A Reference Resource
In the 1850s, the question of slavery divided the United States. Hopes ran high that the new President, "Old Buck," might be the man to avert national crisis. He failed entirely. During his administration, the Union broke apart, and when he left office, civil war threatened.
James Buchanan was the son of Irish immigrants who had made a successful life for themselves as merchants in rural Pennsylvania. The Buchanans could afford to send James to good schools, and after graduating with honors from Dickinson College, James Buchanan studied law. His legal and political careers moved forward together. Becoming a successful attorney, he advanced from state legislator to national figure, including membership in both houses of Congress, ambassadorships, and a cabinet post. The ambitious Buchanan had his sights on the presidency for many years before he actually attained the office. He tried for the White House in 1844, 1848, and 1852 before finally achieving his goal in 1856.
A Dividing Nation
By 1856, the debates over slavery had reached an unprecedented emotional intensity, with abolitionists and proslavery forces alike openly advocating violence and at times resorting to it. A number of abolitionists had been murdered in Kansas, and a radical abolitionist named John Brown had, in retaliation, massacred five settlers loosely affiliated with the proslavery party. Southerners were enraged while many in the North lauded Brown as a hero. In this environment, Buchanan asserted that slavery should be a matter for individual states and territories to decide for themselves. This approach gained him Southern support. His opponent, Senator John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate, argued that the federal government should prevent slavery from spreading into the new western territories. Shortly before the campaign, Buchanan expressed his fears about the task ahead: "Before many years the abolitionists will bring war upon this land," he said. "It may come during the next presidential term." Buchanan won the election, and many hoped that his experience would help the nation avert war.
Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Dred Scott case. Influenced by the new President, who was sympathetic to Southern interests, the Supreme Court ruled that because slaves—and even former slaves—were not citizens, they had no right to sue for their freedom in a U.S. court of law. Furthermore, the Court declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which banned slavery in the portion of the Louisiana Purchase above 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. Republicans denounced the decision and vowed to repudiate it. America had become a nation with a sharply divided political system: the Republicans, exclusively Northern and antislavery, and the Democrats, dominantly Southerners and their Northern allies who defended slavery and states' rights.
Eager to retain the support of Southern Democrats and believing early statehood for Kansas would defuse the explosive territorial problem, Buchanan endorsed a proslavery constitution for Kansas. His fellow Democrat, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, challenged this endorsement and instead demanded a legitimate popular vote in Kansas. These Kansas troubles, especially the break with Douglas, divided the Democratic Party and weakened Buchanan. Meanwhile, in 1859, John Brown seized the Southern town of Harpers Ferry in Virginia in a futile attempt to spark an uprising of slaves. Although Brown was captured and hanged, his action drove another wedge between North and South.
In 1860, the rift between James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas doomed the political aspirations of both. Under the strain of internal pressure and sectional tension, the Democratic Party finally snapped in two, allowing an unknown railroad lawyer from an upstart party—the Republican Abraham Lincoln—to win the White House. The election of a Northerner clearly opposed to the extension of slavery outside existing Southern states frightened the South.
Six weeks after Lincoln's election, South Carolina left the Union, and within another six weeks, six other states followed. Maintaining that he lacked power, the lame-duck Buchanan took no action to stop secession, which only emboldened the new Confederacy and gave seceding states time to set up a government. Buchanan seemed eager to get out of the White House before the real disaster ensued. He vanished from public life and retreated to his home, seeing only close friends until his death in 1868.
James Buchanan was the last President born in the eighteenth century, on April 23, 1791. Although he was born in a log cabin, his origins were far from humble. His father, for whom he was named, had emigrated from Ireland a decade before, married Elizabeth Speer, and became a successful merchant in rural Pennsylvania, settling near Mercersberg in the southern part of the state. The Buchanans eventually had eleven children, James being the second of them and the eldest son.
Young James attended school in the Mercersberg area, but his father's business triumphs and his mother's interest in education dictated better opportunities for the boy. At age sixteen, he entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, seventy miles from home. A spirited presence on campus, James managed to avoid two near expulsions from the school over disciplinary matters. After two years, he graduated with honors and then promptly began law studies. In 1813, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and began practicing in Lancaster. Soon after, he answered a call to arms for the War of 1812, but his regiment saw no action. Returning to the Lancaster area, he resumed his law career and displayed a legal talent that enabled him to quickly amass a substantial fortune.
