Fifteenth President of the United States James Buchanan was the nation's chief executive when the Union began to dissolve in December 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War.
James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, a village in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791. He was the first son and second of eleven children born to James and Elizabeth (Speer) Buchanan. Buchanan senior was an Irish immigrant who became a successful storekeeper after settling in Pennsylvania.
When Buchanan was six years old, his father moved his growing family to nearby Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. There, young Buchanan attended Old Stone Academy. Proving to be an able student, he enrolled at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1807. While there, Buchanan fell victim to the temptations of college life and his lack of self-discipline. In the fall of 1808, school officials expelled him for his unruly behavior. Given a second chance, Buchanan mended his disobedient ways and graduated with distinction on September 19, 1809.
Following his college graduation, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he studied law with James Hopkins, a prominent local attorney. After three years of arduous schooling, Buchanan joined the bar in November 1812, the same year that the United States and Great Britain went to war. In February 1813, Buchanan founded a law practice in Lancaster. Less than a month later, he secured an appointment as the prosecutor for Lebanon County.
Being a member of the Federalist Party, Buchanan opposed the War of 1812. Nonetheless, when the British burned Washington, D.C., in 1814, Buchanan enlisted in a company of volunteers known as the Lancaster County Dragoons that rushed to the defense of Baltimore. Although his company saw no action, Private Buchanan remained in the service until the war ended in 1815.
The same year that Buchanan joined the military, voters elected him to a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Re-elected in 1815, he served two terms in the state legislature. At the end of the 1816 session, Buchanan left the political arena to focus on his growing law practice.
In October 1820, voters of Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District (Lancaster, York, and Dauphin counties) elected Buchanan to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Re-elected four times, Buchanan served in the 17th through the 21st U.S. Congresses from December 3, 1821 through March 4, 1831.
Minister to Russia
In 1824, Andrew Jackson lost his first presidential bid because of what his followers considered a corrupt deal in the House of Representatives, The loss prompted Buchanan to leave the Federalist Party and join the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party. Four years later, Buchanan backed Jackson’s successful presidential bid.
Toward the end of his first term, President Jackson rewarded Buchanan’s loyalty by offering him an appointment as the U.S. Minister to Russia. Buchanan accepted the offer on June 12, 1831. Six months later, on January 12, 1832, the Senate confirmed Buchanan’s appointment. Leaving New York in April, Buchanan arrived in St. Petersburg and presented his credentials on June 11, 1832.
In the spring of 1833, Buchanan received word that his mother was seriously ill, and he resigned his appointment in Russia. After learning on July 19, 1833, that his mother had died on May 14, Buchanan returned to the United States. He arrived in Philadelphia on November 24, 1833.
On December 6, 1834, (before the popular election of U.S. Senators) the Pennsylvania State Legislature elected Buchanan to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of William Wilkins in the U.S. Senate. Buchanan took his seat on December 15. Re-elected in 1837 and 1843, Buchanan served nearly ten years in the Senate in the 23rd through 28th Congresses, ending on March 5, 1845.
As a Jacksonian Democrat, Buchanan opposed big government and especially the United States Bank. He also was sympathetic to Southern positions regarding slavery. Although he may have opposed slavery morally, like his congressional colleagues from the South, Buchanan defended it on constitutional grounds. He believed that slavery was a Southern matter best handled at the state level by Southerners. Also, like many Southerners, Buchanan distrusted abolitionists as extremists who jeopardized national harmony. Still, Buchanan was no fire-breather. Like Andrew Jackson, he placed the sanctity of the Union above southern radicals who threatened secession to push their agenda.
During his long tenure in the Senate, Buchanan began receiving consideration within the Democratic Party as presidential material. At the 1844 Democratic National Convention, he tallied more votes for the party’s presidential nomination on the first seven ballots before James K. Polk received the nomination.
Secretary of State
Toward the end of Buchanan’s last term in the Senate, President-elect James K. Polk nominated Buchanan to serve as his secretary of state. Buchanan accepted Polk’s invitation and resigned his seat in the Senate effective March 4, 1845. Two days later, the Senate approved Buchanan’s appointment as secretary of state.
