Ascension–from Stony Batter to the Cabinet, 1791–1848
Born in 1791, James Buchanan was almost as old as the United States, a point of pride throughout his life. The location of his birth, in a log cabin at the foot of North Mountain in the Alleghenies of southern Pennsylvania, was no accident. James Buchanan, Sr., had chosen Stony Batter, in Cove Gap, Franklin County, for its economic opportunities. His decision to live and later buy a trading post there eventually ensured his prosperity.
An orphaned immigrant from County Donegal in northwest Ireland, twenty-two-year-old James Buchanan, Sr., had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1783, landing, like many others, in Philadelphia. He had made his way south and west through the rich and expensive farmland to live with an aunt and uncle in York County, Pennsylvania. The Buchanan clan was well known in Scotland and Ireland. Some members had moved from the barren hills of Scotland to Ireland to find a better life than the one they suffered during a period of starvation in the first part of the eighteenth century. Others migrated to protect their freedom of worship as Presbyterians from the assaults of kings and bishops of the Church of England. Ireland proved a way station, and they were soon on the move again, this time across the Atlantic to America.
James Buchanan came with the advantages of education and ambition, though no money. Some of his neighbors later charged that he was a hard bargainer in his financial dealings. Inspired by the implacable doctrine of his Presbyterian faith that he must serve the Lord through hard work and stern duty in this world so that he might find a place in the next, he intended to get ahead. He expected his sons to do likewise. In fact Buchanan exemplified the Scotch-Irish of the so-called fourth migration to America, over a quarter of a million of whom arrived in Pennsylvania and Delaware in the eighteenth century. Some moved across the Susquehanna River into Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky; others found opportunity in the rich agricultural state of Pennsylvania.
James lived briefly in the town of York with a wealthy uncle who owned a tavern as well as two hundred acres of farmland. There he heard talk of the mountain gap picturesquely named Stony Batter—batter is the Gaelic word for road. Five roads intersected there, and the number of horses in transit was sometimes so great as to require a large corral. In this tiny frontier community, there were often so many goods that the place seemed an emporium set in the wilderness. Four years after his arrival, in 1787, the year in which Americans wrote a Constitution and founded a new nation, James Buchanan bought the trading post in Cove Gap where earlier he had served as an apprentice to the owner. Here, for his broker’s fee, he sold and bartered finished goods from Baltimore to settlers over the mountains. Then in 1788 he returned to York County to marry Elizabeth Speer, the daughter of a prosperous Scotch-Irish Presbyterian neighbor of his uncle. The next year George Washington took the first presidential oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And in what became a civic duty for Americans, citizens of the Republic were encouraged to marry and create families that would lay the foundations of national morality and progress.
James was the second child, and oldest surviving son, of James and Elizabeth Speer Buchanan’s large family of eleven children. An older sister died as an infant and, after James, five daughters arrived in the two-year pattern of fecund reproduction accomplished by American wives whose contraception ended when they stopped nursing their infants. Surrounded by younger sisters and an adoring mother who quoted Milton and Shakespeare to her children and engaged them in discussions about public affairs, James occupied a privileged but challenging position in his family. Years later in an unfinished autobiography, he described his father as having great force of character, but he credited his mother for any distinction that he had attained. “She excited [my] ambition, by presenting … in glowing colors men who had been useful to their country or their kind, as objects of imitation.” Only when he turned thirteen did a younger brother survive. Eventually, three more brothers arrived. One was named George Washington Buchanan. The Republic’s first president had become his mother’s hero after he stayed in a nearby tavern during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794—95. Another was named Edward Younger after one of his mother’s favorite English poets.1
In 1791 James Buchanan, Sr., had moved his family a few miles east—from the rugged isolation of Stony Batter to a large farm near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. A few years later, in 1794, as his financial circumstances continued to improve, Buchanan uprooted again, this time to a two-story brick home in Mercersburg, a small village populated by eighty families. There he established a store and became a prosperous merchant. At every opportunity he invested in real estate, and soon James Buchanan was the richest man in town.
His wife had urged the move, anxious for the kind of gentility that was impossible on the frontier. Now the Buchanans joined Presbyterian Scotch-Irish neighbors named Campbell, McAllen, and McKinistry. In Mercersburg young James Buchanan attended school in town. At the Old Stone Academy, he studied the traditional classical curriculum of Latin and Greek, along with mathematics and literature and a little history—the standard fare of the private academies of his generation. He was by all accounts, including his own, an excellent student.
With enough money for the leverage of higher education, James Buchanan, Sr., sent his eldest son to Dickinson College in nearby Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where in 1807 he entered the junior class of fourteen students. Throughout his life as a testament to his formality, he had no nickname and was never junior, nor Jim, nor Jimmie except later to his political enemies, who called him “Ten-Cents-a-Day Jimmie” after he supported banking legislation considered unfavorable to workers. At the end of his life and behind his back he became “Old Buck” and “Old Public Functionary,” but he remains one of the few American presidents without a nickname. Like his father, he had no distinguishing middle name.
The following year James Buchanan was expelled from Dickinson for bad behavior. Certainly the first half of the nineteenth century was a time of student rebellions in colleges throughout the United States, as riotous youths tested the authority of ministerial presidents and authoritarian institutions. At Yale there was the so-called Bread and Butter Riot; Harvard suffered the Great Rebellion of 1832; and Brown and Princeton endured student rebellions as well. During the disorganized early stages of Dickinson’s history, James Buchanan joined a group of noisy classmates who, engaging in collective acts of unruliness, drank at nearby taverns, threw food in the dining room, broke windows, and kept the good citizens of Carlisle awake with their revelry.
It is not the expulsion that is surprising, but rather Buchanan’s insistence in his unfinished autobiography that he was not “dissipated” himself, but had drunk, roistered, and disturbed in order to be considered “a clever and spirited youth” by his fellow students. Popularity and the approval of others mattered to this young man, and would throughout his life. Only through the intervention of his Presbyterian rector with the trustees and the Presbyterian minister who was the head of the college was Buchanan reinstated. A year later he graduated with honors, though not the highest honors he thought he deserved. In doing so, he became one of a few thousand young men of his generation to graduate from college. But he never forgave Dickinson, describing the college as “in a wretched condition” when he attended and acknowledging years later that he felt “little attachment to [his] Alma Mater.”