Political Triumph and Personal Tragedy
Soon after the War of 1812, Buchanan—only twenty-three years old—won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party. Though he maintained his law practice, he served in the legislature from 1814 until 1819.
Toward the end of his time in the legislature, Buchanan fell in love with Ann Caroline Coleman. In those days, Ann's father was quite wealthy, his fortune having been built in the Pennsylvania iron trade. The young woman's family opposed the match with Buchanan, however. Some claimed that he was only interested in her money, but Buchanan's legal skills were so great that before he became thirty, he was worth over $250,000—a sizable fortune in 1819. Local gossips then claimed that Buchanan was seeing another woman, and a distraught Ann Coleman sent him a letter breaking off the engagement. A few days later she died. The Coleman family turned its grief and guilt on the young lawyer and forbade him to attend the funeral. The experience severely shook Buchanan; he vowed he would not marry another, and he never became seriously involved with any other woman for the rest of his life, though he carried on many flirtations. He would be the nation's first and only bachelor President.
After Ann Coleman's tragic death, Buchanan sought refuge in his work. He aimed for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and managed to overcome local ill will toward him regarding the Coleman matter to win the 1820 election for the post. He served in Congress from 1821 until 1831.
In Congress, he quickly made a name for himself as a notable constitutional lawyer, serving on the House Judiciary Committee. During this time, Buchanan's Federalist Party was dying, and the young congressman found himself drawn to the biggest political star of the day, Andrew Jackson. The charismatic hero of the Battle of New Orleans had been assembling a formidable political coalition that would evolve into the Democratic Party. Buchanan supported the fledgling movement, quickly becoming its leader in Pennsylvania. The young congressman got on Jackson's bad side in 1824, however, when "Old Hickory" thought that Buchanan was part of the "corrupt bargain" that had cost him the White House. (See Jackson biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.) Despite Jackson's feelings toward him, Buchanan remained a loyal supporter. In 1828, with Buchanan's strong effort, Pennsylvania helped Jackson win the presidential election. Shortly after Jackson's re-election in 1832, the President appointed Buchanan envoy to Russia.
James Buchanan was well suited to the foreign posting. The two nations had been unable to negotiate a trade treaty, and Buchanan's legal skill enabled him to push the agreement through. Returning from St. Petersburg in 1833, he won a U.S. Senate seat. Tall and distinguished in appearance, with graying hair and an odd habit of tilting his head almost sideways, Buchanan looked every bit the part of a nineteenth-century politician.
The Rise of the Slavery Issue
By the time Buchanan returned to Washington as a senator, slavery had become an important issue in American politics. He objected to slavery personally but viewed the abolitionist movement as a group of meddling troublemakers and as a greater threat to the Union than the institution of slavery. He claimed that the Constitution upheld the right of Southerners to own slaves and saw it as America's duty to protect slavery in the South. Throughout his political career, Buchanan remained largely sympathetic to Southern interests on slavery-related issues.
Chasing the Presidency
With his diplomatic experience, Buchanan also became involved with foreign policy in the Senate, eventually chairing the Foreign Relations Committee. By the end of his terms in the Senate, he was one of the most powerful senators in Congress. Buchanan fervently hoped for the White House in 1844, but the Democratic nomination went to James Knox Polk of Tennessee. After his election to the presidency, Polk named Buchanan as his secretary of state. Although Buchanan opposed Polk's demand on England for the farthest northern boundary of Oregon, he prepared the legal brief backing that claim. Buchanan advocated a compromise and worked assiduously and finally successfully to fashion an agreement between President Polk and the British. During the Mexican War, Buchanan's view of how much territory the United States should annex shifted with military fortunes, but he ultimately supported the final peace treaty. The war made heroes of its victorious generals, and one of them, Zachary Taylor, running as a Whig, won the presidential election of 1848.
With Taylor and the Whigs in charge, Buchanan returned home to Pennsylvania. He plotted to gain the 1852 Democratic nomination. Standing in his way was Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a pugnacious and extremely able young politician from Illinois. Despite looking like a character out of Dickens—five feet four in height with a stumpy body topped by a massive bulldog-like head that gave him the nickname the "Little Giant"—Douglas was a superior political talent with tremendous public speaking skills. Buchanan and Douglas fought furiously for the nomination all the way through the convention in Baltimore and, in doing so, doomed each other's cause. Thirty-four ballots resolved nothing; no candidate could amass the required two-thirds majority of the delegates. Finally, the Democrats turned to a compromise candidate, a little-known New Englander who offended no one, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. On the forty-eighth ballot, Pierce wrapped up the nomination, denying Buchanan the White House yet again. For the rest of Douglas's life, Buchanan would despise him.
