James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, born at Stony Batter, Franklin co., Penn., April 22, 1791, died at Lancaster, Penn., June 1, 1868. His father emigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1783; his mother was the daughter of a farmer of Adams co., Penn. He graduated at Dickinson college in 1809, studied law at Lancaster, was admitted to the bar in 1812, and soon obtained a large practice. Although a federalist, and avowedly opposed to the war of 1812, he headed a list of volunteers, and enlisted as a private in a company which marched to the defence of Baltimore. He was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1814, and in 1821 was elected to congress, where he remained ten years. In respect to the tariff" he held that duties ought to be imposed merely for revenue purposes, although indirectly certain branches of manufacture might happen to be benefited more than others. In the presidential election of 1828 he took an active part in favor of Gen. Jackson, and in the next congress was chairman of the judiciary committee.
In 1829 articles of impeachment were passed against James H. Peck, judge of the United States court for the district of Missouri, who had committed to prison and debarred from practice a lawyer who had published some strictures upon one of his judicial decisions. Mr. Buchanan was chosen one of the five managers on the part of the house of representatives, and closed the case, confining himself to the legal and constitutional principles involved. Though the senate, by a vote of 22 to 21, refused to convict Judge Peck, it shortly afterward unanimously passed an act obviating whatever technical objections then stood in the way of his conviction, and so framed the law that no judge has since ventured to commit a similar offence. In 1831, at the close of his fifth term, Mr. Buchanan withdrew from congress, and was soon afterward selected by President Jackson as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at St. Petersburg. He concluded the first commercial treaty between the United States and Russia, which secured to our merchants and navigators important privileges in the Baltic and Black seas. In 1833 he was elected to the United States senate. A great revulsion in politics had taken place during his absence from the country.
A rupture had occurred between President Jackson and Mr. Calhoun, which eventually led to the dissolution of Jackson's first cabinet; a new tariff had been enacted after a sharp struggle, and the battle against the renewal of the charter of the United States bank had been led to a final issue. An attempt was made to deprive the president of the power of removal from office without the advice and consent of the senate. Mr. Buchanan defended President Jackson, and urged the necessity of appointing officials by the president alone during the recess of congress. - During the session of 1835-'6 a new element was introduced into national politics. Up to this period the anti-slavery agitation had been mainly confined to a small body of persons. The only political aspect of the question was the presentation to congress of petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and the prohibition of the slave trade between the states. Mr. Buchanan desired to stifle the agitation in the beginning, by preventing the discussion of slavery in congress. He urged that congress should receive and consider petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District, and then declare that congress had no power to legislate on the subject.
He said that the proper way was " to leave this question where the constitution has left it, to the slaveholding states themselves." He was in favor of the recognition by the United States of the independence of Texas, and at a later day advocated the admission of Texas into the Union. Toward the close of Jackson's administration the French indemnity question had risen to a threatening importance. The president insisted on the prompt payment by France of the debt due to our citizens; and when the French chambers rejected the recommendation of Louis Philippe's ministry to provide for the payment of the indemnity, President Jackson asked an appropriation of $3,000,000 for the increase of the navy and the defence of our maritime frontier. Mr. Buchanan, in supporting this demand of the president, reviewed the whole question, and clearly established the justice of the claim. During Mr. Van Buren's presidential term Mr. Buchanan's powers as.a debater came especially into play in support of the leading administration measure, the establishment of an independent treasury.
He defended the preemption privileges of settlers on the public lands; opposed the bill to punish by fine and disability federal officers who should attempt to interfere with any citizen's vote; sustained the veto power in opposition to Mr. Clay during the administration of John Tyler; and spoke against the ratification of the Web-ster-Ashburton treaty, not so much because the northeastern boundary line between the United States and the British provinces of North America, determined by that treaty, did not correspond with what he thought it ought to be, as because it did not settle other matters of dispute then existing between the two governments. He was one of the earliest advocates of the annexation of Texas, arguing that "while it would afford that security to the southern and southwestern slave states which they have a right to demand, it would in some respects operate prejudicially upon their immediate pecuniary interests; but to the middle and western, and more especially to the New England states, it would be a source of unmixed prosperity.