For the next stage of his life James Buchanan did not need a college degree, choosing the law as his profession—not, as Woodrow Wilson once said, as the requisite stepping-stone for politics, but in order to earn a living. He moved to Lancaster, a town of eight thousand and at the time the capital of Pennsylvania. As all lawyers knew, the public business of the state and the associations with legislators offered many opportunities to find clients. And there was an even more compelling reason to move to Lancaster. Buchanan had been accepted as a student by the most eminent lawyer in town, James Hopkins. For the next two and a half years he served as an apprentice under the supervision of his well-known and respected mentor. In the custom of the day, Buchanan read and discussed the legal authorities, Joseph Chitty and William Blackstone, as well as the U.S. Codes, the Constitution, and the case law developing around it.
In Buchanan’s time there were only three law schools in the United States. Instead the law was a craft, casually handed down from one practitioner to another, who in turn, as Buchanan did after he set up his practice, opened their offices to other young aspirants. It was another seventy years before the American bar and institutions of higher learning created schools for specialized training. Still, Buchanan’s self-discipline in learning his chosen profession’s habits of orderly thinking and dependence on precedent significantly influenced his political principles and actions. As Buchanan promised throughout his life, he intended to follow the law and the Constitution.
Buchanan gave “severe application” to his studies, becoming a familiar figure in the streets near the courthouse square where Hopkins kept his office. Here the young man walked about, transposing aloud principles of law into his own language and understanding. “I studied the law and only the law,” he declared. Later Buchanan acknowledged this process of speaking aloud as the method by which he learned how to give spontaneous political speeches, though in fact most of his speeches were prepared. In 1810, during his first year with Hopkins, his father delivered a stern advisory: “Guard against temptations that may offer themselves,” wrote the senior Buchanan to his son, “knowing that without religion all other things are as trifles and will soon pass away … . Go on with your studies and endeavor to be eminent in your profession.” And though his father supported all his sons until they became lawyers or clergymen, he informed his eldest son, whom he held to the highest standards of paternal expectation, “[I have suffered] privation in giving you a good education [which] will be compensated by the station in society you will occupy.”2
Buchanan inherited his lifelong caution from his father. He lacked the sanguine optimism of successful political leaders, who focus on hopeful future solutions for current problems. The aphorisms that shaped his life were grim: “It is the destiny of man to learn that evil treads closely on the footsteps of good”; “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And while he was considered a good conversationalist, he was never a man of humor.
Soon he established himself as a rising star among Lancaster’s twenty-six lawyers, most of whom had to scavenge for clients. By 1812 the city fathers of Harrisburg, in the opinion of those in Lancaster, had stolen the state capital away from a town that was still the largest inland community in the United States. With ambitions as lofty as those of the Buchanan family, Lancaster had expected to be the capital of the United States. Some lawyers quickly uprooted and moved to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or the growing community of Pittsburgh. But Lancaster remained Buchanan’s home for the rest of his life.
After he registered with a notary and passed an informal oral exam given by a committee of the court in that casual arrangement marking the legal accreditation system for this generation, he was accepted into the Pennsylvania bar. A stern teacher, Buchanan now told his own young law apprentices to give up dissipation and bow to his control or face dismissal. His income rose rapidly from less than $1,000 in 1813, the first full year of his practice, to a substantial $11,297 in 1821 (approximately $175,000 today), the year he left Lancaster for Washington as a U.S. congressman. The law was hard work. Buchanan once described the practice that took him to several adjacent counties as “extensive, laborious, and lucrative. It increased rapidly.” He was a general-practice lawyer in the Second Judicial District who argued cases in the dusty courthouses of southern Pennsylvania—a jack-of-all-trades who could write wills and contracts, argue guardianship cases for orphans, and litigate property claims. For an ambitious young man, his legal career also had the advantage of putting him in touch with the state’s political leaders.
Even as a neophyte, James Buchanan sought high-profile cases that brought prominence, more clients, and larger fees in a circular process that made him, before he was thirty-five, one of the best-known lawyers in southern Pennsylvania. His prudent money management, limited expenses, and adroit land and building investments around Lancaster rapidly made him a prosperous capitalist, worth over $300,000 (nearly $5 million in today’s currency) by the time he died, and that after nearly forty-five years in low-paid public service. No doubt with the help of Hopkins, whose statewide reputation guaranteed an overflow of clients, Buchanan emerged as the counsel of choice for several prominent politicians. One colleague described his legal style as straightforward, unimaginative, and tenacious.
When he was twenty-four years old, with only three years’ experience, Buchanan defended Judge Walter Franklin in the latter’s impeachment trial before the Pennsylvania state senate. A member of the court of common pleas, Judge Franklin had ruled in a classic states’-rights-versus-federal-government controversy that once a militia was nationalized, Pennsylvania’s authority over a refusant ended. Accordingly the state could not fine a citizen of Lancaster who had declined to serve in the War of 1812. At a time in American legal history when the distinction between judicial error and impeachable offense rested on party prejudice, judges became hostages for decisions that did not suit the populace. Buchanan, at the time a member of the Federalist party, argued that Judge Franklin had committed no crime or misdemeanor. Franklin might have misjudged the issue, and certainly he had made an unpopular ruling. In his winning argument before the Pennsylvania senate, Buchanan held that only judicial crimes and malfeasance amounted to impeachable offenses.
Outside of court, Buchanan attended to the social necessities required for an ambitious young lawyer on the rise—joining fraternal associations where he met the leaders of the Lancaster community. He became a Mason and later chief master of his lodge; he was a manager for a society ball held in the White Horse Inn, and, most important for his political future, he served as president of the Washington Association, an organization of local Federalists. Like his father, James Buchanan supported that party’s program of nationally subsidized internal improvements, protective tariffs, and a U.S. Bank. Soon he was a sought-after speaker who intrepidly—for it was wartime—criticized President James Madison’s leadership during the War of 1812. Later, when he was accused of taking positions hostile to those of the Democratic party, Buchanan explained that he had simply followed his father into the Federalists.
