June 1st, 2020


Remembering James Buchanan

Today is the anniversary of the death of James Buchanan. He shuffled off this mortal coil on June 1, 1868 (152 years ago on this day.) Buchanan regularly ranks among the worst of the Presidents ratings done by historians and scholars. He is criticized for his weak and ineffective response to the coming of the secessionist crisis, his obsequiousness to the southern slave-holding political powers, his ethical impropriety in seeking to influence the outcome of the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford, his backing of the pro-slavery constitution in Kansas when a majority of Kansans opposed slavery in their territory, his inaction as southern cabinet members raided federal resources for their own cause on the eve of the civil war, his refusal to axe corrupt cabinet members, and the fact that he is the only president to leave office with fewer states then when he entered it. It's quite a shopping list of failings for which many argue that Buchanan deserves the title of "worst president ever."

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It's surprising that his presidency turned out so badly, given that probably no one was ever elected to the office with so much experience and preparation. On the day of his inauguration, Buchanan imagined himself about to embark on a Presidency as great as that of George Washington. He certainly had a wealth of experience that amply qualified him for the office.

On April 23, 1791, James Buchanan was born in Pennsylvania, a state he represented in the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate. Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College with honors on September 19, 1809, after having previously been expelled from the college for bad behavior. Upon graduation, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. When war broke out, Buchanan believed it was an unnecessary conflict, but when the British invaded Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit as a private and served in the defense of Baltimore. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who was never an officer.

Buchanan began his political career towards the end of the war of 1812. He was elected to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814 to 1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. He was later elected to five terms in the US House of Representative from March 4, 1821 to March 4, 1831, and served as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. In 1830, he conducted impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Peck was charged with abuse of the contempt power, but was ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek reelection and from 1832 to 1833 he was appointed to the post of Minister (Ambassador) to Russia by Andrew Jackson.

In 1834 Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to fill a United States Senate vacancy. He was reelected in 1837 and 1843. While in the senate he served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1836 to 1841. Buchanan resigned in 1845 to serve as Secretary of State by President James K. Polk.

During his years in Washington, there were whispers that he and Alabama Senator William Rufus King were gay lovers. Some politician in his own party called King "Mrs. B" and the two were called "Aunt Nancy and Miss Fancy". Their correspondence which remains is especially affectionate, even considering the times they lived in, and their nieces destroyed most of their correspondence after each man's death.

Buchanan was appointed as Minister (Ambassador) to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. He lost his bid for the Democratic Party's nomination for President in 1844, but his consolation prize was to be appointed to the position of Secretary of State in the administration of President James K. Polk. He turned down an offer for an appointment to the United States Supreme Court. President Franklin Pierce appointed him minister to the Court of St. James's, and being out of the country for three turbulent years helped him win his party's nomination for President in 1856.

Buchanan was elected President in a three-man race with John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore. As President, he was often referred to as a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies. As President, he battled with Stephen A. Douglas for the control of the Democratic Party. Buchanan tried to maintain peace between the North and the South mainly by catering to southern interests, but in the end he alienated both sides, and the Southern states declared their secession in the lead up to the Civil War. Buchanan expressed the view that secession was illegal, but going to war to stop it was also illegal.

When Buchanan left office, the country was in trouble. Popular opinion was against him, and the Democratic Party was divided between northern and southern interests. Buchanan had entered the Presidency aspiring to an administration that would rank in history with that of George Washington. Instead he is ranked by many historians as one of the worst presidents in history. His failure to deal with secession is considered to be among the worst presidential mistake ever made.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired less than two months after Buchanan's retirement. He agreed that the attack on Fort Sumter left the government no alternative but to go to war. He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to volunteer and to support those who were already serving.

Buchanan spent his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War. His critics called it "Buchanan's War" and he received angry and threatening letters. Stores displayed Buchanan's likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word "TRAITOR" written across his forehead. Newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy.

Buchanan defended himself in print in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott that was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. He published his memoir entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, in 1866.

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Buchanan caught a cold in May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland in Lancaster.

Presidents in their Youth: James Buchanan

James Buchanan was born April 23, 1791, the last President to be born in the 18th Century. As seems befitting of Presidential legend, he was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. His parents were James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer, both of Ulster Scot descent. His father was an orphaned immigrant from Milford, County Donegal in Ireland, who made the journey to America in 1783 at the age of 22. The ship docked in Philadelphia and James Sr. headed southwest to York County to live with an uncle and aunt of his there.