It would extend their commerce, promote their manufactures, and increase their wealth." Although the treaty of annexation received only 15 votes in the senate, after the election of President Polk Texas was finally admitted by joint resolutions passed three days before his inauguration. Mr. Buchanan was the only member of the committee on foreign relations in the senate who reported favorably on the admission. - On the accession of Mr. Polk to the presidency Mr. Buchanan was appointed secretary of state, and had the initiation of those measures which he had hitherto defended as chairman of the committee on foreign relations in the senate. England and America had both claimed the whole northwestern territory. The protocol between Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Pakenham induced England to accept the compromise line of lat. 49° N. Mr. Buchanan had felt himself obliged to offer this line, because Mr. Tyler had offered it before him, but it was rejected by Mr. Pakenham. Hereupon Mr. Buchanan, in an elaborate state paper, exhibited the claims of the United States to the whole territory, and concluded by a formal withdrawal of his offer. The British government shortly afterward proposed to settle the boundary question on the terms first proposed by Mr. Polk, declaring this to be its ultimatum.
The president referred the proposition to congress, who advised its acceptance. During the Mexican war Mr. Buchanan's chief labors as secretary of state were directed to the avoidance of European intervention in the shape of mediation or guarantees. - At the close of Mr. Polk's administration, Mr. Buchanan retired to private life; but his views of passing events were freely expressed, and he watched with apprehension the progress of the slavery agitation in the northern states. While yet in the cabinet of Mr. Polk, he had written his so-called Harvest Home letter to his friends, in Pennsylvania, advising the extension of the Missouri compromise line of lat. 36° 30' N. to the Pacific ocean; but the proposition, when introduced into congress, was voted down. At last, by the joint efforts of Clay, "Webster, Cass, and their friends in both houses, the compromise measures of 1850 were passed. Soon afterward Mr. Buchanan wrote a letter to a union meeting held in Philadelphia, in which he fully approved them. - One of the first acts of Mr. Pierce's administration was the appointment of Mr. Buchanan as minister to England (1853). A principal object of his mission was the Central American question, which the Clayton-Bulwer treaty had not settled.
Mr. Buchanan discussed the whole matter in an elaborate and perspicacious protocol. Our relations with Spain also came under his notice. Various causes of complaint had arisen on our part, and at last one of our vessels, the Black Warrior, was fired into by a Spanish war steamer on the coast of Cuba. President Pierce thought the opportunity had arrived for settling all difficulties at once by a proposal to purchase the island of Cuba at a price which would enable Spain to extricate herself from her financial embarrassments. This delicate negotiation was confided to Mr. Soule, then our minister to the court of Madrid; but the president thought it advisable that our ministers to England and France (Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Mason) should act in concert with Mr. Soule. The result was a meeting at Ostend, afterward adjourned to Aix-la-Cha-pelle, and the drawing up of a memorandum, sometimes spoken of as the Ostend manifesto, in which the ministers set forth the importance of Cuba to the United States, the advantages which would accrue to Spain from the sale of it at a fair price, the difficulty which Spain would encounter in endeavoring to keep possession of it by mere military power, the sympathy of the people of the United States with the inhabitants of the island, and finally, the possibility that Spain, as a last resort, might endeavor to Africanize Cuba, and become instrumental in the reenacting of the scenes of Santo Domingo. They believed that in case Cuba was about to be transformed into another Santo Domingo, the example might act perniciously on the slave population of the southern states.
In this case, they held that the instinct of self-preservation would call for the armed intervention of the United States, and we should be justified in wresting the island by force from Spain. - Mr. Buchanan returned to the United States in April, 1856. The democratic convention, held at Cincinnati in June following, nominated him unanimously for the presidency, and he was elected, receiving 174 electoral votes from 19 states, against 114 for John C. Fremont, and 8 for Millard Fillmore. He took an early opportunity to set forth his sentiments on the Kansas question. In an address to the students of Franklin and Marshall college at Lancaster, in November, 1856, he declared that the object of his administration would be to destroy any sectional party, whether in the north or in the south, and to restore national and fraternal feeling between the different sections. In his inaugural address, March 4, 1857, he clearly expressed himself on the subject of the slavery agitations and the mode in which the difficulties in Kansas were to be settled.