Buchanan could make his case against Madison and the War of 1812 with credibility. He had volunteered for a few weeks in a Lancaster company of young men who had no official status as members of the organized militia, but who ended up stealing horses in Baltimore for the American army during the British occupation. In his prolix style, in 1815 James Buchanan charged Madison and his “democratic administration” with “wild and wicked projects”: “they had deprived us of the means of defence, by destroying our navy and disbanding our army; after they had taken away from us the power of re-creating them, by refusing the Bank of the United States.”
A year earlier Buchanan had won a seat in the Pennsylvania assembly as a Federalist. Twenty-three years old, he was the youngest, though not the quietest, member of the legislature. This success began a string of eleven electoral victories. As he moved up the ladder from state assembly to U.S. Congress and Senate, to the foreign service and the cabinet and finally to the U.S. presidency, he lost only one election, and that as a candidate for the U.S. Senate before the Pennsylvania legislature in 1833. His outstanding record displays his popularity as well as his astute negotiation of the complexities and realignments of his state’s party politics. Always he tempered his ambitions with an understanding that the next step in his progression might be the last. Delighted by his first victory—he ran at the top of the ticket—he was cautioned by his father that the interruption of his legal work might destroy his practice. Yet the state legislature met for only three months, and during his first year as a legislator his legal fees doubled. Buchanan knew, even if his father did not, that his contacts at the state level increased his notoriety and brought more clients to his door.
Sometime during this period James Buchanan began a romance with Ann Coleman, the daughter of the wealthy owner of an iron mine—the richest man in Pennsylvania and a so-called iron master—who lived just down the block from Buchanan’s rooms near Court House Square. Coleman shared an important heritage with Buchanan. Like his own father, her father was a rags-to-riches emigrant from County Donegal, with Scotch-Irish Presbyterian roots in the old and new worlds. If Buchanan was a prize local catch with his handsome, whiskerless face (Buchanan never had to shave), blond hair, and six-foot frame, so was Ann Coleman, with her slender body, dark hair, aquiline features, and dark oval eyes. To compensate for a defect in his eyes, Buchanan characteristically leaned his head forward and cocked it to one side. He did this not only because he suffered from wandering eyes—what ophthalmologists today call exodeviation—but because he was also nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other. Some observers thought he looked as if he had a stiff neck; others found it an attractive mannerism that made him appear intensely interested in every conversation. At first Ann Coleman was of the latter group and thought he was listening to her, as she was to him. By the summer of 1819 the two were engaged in that informal way in which young Americans of this generation courted and then decided that they would marry. But by the fall the engagement had ended.
Such a disruption in a romance was not unusual at a time when women gave up their freedom and minimal civic standing to become “one” with their husband and, in common law, he the one. Meanwhile men had their own reasons to hesitate before marrying. They worried about their ability to support a wife and their loss of independence, at the same time that they realized the importance of creating a family in the new republic of the United States. The apparent cause of the fracture in Buchanan’s relationship was, from Ann Coleman’s perspective, negligent treatment by an intended who seemed more interested in his legal and political career than he was in her. Ann informed her suitor that he did not treat her with sufficient attention or affection and that he was only interested in her money. As for Buchanan, his reasons may have involved sexual preference, for there has long been suspicion that our only bachelor president was a homosexual.
Buchanan quickly left town, not in disgrace or embarrassment as a humiliated suitor might, but in order to attend to some business in Dauphin County, where, according to local gossip, he spent time with another woman. Even the rumor of such a dalliance was sufficient cause for Ann to end the engagement. Soon her mother had rushed her off to recover in Philadelphia, where, inexplicably, this previously healthy twenty-three-year-old died suddenly of what one doctor diagnosed as “hysterical convulsions.”
When Coleman’s father refused to let Buchanan attend the funeral or even walk in the mournful procession that followed his daughter’s coffin to the burial ground outside of Lancaster, the former suitor became, as one resident reported, “the whole conversation of the town.” Meanwhile Buchanan patronized his future father-in-law with a sympathy note in which the younger man hoped “Heaven would enable you to bear the shock with the fortitude of a Christian.” Throughout the winter of 1819, rumors flew about Lancaster, as unfettered as the dry leaves from the town’s elm trees. Had Buchanan’s fiancée committed suicide after he broke her heart? Was she pregnant? Were the hysterical convulsions epilepsy? Had she taken too much laudanum or chloral hydrate, the latter often used for insomnia? Why had her father refused Buchanan’s reasonable request to walk behind the casket? After a few days’ seclusion, the subject of the gossip was hard at work on an important case—getting a settlement from the Columbia Bridge Company.3
Thereafter Buchanan propagated the myth that he maintained his single status as a measure of devotion to “the only earthly object of my affections.” In fact he informed a friend in 1833, when he was in his early forties, that he soon expected to wed. That same year he asked a male friend soon to see “his intended” in person to convey his love. But nothing came of this courtship, suspiciously undertaken during a time when Buchanan was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. In his fifties when he sought a presidential nomination, he considered marriage with a potential first lady, nineteen-year-old Anna Payne, Dolley Madison’s niece. But decorum outweighed romance, however patriotic such a union might seem to voters. As he wrote in a rare poetic outburst: “A match of age with youth can only bring/The farce of winter dancing with the spring.” As he aged, Buchanan contemplated his conditions for marriage. What he intended was not a sexual partner but a housekeeper. It was “not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”4
In the end James Buchanan never married and so remains the only bachelor among American presidents. Certainly bachelorhood has always been an exceptional and potentially harmful status for any public man in any generation. Before the Civil War only three of every one hundred American men stayed single. Buchanan’s celibacy (there was never creditable gossip about his having a sexual relationship with any woman) shaped his personality. His life was never modulated by the need to make compromising adjustments in his domestic affairs, nor did he benefit from the intimacy, affection, and relaxation that a marriage and family might have afforded. An often lonely James Buchanan came to depend on his male friends, and this reliance had a dramatic impact on American history in the winter of 1860. Meanwhile, he absorbed from his unmarried state certain priestly characteristics—a dogmatic narrow assurance of rectitude and celibate virtue, a reserve and distance from even friends and the nieces and nephews who became his wards, and a dependence on the literal word, in his case not of the Bible, but his version of the laws and the U.S. Constitution. When it came time to defend his administration, displaying a remoteness engendered by his lifetime as a bachelor, he wrote about himself in the third person.