Like Polk, Pierce sought to include the stately, talented Buchanan in his administration, naming the Pennsylvanian to the critical post of minister to England. It would prove to be a lucky break for Buchanan, keeping him in politics while giving him distance from the troubled Pierce administration. Most importantly, the overseas post enabled Buchanan to be unblemished by the political bloodshed that resulted from the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Minister Buchanan was not completely free of controversy, however. His attempt to concoct a plan to buy or conquer Cuba in order to expand lands suitable for plantation agriculture using slaves failed when the Ostend Manifesto was made public. His part in the affair enraged antislavery forces, who felt that he wanted to perpetuate slavery and was willing to use force against Spain to do so. (See Pierce biography, Foreign Affairs section, for details.) Proslavery Southerners, however, viewed Buchanan in a favorable political light—as one of their own. Now popularly known as "Old Buck," the sixty-five-year-old Buchanan knew that 1856 would be his last chance at the presidential prize.
The Campaign and Election of 1856
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had poisoned the careers of both men who had supported it—Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas: Douglas would be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in 1856, with strong support from the South and the West, but he would face fierce opposition from the Northern wing of the party. Pierce, as the sitting President, would also have significant support for his renomination bid in the South and West. James Buchanan, however, had a record that perfectly positioned him for the office, and he entered the convention in Cincinnati that summer as the front-runner.
Hailing from a populous state as a longtime member of Congress and an envoy to Russia and England, Buchanan had many attractive political assets. In essence, Buchanan gave the delegates the kind of hope that seemed in very short supply during the tumultuous mid-1850s. A smooth, pleasantly dull conservative, he upset few people. Above all, Buchanan was from the North, yet he maintained ideological ties to the South—a "doughface" in the slang of the day. Buchanan forces quietly told the Douglas men that cooperation from the "Little Giant" would enhance his chances for 1860, and Douglas withdrew from the race. "Old Buck" got more ballots than any other candidate in the first round, and he clinched the Democratic nomination with the requisite two-thirds majority on the seventeenth ballot, an easy victory during that bitter era. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky received the party's vice presidential nod.
The new Republican Party, meanwhile, chose famous explorer and California Senator John C. Frémont as their candidate. Frémont, with a marginal political career, offered fame and an almost invisible political record. A secretive, nativist third party called the Know-Nothings that attracted Americans opposed to immigration and Catholicism nominated former President Millard Fillmore as their candidate.
That election year, the debate over slavery seemed to break all restraints. In Kansas, political pillage and even murder became commonplace. Just one week before the Cincinnati convention, a young congressman from South Carolina whose elderly kinsman had been insulted by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner beat the Northerner nearly to death with a cane—right in the Senate chamber. The assailant was praised in Southern newspapers as a patriot. Sumner, badly injured, became a hero in the North. Two days later, a fanatical abolitionist named John Brown led a small band of followers into war-torn "Bleeding Kansas," seized men who favored the proslavery party, shot them through the head, and hacked them to bits with axes. While Brown and his fellow terrorists were lauded as heroes by many abolitionists in the North, Southerners were enraged. Even though Buchanan could claim high qualifications for the presidency, it soon became apparent that the slavery issue appeared almost intractable.
Buchanan chose the traditional approach to presidential campaigning: He made almost no appearances and said nothing to the press, leaving the fight to his followers, known as "Buchaneers." While Frémont did little active campaigning himself, an aspiring Republican from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln made dozens of speeches on Frémont's behalf.
Political dirty tricks were the norm. Democrats marked badges "Black Republican" depicting a runaway slave and made frequent jabs at Frémont's out-of-wedlock birth. Republicans countered with remarks about Buchanan's age and bachelorhood as well as the nickname "Ten-Cent Jimmy" after he unwisely said in public that he considered ten cents a day a fair wage for manual laborers. They also suggested that Buchanan's trademark tendency to tilt his head stemmed not from deficient eyesight but because he had once tried to hang himself.
But serious matters dominated: Buchanan asserted that individual states and territories should decide on their own the future of slavery within their borders. Frémont supporters countered that it was the duty of the federal government to prohibit it in all the territories of the United States. With such a national dialogue during the campaign, Buchanan could count on Southern votes while retaining some strength in the North—especially in the lower northern tier. The Know-Nothing Party then charged Frémont with being a Catholic, damaging his support. The upstart Know-Nothings ran surprisingly well and cut into Frémont's base. Finally, many voters were troubled by the charges of "Republican Radicalism" that Democrats had successfully pinned on the new party.