Buchanan served as secretary of state throughout the Mexican-American War and coordinated negotiations with Mexico before, during, and after the conflict. During his tenure, Buchanan also oversaw the settlement of the Oregon Boundary Dispute with Great Britain. On June 15, 1846, President Polk signed the Oregon Treaty establishing the border between the western U.S. and Canada. The Senate ratified the treaty on June 18. Buchanan’s handling of the situation averted the possibility of the U.S. having to fight wars on two fronts against two countries at the same time.
Election of 1848
As the presidential election of 1848 approached, President Polk remained true to his pledge to serve only one term and chose not to run for re-election. Buchanan hoped that his status as secretary of state would serve as a springboard to the presidency. When the Democrats met in Baltimore in May 1848 to choose a candidate, Buchanan was one of three leading contenders along with Michigan Senator Lewis Cass and Supreme Court Justice Levi Woodbury from New Hampshire. On the first ballot, Cass held a commanding lead over Buchanan, but he could not amass the two-thirds majority needed to earn the nomination. On the second ballot, Cass increased his lead and Buchanan slipped to third place. Two ballots later Cass sewed up the nomination.
In the November election, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor won a close contest over Cass and Free-Soil candidate Millard Fillmore. With his party out of power, Buchanan left office and returned to his law practice in Pennsylvania and began laying the groundwork for another run at the presidency in 1852.
Election of 1852
The Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore from June 1–4, 1852. Like the Whigs, Buchanan’s party had divided along sectional lines. When the presidential balloting began on June 3, Cass and Buchanan were again the frontrunners. After neither candidate could muster the two-thirds majority of votes required to secure the nomination through the first twenty-nine ballots, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas took the lead through the next two ballots. When Douglas could not collect the decisive two-thirds, Cass re-took the lead, but could still not muster enough votes to win.
Reaching a clear impasse, the delegates began looking for a compromise candidate. On the thirty-fifth ballot, the Virginia delegation cast all fifteen of their votes for Franklin Pierce, a northern Democrat who was sympathetic to the South and who supported the constitutionality of slavery. Pierce’s vote total doubled on the next ballot and then remained nearly steady through the forty-fifth ballot when he gathered more Southern support. Finally, with the convention deadlocked and the delegates frazzled, the North Carolina delegation switched its support to Pierce and started a landslide. On the forty-ninth ballot, Pierce received all but fourteen votes and won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In the November election, Pierce defeated Whig candidate Winfield Scott in a landslide.
Minister to Great Britain
Soon after Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, he invited Buchanan to serve as Minister to Great Britain. Although Buchanan had hoped for a second stint as secretary of state, he accepted Pierce’s offer. On April 11, 1853, the Senate confirmed Buchanan’s appointment.
Buchanan presented his credentials on August 23 in England, where he served for three years. During his tenure, Buchanan escaped being smeared by the Kansas-Nebraska controversy that tainted Pierce’s administration. He did, however, take part in a foreign policy blunder that tarnished the Pierce administration and stoked the fires of sectional discord in the U.S.
In 1853, Pierre Soulé, Pierce’s Minister to Spain, failed in his attempts to convince Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. Afterward, U. S. Secretary of State William L. Marcy directed Buchanan, Soulé, and U.S. Minister to France John Y. Mason to meet secretly at Ostend, Belgium, in 1854 to develop a Cuban policy. On October 18, 1854, the trio of diplomats signed a report later dubbed the Ostend Manifesto. The document strongly suggested that if Spain refused to sell Cuba, the United States should seize the island by force. Four months after the drafting of the document, Pierce’s enemies in the House of Representatives forced Marcy to reveal its contents. The details of the agreement outraged Abolitionists and many Northerners, who viewed the annexation of Cuba as a southern plot to extend slavery. Disclosure of the manifesto’s contents contributed to the sectional splintering of the Democratic Party and to Pierce’s undoing at the 1856 national convention.
