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 la...