June 1st, 2021


Remembering James Buchanan

Today is the anniversary of the death of James Buchanan. He shuffled off this mortal coil on June 1, 1868 (153 years ago on this day.) Buchanan regularly ranks among the worst of the Presidents ratings done by historians and scholars, usually finishing in last place. 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 than 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.

Global Presidents: James Buchanan in Europe

[Note: June is going to be a month of personal transition that will include moving and a job transition. So rather than writing new content, I will be reposting a series originally posted a number of years ago on Presidential travel. The series especially focuses on travel by presidents in an era when travel to other continents was much more difficult than it is today. I call the series "Global Presidents" and I hope you enjoy it.]

It wasn't really until the age of air travel that Presidents did much foreign traveling. There were of course exceptions. Theodore Roosevelt went to Panama, Warren Harding went to Alaska and stopped in Canada on the train ride back, and Woodrow Wilson went to Paris. A number of presidents visited Europe and other foreign countries before their presidency (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the first of these) and some, such as Ulysses Grant, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Rutherford Hayes, toured Europe after their time in office. Theodore Roosevelt went on safari to Africa. This month we'll look at some of the more memorable travels of presidents, before, during and after their presidency. Since today marks the anniversary of the death of James Buchanan, let's begin with him.

Buchanan had two notable absences from the country, both before his presidency, and both in diplomatic service. The first was in 1832, when Andrew Jackson appointed him to the position of Minister (or Ambassador) to Russia. Twelve years earlier, in 1820, Buchanan ran for the United States House of Representatives, calling himself a "Republican-Federalist." The Federalist Party had fallen apart after the end of the War of 1812. Buchanan had been a Federalist supporter, but he realized that he could never get elected as a candidate for that party. During his time in Congress, Buchanan abandoned any Federalist allegiances that he may have had, and became a supporter of Andrew Jackson. The two agreed strongly on the issue of states' rights. After the 1824 presidential election, Buchanan helped organize Jackson's followers into the Democratic Party, and Buchanan became a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat. In Washington, he became personally close with many southern Congressmen, including William Rufus King of Alabama, a man that some have speculated to be Buchanan's lover, though there is nothing more than suspicious circumstances and vague passages in letters to support this theory. Buchanan distrusted many of the New England Congressmen as dangerous radicals, especially those who were abolitionists. Buchanan eventually became Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary.

Buchanan served five terms as a member of the House, but declined re-nomination to a sixth term. He returned to private life practicing law only briefly. After Jackson's re-election in 1832, Jackson offered Buchanan the position of United States Ambassador to Russia. Buchanan was reluctant to leave the country, but ultimately he decided that it was his duty to accede to the Presidents wishes and he assented to the appointment. He served as ambassador for eighteen months. During that time he learned French (which was the language of diplomacy in the nineteenth century). In that capacity Buchanan helped negotiate to negotiate a number of commercial and maritime treaties with the Russian Empire. This was a remarkable accomplishment, as a number of previous ambassadors had been unable to successfully negotiate a treaty with the Russians. Buchanan was Ambassador to Russia when St. Petersburg was its capital. The Russian emperor at that time was Nicholas I, and it was known that he ruled Russia through repression. Buchanan was seen by some as an apologist for the Russian repression of Poland. He also defended the institution of serfdom in Russia as a benevolent program in which the serfs were better off under their conditions, much like the slavery that existed in the south.

When he returned to the United States in 1833, Buchanan was elected by the state legislature to succeed William Wilkins, the man who had replaced Buchanan as the ambassador to Russia, as the United States Senator from Pennsylvania. Buchanan would win re-election in 1836 and 1842. A solid Democrat and loyal supporter of Jackson, Buchanan opposed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States and sought to expunge a congressional censure of Jackson stemming from the Bank War. Buchanan thought that the slavery was purely a state issue and he criticized abolitionists for exciting passions over the issue. In the lead-up to the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Buchanan positioned himself as a potential alternative to former President Martin Van Buren, but the nomination instead went to James K. Polk.

Buchanan was offered the position of Secretary of State in the Polk administration. He had hoped to serve on the Supreme Court, but accepted the position and served as Secretary of State throughout Polk's lone term in office. During that time, the size of the country nearly doubled through the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Buchanan at first advised a compromise, but later advocated for annexation of the entire territory. Eventually, Buchanan assented to a division at the 49th parallel. After the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Buchanan at first advised Polk against taking territory South of the Rio Grande River and New Mexico. Later, when the war came to an end, Buchanan argued for the annexation of further territory.

When the Polk administration ended and Zachary Taylor, the Whig nominee for president won the election, Buchanan returned to private life. In 1852, be quietly campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, but failed to win support needed for the presidential nomination, which went to Franklin Pierce. Buchanan declined an offer to serve as the vice presidential nominee, and the convention instead nominated Buchanan's close friend, Rufus King. Pierce won the 1852 election. Buchanan was offered and accepted the position of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was off to Europe once again, and was once again and diplomat.

Buchanan sailed for England in the summer of 1853, and he remained there for the next three years. In 1850, the United States and Great Britain had signed the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, which committed both countries to joint control of any future canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Central America. Buchanan met repeatedly with Lord Clarendon, the British foreign minister, in hopes of pressuring the British to withdraw from Central America. He also continued to focus on the potential annexation of Cuba, something he had hoped to accomplish for a long time. At Pierce's insistence, Buchanan, U.S. Ambassador to Spain Pierre Soulé, and U.S. Ambassador to France John Mason met in Ostend, Belgium, and drafted a memorandum that became known as the Ostend Manifesto. The document proposed the purchase from Spain of Cuba, then in the midst of revolution and near bankruptcy. But against Buchanan's recommendation, the final draft of the manifesto suggested that "wresting it from Spain" if Spain refused to sell would be justified. When the text of the Ostend Manifesto became public, it weakened the Pierce administration, making America appear to be an international bully. The nation had no stomach for war on those terms.


Buchanan's service abroad conveniently placed him outside of the country while the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the nation. The 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, writing a platform that largely reflected Buchanan's views. These included support for the Fugitive Slave Law, and an end to anti-slavery agitation President Pierce hoped for re-nomination, as did Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Buchanan won the nomination on the seventeenth ballot, with the support of powerful Senators John Slidell, Jesse Bright, and Thomas F. Bayard, who presented Buchanan as an experienced leader who could appeal to the North and South. His running mate was John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Buchanan ran against two high-profile candidates in the general election: former Whig President Millard Fillmore ran as the American Party (or "Know-Nothing") candidate, while John C. Frémont ran as the Republican nominee. In the election, Buchanan carried every slave state except for Maryland, as well as five free states, including his home state of Pennsylvania. He won 45 percent of the popular vote and won the electoral vote, taking 174 electoral votes compared to Frémont's 114 electoral votes and Fillmore's 8 electoral votes. In his victory speech, Buchanan said, "the object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government." Unfortunately for the country, things didn't quite work out that way.