In 1821, two years after Ann Coleman died, Buchanan’s father was killed in a carriage accident. At the time James had just been elected to Congress, and the sudden death—a victory followed by a loss—seemed to bear out his father’s adage that success was often followed by misery. Now there was no one to warn him “of the need to proceed with caution” or to point out “his deficiency in experience.” By this time Buchanan did not need reminding of the virtues of hard work. He had also internalized the pessimistic dictum that “the more you know of mankind the more you will distrust them.” Returned to Mercersburg to sort out his father’s affairs, he found to his irritation that his father had not written a will, and that he was now the head of a family of impoverished, orphaned nieces and nephews.
In 1820, during his first congressional campaign, Buchanan had run as a member of the Republican-Federalist party, the latter a curious mix of labels and beliefs that acknowledged the collapse of the party system into a so-called era of good feelings when there was only one party. During his two terms in the state legislature he had not been much of a Federalist anyway. His opposition to nativist legislation barring naturalized citizens from running for state office led one legislator to encourage him to join Jefferson’s and Madison’s Republicans. In fact in his early years as a congressman, Buchanan found, as he explained in his unfinished autobiography, no “trace of the old distinction between Federal and Democrat … . Several of those elected as federalists held to a considerable extent Democratic principles, while many of those who had been called Democrats held high-toned federal principles.”
Meanwhile, during James Monroe’s presidency of one-party government, Buchanan’s own principles were shifting toward the emerging Democrats. By 1824, in a prescient reading of his congressional district, he was ready to give his allegiance to the political organization that Andrew Jackson was creating. For the rest of his life James Buchanan was an unwavering Democrat, during a period when Americans often changed their party associations. He signed on as a member of the old Jackson school, that group of men in the House of Representatives who, after Jackson lost the presidential election in 1824, gathered loyally around the general and together were the catalyst for the reordering of early-nineteenth-century politics. There Buchanan stayed, as Whigs, Know-Nothings, and, dangerously in his view, Republicans moved onto the political scene. But Buchanan held to the basic Democratic doctrine, in its most simplified and elastic view, of “the Sovereignty of the People, the Rights of the States, and a light and simple Government.”
By the 1830s he was “more and more a states rights man.” This conviction did not subvert his Unionism. Like many Democrats, Buchanan believed that the United States was the sum of the states. The latter retained authority over most public matters. He repeated the point in 1838: “I am a states rights man, and in favor of a strict construction of the Constitution. The older I grow and the more experience I acquire, the more deeply rooted does this doctrine become in my mind.” Buchanan found his philosophical standard in the Tenth Amendment, the last of the Bill of Rights. It held that all powers not specifically delegated to the national government by the Constitution, nor prohibited to the states, remained with the states and the people. Sometimes Buchanan overlooked this last part of the amendment—the power given to the people, not as citizens of the states but as those of the nation.
In Washington for his five congressional terms, James Buchanan joined 211 other congressmen from twenty-four states. What had been a legislative group of sixty-five representatives in the eighteenth century had multiplied, and so had the size of each district. Buchanan’s predecessors in the eighteenth century represented thirty-five thousand constituents; Buchanan served over sixty thousand. But the job was easier for him than for most congressmen. Given the proximity of his district to Washington, he had easy access to voters. This ability to travel back and forth became critical to his political success when with Jackson’s encouragement he began to organize a Democratic coalition among former Federalist farmers in the northern part of the state, city artisans in Philadelphia, and farmers of Scotch-Irish background, like his own, in the western part of the state. Once the usually dignified, sometimes even haughty James Buchanan stood on a table in the White Swan Tavern in Lancaster, shouting down his noisy opponents as he argued for the Jacksonians and against the despised John Quincy Adams. By 1828, the year of Jackson’s election to the presidency, James Buchanan won handily as a Democrat, the party he had worked hard to establish in his home state.
Immediately after his arrival in Washington, Buchanan gravitated toward southerners and away from New Englanders, whom he considered radical extremists. As a bachelor with time on his hands, he found southerners more congenial both socially and ideologically. For a time he boarded with Senator William King of Alabama and ate in a southern “mess” on F Street. In the late 1830s, by then a senator, he lived in Mrs. Ironsides’s boardinghouse on Tenth near F Street, again with King. So intimate was he with the handsome Alabama senator, who was known as a dandy in his home state and an “Aunt Fancy” in Washington, that one congressman referred to the two men as “Buchanan & his wife” in a reference to their bachelor status, which also hinted at their homosexuality.
On the basis of slender evidence, mostly the circumstances of his bachelorhood and three asides by contemporaries about his effeminacy, Buchanan has been dubbed America’s first homosexual president. Referring to his femininity, Andrew Jackson once called him an “Aunt Nancy.” In an age when women could not vote, such a charge held political as well as sexual implications. There is also evidence that Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane and King’s niece Catherine Ellis destroyed their uncles’ letters to each other when Buchanan became president. While the existing correspondence between King and Buchanan conveys the affection of a special friendship—in one Buchanan wrote of his “communion” with his roommate—so do the letters of many notably heterosexual nineteenth-century men. Absent the discovery of new material, no one will ever know whether Buchanan and King (the only man to whom his name was ever erotically connected) had sexual relations.
In any case this was a period before the word homosexual had come into use, and before Americans identified themselves as straight, gay, or, in some instances, both. Men in Buchanan’s time did not have sexual identities, although they did have sexual behaviors. Certainly both King and Buchanan knew that men occasionally had sex with each other. They read about it in the Bible, in New York’s sporting newspapers, and in the sex manuals of the period, even if as lawyers they did not follow the court cases that involved punishment for homosexual activity.5 They also knew that such relationships were against the law, and Buchanan may have been too ambitious to jeopardize his career in this way. The best speculation about the sexuality of the nonshaving Buchanan, who in his portraits has eunuchlike, endomorphic features of body and face as well as the low hairline characteristic of asexual men with low levels of testosterone, is that he had little interest in sex. What is important in his story is the deep friendship that he maintained with the southerner King from the time of their first acquaintance until the latter’s death in 1853.