From looking at just the electoral college returns, Buchanan seemed to have won comfortably that November; however, it was a victory that was far from easy. He carried only four of fourteen Northern states and won his critical home state of Pennsylvania narrowly. Suspicions were widespread that the winning margin had been oiled with illegal payoffs. In addition, because it was a three-way race, he won with less than half the popular vote. Buchanan could not claim anything close to a popular mandate in a nation sharply divided over slavery and sectional issues. His base of support was regional—he had won all of the Southern and border slave states with the exception of Maryland, which went to Fillmore. Only 1,200 voters in these states cast ballots for the Republican Frémont.
As much as he wanted to be President, Buchanan had deep reservations about taking the job. Shortly before the campaign, he wrote: "I had hoped for the nomination in 1844, again in 1848, and even in 1852, but now I would hesitate to take it. Before many years the abolitionists will bring war upon this land. It may come during the next presidential term."
At his inauguration, James Buchanan wasted little time clarifying his stand on the all-important slavery issue. Speaking to a crowd enjoying 1,200 gallons of ice cream furnished for the occasion, he declared slavery a matter for individual states and territories to decide. The new President said, "It is the imperative and indispensable duty of the government of the United States to secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." Of course, by "people" in the territory, he meant only the white male voters since blacks were not eligible to vote, whether free or slave.
The Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision
Two days later, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of a slave named Dred Scott. Scott's owner had taken him to what is now the upper Midwest. Having lived in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory with his master, an army surgeon, Scott claimed that his residence in a free state and territory made him a free man. The Court decided otherwise. It claimed that the Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens of the United States, and thus, they had "no rights which any white man was bound to respect," including the right to sue for their freedom in a federal court. A slave, the Court asserted, was property and nothing more, with no more rights than a horse or a chair. Ownership of such property was therefore protected and guaranteed by the Constitution. Since Scott had been a slave in Missouri, his living in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory could not affect his status as a slave. The Court then stated its opinion that the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional and that slavery could not be banned in the new territories nor in new states. Its decision on this case was influenced by Buchanan, who urged a Northern justice to join the Southern members. The Court tipped Buchanan off that it was about to decide in favor of the South, and Buchanan in turn put a clause in his inaugural address declaring that the Supreme Court was about to decide and urging "all good citizens" to obey the ruling that was to come. Thus Buchanan would be implicated in the decision and would be vilified by those opposed to it.
Reaction was swift and loud. Abolitionists, who had come to view the fight against slavery as a holy war, were enraged and vowed to disobey the Scott decision; they claimed that their cause was God's and therefore above man's laws. Most Southerners viewed the ruling as a vindication of their interpretation of the Constitution. The national controversy was bitter and divisive. For a new President like Buchanan, it made for a difficult start. To cool matters, he tried to appoint moderates to his cabinet and avoided sectional extremists with antagonistic agendas on either side of the issue. He largely succeeded, though his Southern ministers were staunchly proslavery. America had become a nation with a divided political system: the Republicans, exclusively Northern and antislavery, and the Democrats, Southerners who defended slavery and states' rights and Northerners who stressed national unity and usually followed the Southern lead on slavery-related issues.
Kansas and Slavery
"Bleeding Kansas" had become the focal point of the slavery crisis. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed three years before Buchanan came to power, allowed Kansans to decide by election whether to be a free or slave state. Chaos had ensued as Missouri "border ruffians" crossed into Kansas to vote for a proslavery territorial government in 1855. Free-Soilers opposed to slavery subsequently formed their own government and boycotted a call for a constitutional convention for the new state, which the proslavery forces then dominated. Buchanan, eager to retain the support of proslavery Democrats, endorsed this proslavery constitution known as the Lecompton Constitution, though the document had been supported by only a minority of whites in Kansas. Even Buchanan's own territorial governor urged him not to accept these results. Instead, Buchanan sent a message to Congress urging acceptance of Kansas as a slave state.