He approved the Lecompton constitution, and on Feb. 2, 1858, addressed a special message to congress, asserting the power of the people of Kansas to "change their constitution within a brief period " after being admitted into the Union, notwithstanding a clause in the constitution, which, after the year 1864, required a two-thirds vote for that purpose. A rebellion in Utah broke out shortly after Mr. Buchanan's accession to the presidency. The Mormons resisted the authority of the national government, treated loyal citizens as enemies, and formed alliances with the Indians. A strong military expedition was sent to Utah; but in order to avoid a prolonged guerilla warfare, the president consented in January, 1858, that Col. Thomas L. Kane, who had in former years greatly befriended the Mormons in a time of famine, should go out to their country to endeavor to bring them to peaceful submission to the laws; and two citizens were appointed in April as peace commissioners to accompany the army. These efforts proved successful; and on June 7 Mr. Buchanan informed congress that the rebellion was ended by the submission of the Mormons, and that the reinforcements ordered for the army would not be required.
The 35th congress met Dec. 5, 1859. In the senate there was a strong democratic majority; in the house the republicans had a jjlural-ity, but the balance of power between the two parties was held by a small body calling themselves Americans. In June, 1860, a homestead bill was passed, allowing actual settlers to preempt 160 acres of public land, paying 25 cents an acre, at the end of five years; the bill was vetoed by the president, and failed to receive in the senate the majority of two thirds requisite for its passage over the veto. As the term of Mr. Buchanan's administration drew to a close, it became clear that a sectional conflict was impending. The election of Mr. Lincoln precipitated the outbreak. In his annual message in December, 1860, Mr. Buchanan expressed a hope that the issue of disunion would be averted. He laid the blame of the troubles upon the unwarrantable agitation at the north of the slavery question, which had "produced its malign influence on the slaves, and inspired them with a vague idea of freedom." He argued that the people of any state who felt themselves aggrieved by the federal power had only the revolutionary right of resistance; that it was the duty of the executive to take care that the laws be faithfully executed; yet circumstances had put it out of the power of the president to do this in South Carolina. He could not order out the army except upon the demand of the judicial authority, and this authority did not then exist in that state.
He argued that the constitution had given to congress "no power to coerce into submission any state which is attempting to withdraw, or has actually withdrawn, from the confederacy." South Carolina formally seceded on Dec. 20, and sent commissioners to treat with the president for the delivery of all the public property in that state, and to negotiate for "the continuance of peace and amity between that commonwealth and the government at Washington." The president replied that he had no power to enter upon such negotiations, and could only submit the whole question to congress. He could therefore meet the commissioners only as "private gentlemen of the highest character," and transmit to congress any propositions which they might have to make. He also refused to order the withdrawal of the troops from Charleston harbor. The cabinet broke up. Mr. Cobb, secretary of the treasury, had before resigned; and Mr. Thompson, secretary of the interior, abandoned his post without resigning. Mr. Cass, secretary of state, resigned because the president would not send reinforcements to Charleston harbor; and Mr. Floyd, secretary of war, because he would not withdraw the force already there.
Early in January the steamer Star of the "West was despatched from New York with supplies and reenforcements for Fort Sumter, but was unable to introduce them. On Jan. 15, 1861, Mr. Holt, then secretary of war, wrcte to the governor of North Carolina by order of the president, that the forts in that state, " in common with the other forts, arsenals, and other property of the United States, are in charge of the president, and that if assailed, no matter from what quarter, or under what pretext, it is his duty to protect them by all the means which the law has placed at his disposal; " adding, however, that it was not his purpose at present to garrison the forts, as he "considered them entirely safe under the protection of the law-abidirg sentiment for which the people of North Carolina had ever been distinguished; but should they be attacked or menaced with danger of being seized or taken from the possession of the United States, he could not escape from his constitutional obligation to defend and preserve them." This was his last important public act. Immediately after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, Mr. Buchanan retired to his home at Lancaster, Penn., where he passed the remainder of his life, taking no part in public affairs.
In 1866 he wrote a book, "Mr. Buchanan's Administration," explaining and defending the measures which he had sanctioned and adopted.