Besides King, the legislators James Buchanan most admired were southerners like William Lowndes of South Carolina, Philip Barbour of Virginia, and even the eccentric John Randolph of Virginia. During the 1830s when he was a senator, he continued to board with King and two Virginians, not—as was typical of other congressmen and senators, including the Pennsylvania delegation—with fellow residents of his state or another nearby state with similar interests.6
From the beginning of his congressional service Buchanan complained that the reputation of some attention-getting members exceeded their actual contributions. Others, he grumbled until he started doing the same thing, gave speeches intended for home consumption rather than for the enlightenment of the House. Six weeks after he was sworn in, Buchanan risked a first speech on a safe subject, in this case on the patriotic necessity of passing a military appropriations bill to pay the army.
The effort was a harbinger of his future speeches. Never witty or ironic and seldom facile in debate, he depended on careful preparation, evidence, rebuttal, and occasional flights of sentimental rhetoric. His was the oratory of a lawyer. At the end of a nearly four-hour speech on the Bankruptcy Bill in which he argued against extending its protections to farmers, he included some traditional populist boilerplate: “Experience has taught us a lesson which, I trust, we shall never forget—that a wild and extravagant spirit of speculation is one of the greatest curses that can pervade our country. Do you wish again to witness the desolation which has spread over the land? … the road to wealth and honor is not closed against the humblest citizen and Heaven forbid that it ever should be! It is however the destiny of man to learn that evil often treads closely upon the footsteps of good.” Proudly, he reported that he was heard by the whole chamber, an important consideration at a time when even if the members were disposed to listen, they could not hear, given the acoustics in “Old Statuary Hall.” To be heard “requires great compass of voice and stentorian lungs.”
In his ten years as a congressman Buchanan gained the reputation of a middling man in terms of ability and influence. He was not in that first-rank group of most influential members like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster whose inspirational speeches filled the galleries. In fact Clay enjoyed baiting the Pennsylvanian, considering him inept and unimaginative and on one occasion mercilessly referring to his crossed eyes. “I often suppose that the gentleman [Buchanan] is looking at me when in fact he looks quite the other way,” after which Clay crossed his fingers. In another debate Clay noted that Buchanan had lived thirty-five years without taking “any fair lady” under his protection. But Buchanan was not one of the invisible, the speechless, the incompetent, or the alcoholic representatives who came to Washington during this period. Appointed to the Committee of Agriculture his first year, he later rose to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.7
As had been the case in Buchanan’s early years as a lawyer, an impeachment case brought him to the attention of Congress. Judge James Peck of Missouri had high-handedly disbarred and sent to prison a St. Louis attorney who had publicly criticized several of his decisions. The House had refused to prosecute Peck until Buchanan became chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the chief manager of the prosecution. By this time Buchanan had narrowed his understanding of the boundaries between judicial error and malfeasance, arguing the prosecution’s case against Peck. Contending that Peck had intentionally violated the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the land, he argued that the judge had abused his judicial authority. There was “criminal intention on his part.” An acquittal would be, said Buchanan to the Senate in May 1830, “a hopeless, remediless submission to judicial usurpation and tyranny.” But enough of the Senate thought otherwise and acquitted Peck by one vote.
Buchanan’s greatest service during his decade in Congress reflected both his legal mentality and his former Federalist principles. In his last session as a congressman, he refused to accept the majority position of the Judiciary Committee of which he was chairman. Without his agreement, its members had drawn up a bill to repeal the twenty-fifth section of the 1789 Judiciary Act. The latter gave the Supreme Court appellate and original jurisdiction over state cases when the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States were in question. Limiting the federal judicial power to the cases that arose in federal court under original jurisdiction would have severely truncated the court’s national authority. As Buchanan informed the House, there would be no uniformity to the interpretations of the Constitution, and “an authority higher than that of the sovereign states would be overlooked.” That power was, as it always would be for Buchanan, the sovereign authority of the people as expressed through their state ratifications of the Constitution, the latter document then becoming the supreme law of the land. When the House defeated the bill to repeal, Buchanan, an avowed believer in states’ rights, nevertheless acknowledged a victory for national unity and federal sovereignty.
Buchanan entered Congress after the passage of the Missouri Compromise, the first of several legislative negotiations over slavery. The compromise balanced the number of slave and free states at twelve and temporarily settled the issue of slavery in the territories by drawing a line across the United States at the 36° 30’ latitude. Above this point there could be no slavery. Three decades later Buchanan still hoped that this arrangement would forever end disagreements over slavery, but he was far too optimistic. For the rest of his life, in one form or another, slavery defined public discussion in America. One need look no further than Buchanan’s public career for evidence that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. It was the albatross neither he nor the nation could ever shake.
Even during a congressional debate in 1830 over a proposed mission to Panama, an issue seemingly far removed from the South’s peculiar institution, slavery intruded. In his long speech on the advisability of the mission, Buchanan digressed, holding slavery to be a political and moral evil, but an evil without a remedy. Emancipate the slaves in the United States and “they would become masters … . Is there any man in this Union who could for a moment indulge the horrible idea of abolishing slavery by the massacre of the high-minded and the chivalrous race of men in the South?” Buchanan had already chosen sides. He would never desert the “chivalrous race” of white men in the South. Thirty years before the coming of the Civil War he had “buckled on [his] knapsack and marched in defence of [the white southern] cause” by opposing any interference with slavery.
In 1831 James Buchanan declined a sixth nomination to Congress from the loyal Democrats in his Pennsylvania district of Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties. He preferred, he informed his brother George Washington Buchanan, to return to private life. Yet he remained politically ambitious and hoped to be on the rise again after his ten years in Congress. At the time some Pennsylvanians were bruiting his name about as a possible vice presidential nominee to run with Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1832. But Jackson chose Martin Van Buren and offered Buchanan the lesser plum of the Russian ministry.