Somehow James Sr. was able to take advantage of economic opportunities that presented themselves in that region and he was somehow able to buy a trading post in Cove Gap. His uncle was a wealthy tavern owner and farmer and James Sr. learned of a location in Cove Gap known as Stoney Batter (batter is a Gaelic word meaning road). James Sr. worked as an apprentice at that trading post. He married Elizabeth Speer in 1788 and in 1791 he was able to buy the trading post, probably assisted by the fact that his bride was the daughter of a wealthy neighbor of his uncle's. James was the couple's second child; the first child, a daughter died in infancy.

After James was born, his mother later gave birth to five daughters. Elizabeth is described as being influential in her son's education. She was said to be fond of reading Milton and Shakespeare, and for discussing public affairs with him. Buchanan began writing (but never finished) his autobiography in which he credited his mother for much of his success. He said: "She excited my ambition by presenting in glowing colors, men who had been useful to their country or their kind, as objects of imitation."

Buchanan was influenced by President George Washington, who had stayed in a nearby tavern during the Whiskey Rebellion in late 1794 or early 1795. Buchanan had three younger brothers, all born after he was 13 years old, and one was named for the first President. Another was named Edward Younger, after one of his mother's favorite poets.

Sometime around the time of the birth of James Jr. in 1791, the family moved to a larger farm in Mercersberg a few miles east. James Sr. prospered and in 1794 the family moved to a two story house in Mercersberg. James Sr. was a shrewd businessman and soon became the town's wealthiest inhabitant. There James attended the Old Stone Academy, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, literature and history. He was described as being a good student, and claimed as much is his unfinished autobiography.

In 1807, sixteen year old James was sent to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1808 he was nearly expelled for bad behavior. He was a part of a group of unruly friends who drank at nearby taverns, engaged in food fights, committed acts of vandalism and were the subject of noise complaints from the townspeople of Carlisle. In his autobiography manuscript, Buchanan claimed that he engaged in these acts just to fit in and be one of the boys. This led to his expulsion from the school and a stern rebuke from his father. But Buchanan pleaded for a second chance, which he was given, thanks to the intercession of many of his father's connections in the Presbyterian Church, including the Presbyterian rector and some of the school's trustees. He ultimately graduated with honors on September 19, 1809, though he would later write that he really believed that he deserved highest honors. Buchanan held onto his resentment against the school. He described the school in his unfinished autobiography as being "in a wretched condition" and professed that he had "little attachment to my alma mater."

Buchanan chose not to attend college or university, deciding instead on a career in the law. After his graduation, he moved to the state capital at Lancaster. There, leading lawyer James Hopkins accepted Buchanan as an apprentice, and in 1812 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. When Harrisburg became the state capital in 1812, many lawyers left Lancaster, but Buchanan made the city his lifelong home. He became a successful lawyer there, earning a very good income. He handled many types of cases, including a much-publicized impeachment trial, where he successfully defended Pennsylvania Judge Walter Franklin.

When the British invaded Maryland in 1814, Buchanan served as a private in Henry Shippen's Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division, Pennsylvania Militia, a unit of volunteers. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who was not an officer and he was also the last president who served in the War of 1812. He would go on to be a critic of the leadership of President James Madison during that war.

In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball at Lancaster's White Swan Inn. The two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturer Robert Coleman and she was also the sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan's colleagues from the House of Representatives. By 1819, the two were engaged, but were unable to spend much time together. Buchanan claimed to be extremely busy with his law firm and political commitments during the Panic of 1819. Soon the rumor mill was churning and some suggested that Buchanan was only marrying Coleman for her money. Letters written by Anne Coleman make clear that she was aware of several rumors. Coleman broke off the engagement. On December 9, 1819, died suddenly. Though the cause of her death is unclear, there are suggestions that she died from an overdose of laudanum. Buchanan wrote her father for permission to attend the funeral, claiming "I feel happiness has fled from me forever". Robert Coleman refused to allow Buchanan to attend the funeral. Buchanan never married, leading to rumors of his possible homosexuality. The best historical sleuths agree that there is too little evidence to support any conclusions about this.