1856 Presidential Nominee
In April 1855, Buchanan requested that Pierce replace him as Minister to Great Britain, and he received his recall letter in November. A year after his request, Buchanan left England and arrived back in America on April 24, 1856, professing his intent to retire from public service. Behind the scenes, however, he was quietly laying the groundwork for another run at the presidency.
On June 2, 1856, the Democratic National Convention convened at Cincinnati, Ohio. Incumbent President Franklin Pierce expected the delegates to nominate him for a second term. The party, however, had divided along sectional lines over the slavery issue. Pierce’s approval of the Kansas-Nebraska Act cost him dearly. Following devastating losses during the midterm elections, the Democrats were seeking new leadership. Among those contending with Pierce were Buchanan, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act), and timeless candidate, former Michigan Senator Lewis Cass.
When the balloting began on June 5, Buchanan held a slim lead over Pierce 133.5 to 122.5, but he did not have the required two-thirds majority to receive the nomination. Douglas was a distant third with 33 votes and Cass received a token 5 votes. Through thirteen more ballots, Buchanan and Douglas inched forward at Pierce’s expense. On the fourteenth ballot, Pierce’s total plummeted from 75 votes to 3.5 votes. On the next ballot, Douglas peaked at 122 votes compared to 168 for Buchanan. With the convention deadlocked, Douglas stepped aside for the good of the party, and Buchanan received the convention’s unanimous endorsement on the seventeenth ballot.
The 1856 presidential election was a three-party race. Buchanan and his running-mate, John C. Breckinridge, ran on a “Save the Union” platform. Opposing them was John C. Frémont, the first presidential nominee of the fledgling Republican Party, and former President Millard Fillmore representing the American, or “Know-Nothing” Party.
When voters went to the polls on November 4, 1856, Buchanan did not receive a majority of ballots cast, but his 45.3% of the vote outdistanced Frémont’s 33.1% and Fillmore’s 21.6%. On an ominous note, the Electoral College vote split along sectional lines. Buchanan received 174 votes and carried every southern state plus a handful of border states. Frémont received 114 votes, all from northern states. Fillmore finished a distant third receiving only 8 votes from Maryland’s electors. The sectional division of electoral votes was a harbinger of future disaster for the United States.
Buchanan assumed the presidency intent on restoring harmony to the Union. In retrospect, he was almost certainly destined to fail. Sectional differences between the North and South, which had been smoldering for decades, were about to erupt. Buchanan’s personal failure to appreciate the potential ramifications of the Dred Scott Decision, along with his inability to recognize the intensity of anti-slavery sentiment in Bleeding Kansas, hindered his cause, and eventually relegated him to the wrong side of history.
Other events that occurred during his presidency, however, such as John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry and southern response to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 were largely out of his control. When Buchanan assumed the presidency, he was like a man about to light a symbolic victory cigar while sitting on a case of dynamite. By the time Buchanan left office four years later, he told President-elect Abraham Lincoln that “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his estate in Pennsylvania], you are a happy man.”
Dred Scott Decision
Buchanan took the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1857. During his inaugural address, Buchanan denounced anti-slavery extremists who threatened the harmony of the Union, stated his support of popular sovereignty in the territories, and assured the nation that he would “cheerfully submit” to whatever ruling the Supreme Court was about to make in the much-anticipated Dred Scott Decision. Buchanan neglected to tell his audience that Justice John Catron had tipped him off in January that the court would render a pro-Southern ruling. Buchanan also did not reveal that he had secretly interceded in the case and urged fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join with the majority when the court reached its verdict.
The majority decision, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, rocked the nation. The court ruled that the law did not allow Dred Scott—a slave owned by John Sanford—to bring suit in federal court because neither he nor anyone else of African descent, whether slaves or freedmen, were citizens of the United States.
Taney did not stop there. He declared that Congressional attempts to regulate slavery in U.S. territories were unconstitutional. Taney reasoned that Congress could not deprive white inhabitants of the territories of their Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, or property (including their slaves) without due process of law, any more than it could deny citizens of their First Amendment right to free speech.