Buchanan hesitated, giving as his reason the transparent excuse that he could serve Jackson more “usefully” from his vantage point as a prominent leader in Pennsylvania. In fact the mission seemed an exile from the public affairs that were the center of his life, and was intended as such by the president, who once called Buchanan “an inept busybody.” Moreover, Buchanan did not speak French, the language of diplomacy. Nor could he leave his private business. He might have added that his mother was opposed. She had begged him to refuse this appointment, noting his previous successes—his “gratifying” political career and “the pecuniary matters [that] are no object to you.”8 But when James Buchanan learned that he would not have to leave until the breaking of the ice in St. Petersburg the following spring, he accepted.
For eighteen months Buchanan ran the American ministry in St. Petersburg, diligently working on his assignment to negotiate both a commercial and a maritime treaty with the Russians. He succeeded in the first and gained President Jackson’s gratitude. But any maritime treaty involving the principle “free ships make free goods” proved elusive, as Buchanan tirelessly trekked from the ministry to the offices of his counterpart, Count Nesselrode. During his months in Russia he learned French and enjoyed his magnificent view of the Neva along with high society, which included an audience with Czar Nicholas I. He also absorbed the lesson that diplomacy and statesmanship proceeded slowly. As a good democrat from America, he disliked the closed nature of Russian society, its censorship, the Russians’ profanity even on Sundays, the government’s spies, and the terrible treatment of the serfs. He was thankful, after eighteen months, to return home to Lancaster. But while he was abroad both his mother and one of his brothers had died.
Pennsylvania Democrats also missed James Buchanan. Although he lost the election in the state legislature for a full senatorial term of six years in the winter of 1833, the state legislature picked him to fill the shorter term of a Democrat who had replaced him in St. Petersburg. So began Buchanan’s service as a U.S. senator, which lasted from December 1834 to March 1845. When he was reelected in 1836 and 1842, his growing national reputation and the fact that no Pennsylvanian had ever been president stoked Buchanan’s supreme aspiration—to be president of the United States. For this he needed a united Democratic party in Pennsylvania, and demanded that the state’s party convention unanimously pass a resolution supporting him as their favorite son. But it was unseemly to acknowledge such ambition. So Buchanan told his friends that the U.S. Senate was the only “distinction” to which he aspired.
Yet he gave interviews to newspaper editors and wrote endless letters to state and national leaders from a list he kept in little black notebooks. Buchanan correctly anticipated that his dutiful service as a Democrat in the Senate would enhance his national reputation. As a loyal Jacksonian, he opposed the rechartering of the U.S. Bank (“a despotic monied corporation … . The Democratic party must either triumph over the Bank or the Bank will crush the Democracy”). He supported Van Buren’s Subtreasury plan to move public funds from the U.S. Bank into a separate government depository. He argued against Senator John C. Calhoun’s proposal for a gag rule preventing Congress from receiving abolitionist petitions. “We have just as little right to interfere with slavery in the South, as we have to touch the right of petition … . Can a republican government exist without it? The people have the right to make their wants and rights known to their servants,” he said in a three-and-a-half-hour speech in January 1836 that must have tried the patience of even his mutually long-winded fellow senators, given its repetitiveness and digressions. Although Jackson, who believed Buchanan lacked courage, never forgave the Pennsylvanian for what the president incorrectly interpreted as Buchanan’s support of Clay in the ferociously contested 1824 election, Buchanan was ever the dutiful senator. He even sought to expunge the ill-tempered congressional resolution that had censured Jackson for his removal of deposits from the U.S. Bank.
By the 1840s Buchanan had taken an inflexible position on slavery. Quietly opposed to the institution in theory for reasons he never explained, he believed it the nation’s weak link, not because it was inhumane, but rather for its potential to destroy the Union. “Touch this question of slavery and the Union is from that point dissolved.” For the bachelor Buchanan, slavery emerged as a domestic affair in two senses—first, because it was under the constitutional jurisdiction of the states as a local matter, and second, because it affected the families of southerners. Adopting the southern view that black male slaves were potential rapists, he held the “excitement over slavery” to be the fault of abolitionists. Their movement, he concluded in one of his strikingly inaccurate predictions, was “weak, powerless, and soon to be forgotten.”
Forty-three years old when he first took his seat as a U.S. senator, Buchanan moved to the front ranks of senatorial prestige. He debated the great men of this era: John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. He was a politician who avoided the kind of maneuvering that left many men languishing in political backwaters. Astutely, he turned down President Martin Van Buren’s offer of the attorney generalship in 1838. Throughout his years in the Senate he held fast to two popular principles: manifest destiny and states’ rights. Of the latter, he informed his fellow senators in April 1836: “The older I grow, the more I am inclined to be what is called a ‘State Rights man.’ The peace and security of this Union depend upon giving to the Constitution a literal and fair construction, such as would be placed upon it by a plain, intelligent man, and not by ingenious construction, to increase the powers of this government, and thereby diminish those of the States. The rights of the States reserved to them by that instrument ought to be held sacred.”
Through hard work, party loyalty, and residence in the second most populous state in the Union, Buchanan advanced in stature and position, moving up the committee ladder to ever more important positions and ever more national notoriety. He was appointed to the Judiciary Committee, the Committee on the District of Columbia, and eventually the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was as a member of the latter that he became best known and made his most significant contributions to the future of the nation.
From its beginnings the United States had embraced as one of its values national expansion. All presidents believed that the movement of Americans westward was inevitable, divinely ordained, and economically beneficial. Jefferson had purchased the huge Louisiana Territory from the French; Madison had sent the marines into Spanish-controlled Florida and had invaded Canada during the War of 1812; and Jackson owed his political popularity to his military service against the Creek Indians and the British. From 1790 to 1860 no decade passed without an increase in the number of states incorporated into the Union. All Democrats of this period and most Whigs were territorial expansionists, but none was so fervent as James Buchanan, whose speeches have come to summarize what we now call “manifest destiny.”
