James Buchanan (1857 – 1861): The Fifteenth Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
James Buchanan had been a congressman, foreign minister, senator and secretary of state, The actions he took or didn’t take during his Presidency probably hastened the coming of the Civil War. Some would even call them treasonous. Upon leaving the presidency, Buchanan told Lincoln “if you are as happy to be entering the presidency as I am to be leaving it, then you are a very happy man.”
Unbeknownst to the public, Buchanan purchased slaves and sent them north granting them their freedom before leaving the Presidency. Also, in a speech on April 11, 1826, James Buchanan referred to slavery as “a curse” and “a great political and a great moral evil.” After becoming president, however, the “evil” that Buchanan condemned was not slavery but the North’s interference with slavery.
In Buchanan’s Third Annual Message to Congress on December 19, 1859, he declared:
Had it been decided that either Congress or the territorial legislature possess the power to annul or impair the right to property in slaves, the evil would be intolerable.
In this speech, Buchanan argued that Black people benefited from slavery:
Advancement [of our domestic slaves] in civilization has far surpassed that of any other portion of the African race. The light and the blessings of Christianity have been extended to them, and both their moral and physical condition has been greatly improved …. [The slave] is treated with kindness and humanity. He is well fed, well clothed, and not overworked …. Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.
To Buchanan, abolitionists were “dangerous fanatics; and the more so, because they believe they are doing God service.” While campaigning, he wrote:
The agitation of the question of domestic slavery has too long distracted and divided the people of this Union …. During its whole progress it has produced no practical good to any human being.
Even more to the point, Buchanan pledged after being elected president:
The great object of my administration will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North.
Nor did Buchanan’s civil rights record stop with slavery. He also opposed suffrage and equal rights for Black Americans:
What would be your situation, fellow-citizens, if negroes were admitted to an equality of political and social rights with white men and white women? …. The subject is too disgusting, and I recoil from it.Speech on August 18, 1838
Alas for the South! It is already ruined for years to come without immediate remedy. Negro equality & negro suffrage have already done their work.”Letter of November 2, 1867
“The opposition to Negro Suffrage in the South, as well as in the North, has been the principal cause of our triumph everywhere. Abandon this, & we are gone.”Letter of November 9, 1867
The Dred Scott case, also known as Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a decade-long fight for freedom by a Black enslaved man named Dred Scott. The case persisted through several courts and ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decision incensed abolitionists, gave momentum to the anti-slavery movement and served as a stepping stone to the Civil War.
States Admitted Into The Union
- Minnesota became the 32nd state on May 11, 1858 partially from the Minnesota Territory.
- Oregon became the 33rd state on February 14, 1859 partially from the Oregon Territory.
- Kansas became the 34th state on January 29, 1861 partially from the Kansas Territory.
First Gay President?
Buchanan never married and is still the country’s only bachelor president. He had an intimate relationship with Pierce’s Vice President William Rufus King who he lived with for 16 years. The two were referred to as “aunt nannies”, and King was part of a circle of men whom were referred to as “dandies”. In fact, Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane was the White House hostess and was termed the “first lady” for the duties she assumed in the White House.
A House Divided
Buchanan’s decision to endorse the Lecompton Constitution, written by pro slavery settlers, in Kansas which was defeated on January 4, 1858 made him seem pro-south and enraged the north. A president trying to force slavery into a territory where settlers didn’t want it discredited Buchanan in the eyes of both Republicans and even Northern Democrats. Buchanan’s actions are so pro-south, that he did not take the traditional oath “to preserve, defend and protect the United States” His management of the battle in Kansas only made things worse.
The Ultimate Lame Duck
Slavery couched in the mantra of states rights was the key issue in the election of 1860 that Abraham Lincoln won on November 6th. It would be a matter of months before the south would lose their ally in the White House.
In anticipation of the election of an anti-slavery president, South Carolina seceded from the union on December, 20 1860. As a lame duck, Buchanan denied the legality of secession but did nothing to stop it. Within weeks, six more states left the union and eight slaveholding states sat on the fence becoming border states. On February 9th, 1861, the Confederate States of America, now composed of seven states, elected Jefferson Davis president. One month later, the Buchanan presidency ended.
This was the pinnacle of discontent in our nation’s history. In anticipation of government not being able to wholly endorse their side of a moral issue, citizens decided that the Republic should be no more. The believers in the preservation of the union that the founding fathers envisioned could not and would not let that stand.
- The 175-Year history of speculating about President James Buchanan’s bachelorhood. (2019, August 27). Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/175-year-history-examining-bachelor-president-james-buchanans-close-friendship-william-rufus-king-180972992/
- Causes of the war : The election of 1860 and secession. (n.d.). The Civil War in Art : Teaching & Learning Through Chicago Collections. https://www.civilwarinart.org/exhibits/show/causes/introduction/the-election-of-1860-and-seces
- The election of 1860. (n.d.). West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. https://www.wvculture.org/history/statehood/statehood02.html
- Harriet lane biography :: National first ladies’ library. (n.d.). National First Ladies’ Library. https://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16
- James Buchanan. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=15
- Jefferson Davis. (n.d.). http://www.biography.com/people/jefferson-davis-9267899#awesm=~oB3rOD7BH4Qeqz
- Lecompton constitution. (n.d.). Kansas Memory. https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/207409
- Senator, slave owner and quite possibly gay, Alabama’s William Rufus King was country’s 13th VP. (2014, July 4). al. https://www.al.com/news/2014/07/senator_slave_owner_and_quite.html
- Who was our first gay president? (2012, May 17). TIME.com. https://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/17/who-was-our-first-gay-president/
Abraham Lincoln (1861 -1865) would follow James Buchanan.
Franklin Pierce (1853 – 1857) preceded James Buchanan
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) assumed the Presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.