While Southerners hailed the decision, Northerners denounced Taney and the court. The pro-slavery decision galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North and strengthened the emerging Republican Party. Northerners who previously viewed slavery as a peculiar institution of the South speculated that if the Fifth Amendment did not prohibit slaveowners from bringing their human “property” into the territories, then what was to prevent them from bringing their slaves into northern states?
Far from resolving the sectional differences dividing the North and South, the Dred Scott Decision widened the schism, inching the nation closer to civil war. Northerners roundly criticized Buchanan for his support of the Dred Scott Decision, especially when they learned that he already knew the court’s decision before he proclaimed in his inaugural speech that he would “cheerfully submit” to whatever ruling the Supreme Court was about to make.
On the day that Buchanan took office, he proclaimed that the controversy over the extension of slavery in the territories was a “judicial question.” As he was assuring the nation that the Supreme Court would “speedily and finally” settle the issue, trouble was brewing in the West.
Settlers and entrepreneurs were clamoring to occupy the rest of the Louisiana Purchase. “Kansas Fever” was rampant. Before whites could settle the area in large numbers, however, they needed to organize a territorial government to displace the native population, survey the land, and enact regulations for land ownership.
Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851 but took no action on the proposals. In 1853, southern senators refused to support a measure to organize the territory because it included a ban on slavery as required by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
On January 23, 1854, the U.S. Senate Committee on Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, submitted a bill calling for the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the North and Kansas to the South. The new measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase was “inoperative and void” because it had been “superseded” by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850.
The Senate debated the bill for nearly six weeks. William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, two unabashed abolitionists, led the opposition to the measure. Beyond their moral objections to extending slavery into the new territories, Seward and Sumner argued that Douglas and his followers had no authority to renege on the Missouri Compromise. The abolition of slavery above the southern border of Missouri, they argued, was the condition to which the South agreed in return for admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state. Despite their objections, on March 4, 1854, the Senate approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The House followed suit on May 22. President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.
Instead of resolving the slavery issue in the West, as Douglas had predicted, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the vote over slavery. During the last year of Pierce’s presidency, a group of pro-slavery marauders sacked and looted the staunchly anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas on May 21, 1856, prompting abolitionist John Brown to lead his four sons and two accomplices on a mission of revenge. On the night of May 24, Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families living near Pottawatomie Creek. They dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery supporters, from their homes and brutally hacked them to death. Brown’s raid kindled commendation from abolitionists and condemnation from slaveholders. Many Southerners mistook the approval that Brown received for his murderous actions as reflective of the beliefs of many Northerners, further escalating the sectional discord in the West.
Shortly after assuming the presidency, Buchanan ordered General William S. Harney to lead 1,500 U.S. Army troops to Kansas to maintain order. On March 26, 1857, Buchanan also appointed Robert J. Walker to replace John W. Geary as the territorial governor of Kansas. Buchanan charged Walker with reconciling the competing factions in the territory and advancing the drafting and approval of a constitution so that Kansas could become a state. Because Walker was a Mississippi slaveholder, Buchanan had good reason to believe that his appointee would ensure the success of the pro-slavery faction. Events did not proceed as Buchanan planned.
Soon after Walker’s arrival, the pro-slavery territorial legislature authorized convening a constitutional convention at Lecompton, Kansas. On November 8, 1857, the convention, which pro-slavery delegates dominated, proposed a referendum to let the territorial residents decide if the new constitution should endorse or prohibit slavery in Kansas.
In the view of Free-Soilers who opposed slavery, the referendum was flawed because it would allow current slaveholders to keep their slaves even if slavery was banned. Despite his southern background, Governor Walker agreed. After Buchanan pressured Walker to change his position, the governor resigned in protest on December 15, 1857. When voters went to the polls six days later, the Free-Soilers refused to take part and the pro-slavery faction won the election 6,226 to 569.