Indeed Buchanan’s statements are textbook examples of the justifications for the spread of the United States across the continent and, beginning in the 1840s, into Mexico and Central America. “This I believe,” he said in 1837. “Providence has given to the American people a great and glorious mission to perform, even that of extending the blessings of Christianity and of civil and religious liberty over the whole North American continent. Within less than fifty years there will exist one hundred millions of free Americans between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans … . What, sir! Prevent the American people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might as well command Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny.”
Buchanan translated his rhetoric into action. In 1841 he became one of only nine senators to vote against the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, a widely applauded Anglo-American pact fixing the northern border between Maine and Canada. Buchanan wanted more land and attacked what he called Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s cowardly surrender of eight thousand square miles. Buchanan claimed for the United States the entire Aroostook Valley in what today is the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The “dishonorable” treaty, he informed the Senate in June 1841, was unfair to Maine and an “unqualified surrender … to British dictation.”
The expansionist instincts of many senators were restrained by their sectional bias. Those from the nonslaveholding northern states supported expansion into Canada and Oregon, and those from slaveholding southern states favored the addition of Texas and parts of Mexico and Central America, but not the reverse. Buchanan fought for territory everywhere. He claimed the American right to possess territory in Oregon up to the 54° 40’ latitude. And in his last long speech to the Senate in February 1845, he made the case for the annexation of Texas on three grounds. First, Texas, now independent of Mexico, deserved to be a part of “our glorious Confederacy.” (The term confederacy was commonly used at the time for the entire Union.) Second, the state would be a perfect dumping ground for slaves. Fearful of slave uprisings, he was convinced that slaves from the cotton South would be absorbed into Texas in areas growing corn and wheat and raising cattle, while economically useless slaves would drift into Mexico, where they would be assimilated into that nation’s already “darkerhued” population. Finally, Buchanan believed that a sovereign, independent Texas would invite troublemaking British intervention. But once in the Union, the state could be divided into five slaveholding states, thereby balancing any new free states in the North. “Shall Texas become part of our glorious confederacy or shall she become our dangerous and hostile rival? Shall we drive her away in despair to form alliances with strangers?”
Some of Buchanan’s contemporaries complained that his extraordinary ambitions for territorial enlargement marched in step with his assessment of public opinion and his eagerness for the presidency. Certainly no Democrat exceeded his commitment to expansion, a popular position by the 1840s, but one that fewer and fewer politicians from the northeastern and Middle Atlantic states accepted. Stalwarts of manifest destiny came from the West and the South. As a Pennsylvanian, Buchanan was out of step with his section, in part because he desperately wanted the presidency and recognized the popularity of expansionism with his principal clients—the southerners. Additionally, his ministry in Russia, where his intended plan for a maritime rights treaty had been flummoxed by Great Britain, taught him the opportunistic nature of British colonialism and made him sensitive to the potential danger of English meddling in Oregon, Texas, and Mexico.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s Buchanan proclaimed himself a states’ rights man, but it was as a nationalist that he fought and voted for, and as a diplomat shaped the boundaries of, the continental United States. In the case of the taking of land claimed by other nations and not sanctified by the loss of American blood, Buchanan held the popular view that the United States was exceptional. Its commitment to freedom justified the liberation of Oregon, California, Mexico, parts of Central America, and Cuba from inferior regimes and European governments that in the future might threaten the United States. In the jingoistic language of his generation’s Democrats, Buchanan marshaled all the contemporary arguments for manifest destiny from natural right, geographic proximity, and destined use of the soil to the extension of freedom, the blessings of Christian civilization, God’s will, and self-defense.
In 1844 Buchanan hoped that he might win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and this year, unlike 1836 and 1840, he began a letter-writing campaign to the leaders of state parties, offering himself as a candidate if Martin Van Buren withdrew. Although deferential submission to the people’s will was giving way to more aggressive personal campaigning, Buchanan was reluctant to curry voters’ support. Instead he sought to be chosen by the sovereign people without seeking the nomination. Of course this was something of both a fantasy and a fiction, given the activity of his friends to ensure that Pennsylvania’s Democratic Convention unanimously resolved that he was their choice. As a senator he held himself to be a representative of the people—a trustee, as it were—available to be instructed by them through the state legislature as to his votes in Congress. With duty foremost, several times in his ten years as a senator Buchanan dutifully followed the instructions of the state legislature and voted, with some embarrassment, against positions he espoused in his speeches.
To Buchanan’s chagrin, a disciple of Andrew Jackson from Tennessee, James K. Polk, won the nomination and the election in 1844. Promptly, for this was a generation that believed in defusing the threat of competitors by placing them in the cabinet, Polk nominated Buchanan as his secretary of state. The president was also rewarding the Pennsylvania senator for his hard work during the campaign. Traditionally the position was the premier seat in the cabinet, especially since the Democrats had pledged themselves, with careful attention to their language, to the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas. These were goals that Buchanan enthusiastically embraced.
Buchanan accepted Polk’s offer, though after a few months he decided he would prefer to sit on the Supreme Court. Three vacancies on that bench had occurred in the two years from 1843 to 1845; two justices had died, and the famed Justice Joseph Story, in his mid-sixties and in poor health, had resigned. Polk’s predecessor, John Tyler, had already offered Buchanan one of these seats. He had declined, but then a few months after his confirmation by the Senate as secretary of state, Buchanan changed his mind and asked Polk to appoint him to the Court. At James Buchanan’s annual grand ball in January 1846, the chatter among the thousand guests gathered at Carusi’s saloon was that their host would leave Polk’s cabinet for the bench. A month later, fearful that he might not be confirmed, Buchanan withdrew the request he had made two months before.
Then in June 1846 he again asked for a Supreme Court appointment, informing his brother Edward: “It is now more than possible that I shall go upon the Bench near the close of the present session of Congress. All things considered, I believe this to be the best.” A few weeks later he reversed himself, convinced that such a position would hurt his presidential chances, but publicly acknowledging the importance of his serving the administration by staying in the cabinet. “I cannot desert the President.” Despite his frequent disavowals of interest in the presidency, Buchanan knew that no one had ever moved from the Court to be chief executive, and he was not a man to test precedent.