In Congress, Senator Stephen Douglas boldly challenged Buchanan's endorsement of the Lecompton plan and derailed it. He claimed that it was a fraud, passed by only a small minority of the voters in Kansas and therefore violated the principle of "popular sovereignty." Nevertheless, Buchanan prevailed over Douglas in the Senate. In the House, a prolonged debate, with pro-Douglas Democrats joining Republicans, led to a compromise solution: the Constitution would be returned to Kansas for another vote. A new election was held in Kansas for a constitutional convention. This new convention soundly rejected slavery and set the stage for the admission of Kansas as a free state in June of 1861.
The troubled course necessary to resolve the Kansas situation greatly compromised the Buchanan administration's credibility. To some, it smacked of tampering, reversing the will of the people; to others, Buchanan simply looked inept. In addition, the economy had sunk into recession the year before. The elections in the middle of the President's term were a disaster for his party: Republicans were victorious in many state contests in the North and gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And Stephen Douglas won reelection and continued to challenge the President.
Meanwhile, John Brown, the militant abolitionist who had killed several proslavery settlers in Kansas, had evaded authorities. Brown now planned to fight slavery by means of armed rebellion. In the fall of 1859, his band seized a small military installation and town called Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. Southerners saw this as nothing less than a plot to instigate a slave uprising against them, and they had Buchanan's support in quelling the insurrection. Within two days, a company of U.S. Marines, led by a Mexican War veteran named Robert E. Lee, moved into Harpers Ferry and captured John Brown. Before his conviction and hanging in late 1859, Brown became a hero, even a martyr, to many abolitionists. Southerners saw his actions as proof that the North meant to end slavery by any means necessary, even through murder.
Buchanan seemed utterly unable to calm things down, and his speeches did not help. In his 1860 State of Union message, the President said: "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." With this statement, most Northerners—even including many Republicans—could agree, but here, the President omitted the territorial issues. And on them, there was no agreement. Citing Dred Scott, Southerners said they had the right to take slaves into the territories, yet Republicans recognized no such right.
Prelude to War
Buchanan had promised in his inaugural to serve just one term, and with all the national turmoil over slavery, no one asked him to rescind his pledge. Still, at Charleston, the Democratic convention relied on Buchanan's allies to deny Stephen Douglas the nomination. The convention foundered on the territorial issue, however, and could not agree on a platform or a nominee. The Northern Democrats later nominated Douglas while Southerners bolted from the party and nominated Vice President Breckenridge as their presidential nominee. With the Democrats divided, the 1860 presidential election went to Abraham Lincoln. Six weeks after Lincoln's victory, South Carolina left the Union. Within six weeks, six more states of the Lower South had joined South Carolina.
Buchanan, ever conciliatory, tried not to alienate anyone—either secessionist or unionist—but pleased no one. The outgoing President seemed at a loss to take any action against the South, which only emboldened the new Confederacy. All Southerners in his cabinet resigned. Secretary of State Lewis Cass quit too, disgusted with Buchanan's inaction in the crisis. The President did little, fearful of provoking the South; yet he angered the South by refusing to relinquish Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. While his inaction averted war for the time being, it also enabled the new Confederate government to begin operations. Buchanan seemed eager to get out of the White House before the real disasters ensued.
The sectional crisis and threat of civil war meant that James Buchanan could not pursue an activist foreign policy. Virtually his entire foreign policy was focused on strengthening the influence of the United States in nations to the south of it. He told Congress in 1858, "It is, beyond question, the destiny of our race to spread themselves over the continent of North America."
Cuba and Central America
Buchanan's foreign agenda remained focused on the Caribbean, a region with which he had dealt while he served as ambassador to England under Franklin Pierce. As President, he did not give up on his hopes to annex Cuba, but continual Republican opposition doomed these plans. Buchanan had the filibuster William Walker arrested after setting up a dictatorship in Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, but the Department of State released Walker, who claimed that he had been acting as Buchanan's agent. Nicaragua denounced Buchanan for his interference in its affairs.
Asserting American Sovereignty
The British, who had plans of their own in Central America, came into conflict with America in the region. On several occasions, Buchanan sent naval forces to warn the English. He successfully pressured the British to limit their presence in Central American countries. Buchanan also used the Navy to counter British ships off Oregon's San Juan Island and sent troops to enforce American sovereignty. The British backed down, discerning that the United States was determined to assert its authority.
Only congressional preoccupation with the John Brown raid prevented another possible conflict with Mexico. Even though the war between the two nations had been over for a decade, settlers were still being harassed and even killed near the border. Buchanan wanted another military incursion into Mexico to establish a military protectorate in Northern Mexico, but Congress, its hands full with the Brown rebellion at home, had little enthusiasm for a war abroad. Nor did Congress provide Buchanan with funds to police Central America and Mexico, and the Senate did not pass a treaty sent by the President in which Mexico provided the United States with transit rights. He did win reparations from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia for damages to American property, and he also won transit rights from Nicaragua. Buchanan used American power to intimidate and bully smaller Central American and Caribbean nations, earning a great deal of ill will toward coercive American diplomacy.