The constitutional convention immediately went to work drafting a pro-slavery document subsequently known as the Lecompton Constitution. In the meantime, territorial voters elected a new legislature dominated by Free-Soilers. Walker’s interim replacement, Frederick P. Stanton, called the new legislature into a special session on December 7, two weeks before the December 21 vote that approved slavery in the territory. The new legislature scheduled a vote on another referendum for January 4, 1858. With the Free-Soilers taking part in the second referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution and approved the calling of another constitutional convention.
Despite the results of the second election and Walker’s resignation, Buchanan backed the Lecompton Constitution. On February 2, 1858, he recommended that Congress admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state. In March, the Senate supported Buchanan’s recommendation, but the House refused.
Following a month of wrangling, Congress passed the compromise English Bill, which resubmitted the Lecompton Constitution to the territorial voters for a third vote. In a tightly supervised election held on August 2, 1858, voters in the Kansas Territory overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution by a vote of 11,812 to 1,926. Eventually, Congress admitted Kansas to the Union as a free state in 1861, just before Buchanan left office.
The defeat of the Lecompton Constitution dealt a damaging blow to Buchanan and the Democratic Party. The embarrassment caused by Walker’s resignation less than a year after his appointment, coupled with the Congressional rejection of Buchanan’s designs for Kansas statehood, diminished his influence. Within the party, many Northern Democrats refused to support the president’s pro-slavery agenda in Kansas, causing a split that proved ruinous in the presidential election of 1860.
In 1847, members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, also known as Mormons, began settling in the area that now comprises most of Utah and Nevada under the leadership of Brigham Young to escape religious persecution in the East. In 1848, Mexico ceded the region to the United States under terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, after the Mexican-American War.
Two years later, Congress formally established the Utah Territory when it enacted the Compromise of 1850. As a concession to the Mormon population in the area, President Millard Fillmore named Brigham Young as territorial governor. Meanwhile, religious zealots in the East, most of who belonged to the emerging Republican Party began warning that the Mormons in Utah were harboring the “twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.”
Eager to silence his Republican opponents after he became president, Buchanan dismissed Young and replaced him with Georgia Democrat Alfred Cumming in July 1857. Expecting discord with the Mormons regarding the switch, Buchanan also ordered 2,500 U.S. soldiers into the area.
Young did not disappoint. In August, he mobilized the territorial militia, called the Nauvoo Legion. Because Buchanan had not notified Young about his dismissal before troops began arriving, Young assumed that the federal government was starting another episode of Mormon persecution. Young encouraged the territorial residents to burn their homes and destroy their crops, if necessary, to resist the federal invasion. When the militia began harassing the federal troops by stealing and destroying their supplies, Buchanan doubled down and sent more soldiers to the territory. Although the confrontations produced few casualties on either side, turmoil plagued Utah for over a year.
Hoping to avoid an escalation of violence, Young appealed to Thomas L. Kane, a Pennsylvanian friendly to Mormonism, to use his influence with Buchanan to negotiate a diplomatic solution. Buchanan, who was eager to put an end to the troubling predicament, agreed to let Kane travel to Utah as an unofficial mediator.
Kane arrived in Utah in late February 1858 and met with Young and Cumming independently. He arranged a meeting between both parties in April and on June 12, 1858, Young agreed to surrender the gubernatorial title to Cumming in return for a pardon for all Mormons. The Mormon War ended peacefully with few casualties, but it was another black eye for the administration, that the press referred to as “Buchanan’s Blunder.”
John Brown’s Raid
On July 3, 1859, abolitionist John Brown traveled to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to begin reconnaissance of the federal arsenal located there. Using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, Brown rented a farm in Maryland near the facility and began training a small group of zealous disciples for a raid on the installment. By mid-October, Brown’s army comprised twenty-one recruits—three free blacks, one freed slave, one fugitive slave, and sixteen whites, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson. On October 16, Brown was ready to launch his plan to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and, subsequently, to incite a slave insurrection in Virginia.
Leaving behind three men to guard supplies and ammunition, Brown began his short trek toward Harpers Ferry with his remaining eighteen recruits at 8 pm. Meeting little resistance, they easily occupied the U.S. Armory and Arsenal and the U.S. Rifle Works on Hall’s Island by 10:30.