Polk was glad enough to have Buchanan stay in the cabinet, because his hardworking secretary of state, as Polk wrote in his diary, “had shown a willingness to carry out my views instead of his own.” Still, the president found Buchanan “brooding, in a bad mood, not pleasant in his intercourse with me.” Polk attributed this crankiness to Buchanan’s indecision about what to do. Buchanan, wrote Polk in his diary in August 1846, “would rather be Chief Justice of that Court than be President of the United States. He said that he did not desire to be a President and never had.” At the time this disavowal astonished Polk, the Democrats of Pennsylvania, and most of Buchanan’s friends in the Senate. “For God’s sake stay where you are,” wrote one political friend anxious for a patronage appointment. By December 1847 Buchanan’s presidential ambitions had revived. As part of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1848, he initiated a series of dinners, given every ten days at Carusi’s during the Washington social season, to which, at his own expense, he invited party leaders, lobbyists, and influential patronage holders.9
In the end Buchanan remained secretary of state for the duration of Polk’s administration. From 1845 to 1849 this zealous exponent of manifest destiny presided over the largest increase in territory in the history of the United States. When Polk came to the presidency, the United States consisted of twenty-six states and 1,787,880 square miles; when he left, an additional 1,204,740 square miles had been added, from which the remaining twenty-two continental states would be created. Buchanan had wanted even more. Most of this was the result of the absorption of territory from Mexico and from Oregon, jointly occupied in 1818 by the Americans and the British, both of whom awaited a negotiating advantage.
Polk and Buchanan agreed about the overall strategy of this expansion, but they often disagreed over tactics and particulars. Sometimes they ended up exchanging positions. Buchanan, who was four years older than the less-experienced president, never hesitated to oppose Polk, whom he considered illtrained and sometimes poorly informed about the precise matters of geography that Buchanan knew so well. At first Buchanan argued for settling with the British in Oregon at the forty-ninth parallel, while Polk insisted on more territory. Meanwhile northern Democrats were beginning to rally around the slogan “54° 40' or fight,” the latter a claim to a latitude north of Fort Simpson in the British territory of Canada.
Rapidly converted, Buchanan now took the position that American honor was involved in a diplomatic contest over territory that, in reality, only trappers and hunters had explored and that some thought unfit for settlement. But, according to Buchanan, “War before dishonor is a maxim deeply engraved upon the hearts of the American people.” Pulling the lion’s tail, the American secretary insisted that the United States held a legitimate claim to most of Oregon. If Britain did not give way, he said, war was justified and “may we anticipate the smiles of heaven upon the right,” he wrote a friend in July 1845. Meanwhile Polk had converted as well, but in the opposite direction. Eventually Buchanan deferred to the president’s position, and the boundary between Canada and the United States was set at the forty-ninth parallel.
An overburdened Buchanan, who compared himself to a galley slave, had to deal simultaneously with Mexico, where warfare erupted over a boundary dispute in 1846. As a member of the Polk administration, he supported the dubious proposition that Mexicans had attacked American troops on U.S. territory across the Rio Grande. Earlier Polk, Buchanan, and other Democrats had laid the groundwork for American aggression by pointing to Mexico’s instability and the resulting opportunity for British meddling.
During the brief conflict Buchanan cautiously advised Polk against taking any Mexican territory below the Rio Grande or south of New Mexico, on the grounds that “the opinion of the world would be against us.” On the other hand, Polk and the rest of his cabinet wanted to extend the national boundary deep into Mexico, down to the twenty-second parallel. By 1848, after the Americans had occupied Mexico in the course of the eight months of actual fighting, Buchanan shifted his position, opposing a peace treaty with the Mexicans that he believed provided an insufficient indemnity. After all, the war, in his and Polk’s judgment, had been Mexico’s fault. Now Buchanan stubbornly argued against Polk and the rest of the cabinet that the United States should take several provinces along the line of the Sierra Madre as well as all of lower California. He had always supported the annexation of California, but now he wanted to add at least twenty thousand square miles to the southern border of New Mexico. He also insisted that the mouth of the Colorado River in the Gulf of California be included in any settlement.
“Mr. Buchanan’s opinions have evidently undergone a change in the course of a few weeks or rather he seems to be now in an unsettled state of mind,” wrote Polk in his diary. And the president thought he knew why, given the popularity of claims for more territory. “Since he has considered himself a candidate for the Presidency it is probable he looks at the subject with different considerations in view from those which he entertained before that time … . I deemed it my duty to remind Mr. Buchanan of his total change of opinion and position,” to which Buchanan replied that the costs of the Mexican-American War in blood and money justified his desire for more land. Yet Buchanan’s was a minority voice—no one else in the cabinet was running for president—and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, surrendering five hundred thousand square miles of former Mexican territory, was accepted by the Senate and signed by the president in February 1848.
Clearly, Buchanan had taught Polk a lesson in this election year in which Zachary Taylor, the Mexican-American War’s conquering hero, became the Whig party candidate: “No candidate for the presidency ought ever to remain in the cabinet.
He is an unsafe advisor,” concluded the president, who was more convinced than ever that Buchanan did not want to offend southerners intent on claiming more slave states. In the final analysis, wrote Polk of the man who had served for four years as his secretary of state,”Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.”10
Buchanan spent part of 1848 working for the Democratic nomination. A newspaperman described his quiet campaign as a “still hunt for the Presidency … never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did.”11 But at the Democratic National Convention in May, a disappointed Buchanan commanded only the Pennsylvania and Virginia delegations and a few scattered votes. On the fourth ballot Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan won the Democratic nomination.
Certainly Buchanan, as he returned temporarily to private life, had made his mark on American history, but neither his hopes for higher office nor his expectations for enlarging the United States were satisfied. As he wrote the incoming secretary of state, John Clayton: “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba, and above all we must not suffer its transfer to Great Britain. We shall acquire it by a coup at some propitious moment … . Cuba is already ours. I feel it in my finger tips.” It was four years before James Buchanan came back to Washington, and when he did, he had not forgotten Cuba or the presidency.
Copyright © 2004 by Jean H. Baker