defence.
In order to disarm all unreasonable opposition from the south, Mr. Buchanan urged upon congress the adoption of an “explanatory amendment” of the constitution, which should effectually secure to slave-holders all their constitutional rights. From all parts of the country, north and south, he received private letters approving, on various grounds, the tone of the message; but nearly the whole of the republican party saw fit to treat it as a denial by the president of any power to enforce the laws against the citizens of a state after secession, and even after actual rebellion; while this very power, emphatically stated as it was in the message, was made by the secessionists their ground of attack. It was the great misfortune of Mr. Buchanan's position that he had to appeal to a congress in which there were two sectional parties breathing mutual defiance; in which broad and patriotic statesmanship was confined to a small body of men, who could not win over to their views a sufficient number from either of the parties to make up a majority upon any proposition whatever. In the hope of preventing the secession of South Carolina, the president sent Caleb Cushing to Charleston, with a letter to Gov. Pickens, urging the people of the state to await the action of congress.
[ Fac-simile letter from James Buchanan to Aaron V. Brown ]
After the actual secession of South Carolina, Mr. Buchanan's two great objects were: 1. To confine the area of secession, so that if there was to be a southern confederacy it might comprehend only the cotton states, which were most likely to act together. 2. To induce congress to prepare for a civil war in case one should be precipitated. While he made it apparent to congress that at that time he was without the necessary executive powers to enforce the collection of the revenue in South Carolina, he did not fail to call for the appropriate powers and means. But at no time during that session did a single republican senator (and the republicans had a majority in the senate), in any form whatever, give his vote or his influence for any measure that would strengthen the hands of the president either in maintaining peace or in executing the laws of the United States. Whatever was the governing motive for their inaction, it never can be said that they were not seasonably warned by the president that a policy of inaction would be fatal. That policy not only crippled him, but crippled his successor. When Mr. Lincoln came into office, seven states had already seceded, and not a single law had been put upon the statute-book that would enable the executive to meet such a condition of the union.
Mr. Crittenden, of Kentucky, had introduced into the senate a resolution, which became known as the “Crittenden Compromise,” providing in substance for a restoration of the Missouri compromise-line of 36° 30'; and it was proposed that this question should be referred to a direct vote of the people in the several states. On January 8, 1861, Mr. Buchanan sent a special message to congress, strongly recommending the adoption of this measure; but it produced no effect. During the last three months of his term there were several changes in his cabinet. Mr. Cobb resigned his portfolio on December 8, 1860, and Mr. Thomas, who succeeded him as secretary of the treasury, also resigned on January 11, their sympathies being with the secessionists. This department was then taken by Gen. John A. Dix. Mr. Thompson, secretary of the interior, resigned on January 8, also because he was a southern man, and the duties of this office were subsequently performed by Moses Kelly, chief clerk. Gen. Cass and Gov. Floyd resigned their offices in December; Judge Black was transferred from the attorney-generalship to the state department, and Edwin M. Stanton became attorney-general. Joseph Holt succeeded Secretary Floyd in the war department.
The two critical questions which it was important that the president should correctly and consistently decide were, whether he was to receive in their assumed official character any commissioners sent by the southern states as to a foreign power, and whether re-enforcements should be sent to Maj. Anderson at Fort Sumter, or to any other southern fort. Mr. Buchanan always refused to receive both the South Carolina commissioners and also Mr. Crawford, the first of the commissioners from the confederate government at Montgomery, who arrived in Washington just before the close of his term; he thus left the new president entirely free to act as he saw best, and entirely untrammelled by any previous pledges. As to re-enforcements for southern forts, Maj. Anderson was instructed to report to the government any necessity for assistance, and in the meantime an expedition was fitted out at New York and held in readiness to sail at an hour's notice. Until the close of Mr. Buchanan's administration, Maj. Anderson considered himself sufficiently strong, and agreed with the president that any unnecessary movement of troops would be regarded by the south as a menace and would provoke hostilities. Mr. Buchanan would not initiate a civil war; his policy was entirely defensive; and yet he did all that he could, constitutionally, to avert a war. It has often been asked, Why did Mr. Buchanan suffer state after state to go out of the union? Why did he not call on the north for volunteers, and put down rebellion in its first stage? The president had no power to call for volunteers under any existing law; congress, during the whole winter, refused to pass any law to provide him with men or money. In the application of all the means that he had for protecting the public property, he omitted no step that could have been taken with safety, and, at the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, Maj. Anderson not only held Fort Sumter, but had held it down to that time in perfect confidence that he could maintain his position.
On March 9, 1861, Mr. Buchanan returned to his home at Wheatland, rejoicing to be free from the cares of a long and responsible public life, and welcomed by an immense gathering of his neighbors and the citizens of Lancaster. Here he lived quietly for the remaining seven years of his life, taking, however, a lively interest in public affairs, and always supporting, with his influence, as a private citizen, the maintenance of the war for the restoration of the union. His health was generally good throughout his whole life. After his final return to Wheatland he began to be attacked occasionally by rheumatic gout, and this malady at last terminated his life in his seventy-eighth year. His remains were interred in a cemetery near Lancaster. No man was ever treated with greater in justice than he was during the last seven years of his life by a large part of the public. Men said he was a secessionist; he was a traitor; he had given away the authority of the government; he had been weak and vacillating; he had shut his eyes when men about him, the very ministers of his cabinet, were plotting the destruction of the union; he was old and timid; he might have crushed an incipient rebellion, and he had encouraged it. But he bore all this with patience and dignity, forbearing to say anything against the new administration, and confident that posterity would acknowledge that he had done his duty.
In 1862 he was attacked by Gen. Scott, who made several statements concerning the president's management of the Fort Sumter affairs during the last winter of his administration, which Mr. Buchanan successfully refuted. Mr. Buchanan's loyalty to the constitution of the United States was unbounded. He was not a man of brilliant genius, nor did he ever do any one thing to make his name illustrious and immortal, as Webster did when he defended the constitution against the heresy of nullification. But in the course of a long, useful, and consistent life filled with the exercise of talents of a fine order and uniform ability, he had made the constitution of his country the object of his deepest affection, the constant guide of all his public acts. He published a vindication of the policy of his administration during the last month of his term, “Buchanan's Administration” (New York, 1866). See “Life of President Buchanan,” by George Ticknor Curtis (2 vols., 1883).
Harriet Lane Johnston was born in Mercersburg, Pa., in 1833. She was the daughter of Elliott T. Lane and his wife, June Buchanan, who, dying, left her to the care of her uncle, James Buchanan. She was educated at the Roman Catholic convent in Georgetown, D. C., and, on the appointment of Mr. Buchanan to the English mission in 1853, accompanied him to London, where she dispensed the hospitalities of the embassy. During his term as chief magistrate she was mistress of the White House, over which she presided with grace and dignity, receiving, among other distinguished guests, the Prince of Wales and his large party. In 1866 she married Elliott Johnston, of Maryland, and after that event resided in Baltimore, Washington, and at Wheatland, surviving her husband and their two sons. Mrs. Johnston died in Washington July 3, 1903, bequeathing the bulk of her fortune to the Cathedral of the Protestant Episcopal Church of that city.