At 1:25 the next morning, Brown’s men stopped a Baltimore & Ohio passenger train at the bridge leading into town. During an encounter on the tracks, Heyward Shepherd, a free black railroad employee who was investigating the delay, became the first victim of the assault when Brown’s men shot and killed him.
When the arsenal’s employees began reporting to work in the morning, the raiders began taking hostages. Now aware that their town was under siege, residents began exchanging gunfire with Brown’s men. Alerted by the gunfire, the local militia mobilized and surrounded the town by 10 a.m., cutting off any escape routes. At about that time, a militiaman shot and killed Dangerfield Newby, making him the first raider to die during the attack.
Brown had expected that when word of his raid reached neighboring plantations, local slaves would flock to his aid. When the hoped-for reinforcements did not materialize, Brown made two failed attempts to negotiate a truce. Instead, at approximately 2 p.m., the townspeople stormed the U.S. Rifle Works, killing three raiders and taking one prisoner. About one hour later, the militiamen took control of the armory, freeing most of the hostages and forcing Brown’s men to withdraw to the fire engine house.
When news of the raid reached Washington, D.C., President Buchanan deployed about ninety marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, to diffuse the situation. Lee arrived at Harpers Ferry at roughly 11 p.m. on October 17 and positioned his troops. When the raiders refused to surrender to Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart the next morning, the marines stormed the engine house at approximately 7 a.m. During the ensuing melee, the marines killed two more raiders and captured five others, including Brown. No hostages were harmed, but one marine was killed, and another was injured.
Following Brown’s capture, Virginia authorities took him to nearby Charles Town to stand trial. On October 26, 1859, a grand jury indicted Brown and his co-conspirators on three counts: conspiring with Negroes to produce an insurrection, treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and murder. Circuit Judge Richard Parker announced that the trial would begin that afternoon.
During the next three-and-one-half days, the court heard testimony from prosecution and defense witnesses. On Monday, October 30, the jury deliberated only forty-five minutes before delivering verdicts of guilty on all counts. On Wednesday, November 2, Judge Parker sentenced Brown to be hanged publicly on December 2, 1859. At approximately 11:30 a.m. on the designated date, the trapdoor to the gallows sprung open and Brown fell about twenty-five inches, snapping his neck. According to a New York Times reporter, Brown’s body swung for nearly half-an-hour before being removed from the gallows.
Immediately prior to his hanging, while standing on the gallows, Brown handed one of his jailers a prophetic note. It read:
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Fewer than two years later the nation was embroiled in a civil war that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
Brown’s raid, trial, and execution placed a spotlight on slavery that further polarized the nation. In the North, luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau eulogized Brown’s sacrifice for the abolitionist cause. Legions of Southerners, on the other hand, demonized Brown and rejoiced over his hanging. As Brown became the face of the growing discord that divided the nation, President Buchanan’s goal of restoring harmony to the Union became even more illusory.
Secession and Fort Sumter
On November 6, 1860, American voters elected Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States. A month earlier, the army’s commanding general, Winfield Scott, warned Buchanan that a Republican victory would probably lead to southern secession. In anticipation of the event, Scott recommended beefing up federal installations in states likely to secede. Buchanan ignored Scott’s proposal. Instead, he stood before Congress after Lincoln’s election and advised the American people (primarily Northerners) that they could preserve the Union by not interfering with the rights of southern states to manage their own domestic affairs, especially regarding slavery. In his fourth annual address to Congress, on December 3, 1860, Buchanan stated:
How easy it would be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more right to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.
Buchanan then requested an “explanatory amendment” to deal with the secession crisis. Congressmen from both houses responded with a flurry of proposals to save the Union. Eventually, On March 2, 1861, Congress adopted the Corwin Amendment (which would have become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution if ratified) in the form of (House) Joint Resolution 80. The proposed amendment attempted to stave off civil war by assuring the South that:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
In other words, the federal government would never abolish slavery. Although the Constitution excludes the chief executive from the amendment process, Buchanan signed the measure and pushed for its ratification, which the outbreak of the Civil War precluded.