Even though a comfortable private life awaited James Buchanan at his Pennsylvania home, his last years were difficult. Rightly or wrongly, considerable blame for the Civil War fell upon him. His portrait had to be removed from the Capitol to keep vandals from damaging it, and posters captioned "Judas" depicted him with his neck in a hangman's noose.
A wave of second-guessing condemned Buchanan's actions with regard to Fort Sumter. The Republican press attacked him while absolving the Republican Party and Lincoln from all responsibility for the conflict. Although Buchanan vocally supported the Union cause, many branded him an appeaser of the South and a lover of slavery. Finally, the former President decided to write a book telling his side of the story. It appeared in 1866, one year after the war ended, but the public largely ignored the book, which blames the Civil War on the Republican Party and the abolitionists. After publication, Buchanan all but vanished from public life. He retreated inside the walls of his home and saw only close friends. He died there in June 1868.
Though a bachelor, James Buchanan did not lack for family life. He had what seemed to friends like dozens of young relatives under his guardianship whom he cared for after their parents had died. A wealthy man, he was very generous to his family.
Buchanan had a housekeeper named Esther "Miss Hetty" Parker who stayed with him from 1834 until his death. She accompanied him to Washington but was disliked by Harriet Lane, the President's niece, who assumed the official role of White House hostess. When Lane threatened to leave town if Miss Hetty did not, Buchanan sent his housekeeper back to Pennsylvania. When he returned there after leaving office, she stayed loyally on, not even leaving him when Confederate troops approached Buchanan's home on their way to Gettysburg.
By the time Buchanan moved into the White House, social life there had been dreary for years. Sarah Polk had been a strict temperance devotee; Zachary Taylor's wife refused any public role whatsoever; Abigail Fillmore suffered ill health; and the Pierces had seen their young son crushed to death before their eyes in a railroad accident weeks before inauguration, leaving them despondent. Buchanan, however, loved entertaining. Aided by his niece Harriet Lane, an attractive and popular woman in her twenties, the White House saw a social season that had been absent since the heady days of Julia Tyler. Numerous social events crowded the calendar, and a Washington frightened by the onrushing war was only too glad to partake in all the hospitality.
By the end of James Buchanan's presidency, America was home to 31.4 million people. During the decade between 1850 and 1860, the population of the U.S. grew by 26 percent, including a substantial number of immigrants, chiefly German and Irish.
Several major breakthroughs in communications greatly changed the nation and the political structure that sought to govern it. The short-lived Pony Express came to fruition during Buchanan's presidency, joining both coasts at last. But the transcontinental telegraph line, completed in 1861, quickly doomed the fast-riding horsemen. The telegraph service permitted previously unthinkable instant communication across the young, vast, troubled country. Two years earlier, a similar cable had joined the United States and Europe.
Regionalism and Political Sectionalism
With regional tensions increasing, the advantages lay with the North. Its population grew faster, and its industry continued to expand; its railroad lines and roads covered more distance than did the South's. Northern sources of power were far greater, and most financial resources were located in the region. Oil had been discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, putting a major new energy source in Northern hands to complement its coal. Although in the 1850s the output of Southern plants doubled, heavy industry was concentrated outside the region. This fact would make outfitting a modern army and navy difficult for the South.
Slavery made the presidency an incredibly difficult task in the mid-19th century. The debate over it disrupted American society. In this volatile atmosphere, strong presidential leadership might have saved the nation from civil war if it had been exercised early and firmly enough to warn off radicals on both sides. By refusing to take a firm stand on either side of the slavery issue, Buchanan failed to resolve the question, leaving his nation's gravest crisis to his successor. Indeed, Buchanan's passivity is considered by most historians to have been a prime contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War. To many, Buchanan seemed like a Northerner in name only: He openly despised abolitionists. Southerners were his political and social friends, and when forced to take sides in one of the endless slavery battles, he typically sided with Southern interests.
James Buchanan was a talented and skillful politician. He also was honest, had considerable legal ability, and could balance varying coalition agendas. In a different time, he might have been a successful President, but he was no match for the forces that tore at the country in the late 1850s.