While federal officials jockeyed to find some way to save the Union, the South Carolina legislature enacted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. Within approximately two months, six other southern states followed suit. As the Union dissolved, Buchanan refuted the right of southern states to leave the Union. Still, he contended that the Constitution did not empower him to stop them. As a result, he did nothing when the seceding states began seizing federal property within their borders, including forts and arsenals.
In South Carolina, Governor Francis Pickens came under intense pressure from his constituents to do something about four federal properties within Charleston Harbor, including Fort Sumter, considered one of the more formidable bastions in the world. Hoping to negotiate a peaceful takeover of the federal facilities in Charleston Harbor, Pickens dispatched envoys to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Buchanan’s administration. Stung by harsh criticism over the loss of other federal possessions, Buchanan balked at handing over the forts in Charleston Harbor. On December 11, the War Department instructed Major Anderson, the garrison commander at Charleston Harbor, that “… you are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity.”
As negotiations appeared to stall, Anderson decided that his position at Fort Moultrie was indefensible against a land attack by the South Carolina Militia. During the night of December 26, 1860, Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiking the guns before he left. Under the cover of darkness, he moved his command to the more-formidable Fort Sumter.
An outraged Pickens considered Anderson’s actions as a breach of faith. The next day, he ordered the South Carolina Militia to occupy the abandoned facilities. The militia quickly began erecting batteries around Charleston Harbor that could reach Fort Sumter with artillery fire.
When Anderson refused to heed Pickens’ demands to abandon the fort, the governor resolved to besiege the Federals, rebuffing any attempts to provision or to reinforce the garrison. Pickens proved that he meant business on January 9, 1861, when his militia fired on the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship that the Buchanan administration had dispatched to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Hit by two shells, the ship withdrew. Buchanan made no further attempts to reinforce or resupply the garrison. On March 4, 1861, he happily passed the problem on to incoming President Lincoln.
Election of 1860
When delegates to the Democratic National Convention assembled in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23 through May 3, 1860, Buchanan held true to his 1856 campaign promise not to seek a second term. Given the events that transpired during his presidency, he had no inclination to renege on his pledge. Not only had Buchanan failed in his mission to restore harmony to the Union, but his presidency deeply divided the Democratic Party. The heir-apparent to the presidential nomination, Stephen A. Douglas had alienated Southerners with his repudiation of the Dred Scott Decision and the Lecompton Constitution. After delegates from ten Southern states left the convention, Douglas could not secure the two-thirds majority of votes needed to receive the nomination. The convention adjourned on May 3 without choosing a presidential candidate.
On June 18, the party held a second convention in Baltimore. Although many Southern delegates again left the convention, Douglas received enough votes to secure the party’s presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, the pro-slavery Democrats held their own convention in Baltimore. The so-called Seceder’s Convention nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge as their presidential candidate on June 23, 1860. With their party divided, the Democrats could not mount an effective campaign, and Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln easily won the November election.
After passing the presidency and the secession crisis to Lincoln, Buchanan returned to Wheatland, his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although Buchanan staunchly supported the Union during the rebellion, some people held him responsible for the bloodshed.
When General Winfield Scott publicly criticized Buchanan in 1862 for what he considered mismanagement of the Fort Sumter affair, the former president repudiated the charges in the National Intelligencer newspaper. Soon thereafter, Buchanan began drafting a memoir defending himself entitled Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion. Published in 1866, Buchanan’s narrative criticized the southern states that left the Union, but it also chastised abolitionists and the Republican Party for interfering in southern affairs.
Buchanan enjoyed seven years of peaceful life amongst his friends in Lancaster County after his retirement from the presidency. During his last years, he became afflicted with rheumatic gout, which doctors attributed as the cause of his death at age seventy-seven. Buchanan died at his home on June 1, 1868, surrounded by siblings and friends. Following Buchanan’s funeral on June 3, family members laid him to rest in Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.