James Buchanan / James Buchanan - Key Events

James Buchanan - Key Events

Republicans Gain Control of Congress

In congressional elections, the Republicans take control of both the House and Senate.

Silver Strike in Nevada

The Comstock Lode is discovered in western Nevada. It is the first major U.S. silver strike and the richest U.S. silver deposit. Virginia City becomes a boomtown.

Republicans Gain Control of House, Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Congressional elections are held. The Republican Party makes a strong showing and takes control of the House for the first time. The Lincoln-Douglas debates take place, in which Stephen Douglas attempts to reconcile “popular sovereignty” with the Dred Scott decision by arguing that territorial governments can refuse to pass laws necessary to support slavery (a stand that subsequently alienates him from Southern Democrats). Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln denounces the Dred Scott decision and voices his opposition to slavery. Lincoln will lose the Illinois Senate race but secure a national reputation as an anti-slavery spokesman.

Buchanan Inaugurated

James Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is inaugurated as the nation's fifteenth President. He enters office without a strong national mandate, having mustered support from only four of fourteen northern states and secured only 45.3 percent of the popular vote. Buchanan has served previously in Congress, as a secretary of state for President Polk and as minister to Britain and Russia. In his inaugural speech, Buchanan advocates a modification of the recently passed Tariff Act, which lowers import duties to an average of 20 percent. Advocates of the Tariff Act hail generally from the South, while the legislation is unpopular in the North. The United States suffers a major depression in the Panic of 1857, caused in part by stagnant international trade. The North will suffer the brunt of the economic downturn, and the country will not emerge from the depression until 1859.

Dred Scott Decision

In the Dred Scott decision, a Southern, pro-slavery majority on the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, finds that (1) blacks are not citizens, and (2) that slavery cannot be prohibited in the territories. It further declares the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. Scott, a slave who lived in the free state of Illinois and free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, sued for his freedom. In addition to denying Scott's claim, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court finds that blacks, lacking the rights of citizens, consequently cannot enter suits in a court of law. Abolitionists are furious.

Mountain Meadow Massacre

The Mountain Meadow Massacre in Utah results in the deaths of roughly 140 people. Paiute Indians and the Mormon Militia, incited by Mormon fanatic John D. Lee, kill emigrants heading for California. Lee stages the event in direct retaliation for President Buchanan's order to remove Mormon leader Brigham Young from his position as governor of Utah.

Kansas Elects Free-State Legislature

Kansas elects a free-state legislature under Governor Robert J. Walker. Elections occur under supervision, with thousands of fraudulent pro-slavery votes rejected.

Kansas Holds Referendum

Kansas holds a referendum on the Lecompton Constitution, drafted in the territorial capital of Lecompton, Kansas, as an attempt to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state. Pro-slavery supporters rig the referendum so that slavery will not be eliminated from the territory even by a negative majority vote. While Buchanan throws in his lot with the pro-slavery forces, Stephen Douglas and Northern Democrats ally with Republicans in Congress to reject the pro-slavery document and refuse admittance of Kansas as a slave state.

Lecompton Constitution Defeated

The Lecompton Constitution loses by an overwhelming vote, with 10,226 voting against the constitution and only 138 for it.

Congress Votes on Admitting Kansas

The Senate votes to accept Kansas into the Union under the Lecompton Constitution after it has already been rejected in Kansas. The House votes to resubmit the Constitution to popular vote.

English Bill Passed

Congress passes the English Bill after Representative William Hayden English (Democrat-Indiana) strikes a compromise between the House and Senate bills on the admission of Kansas to the Union. The bill effectively resubmits the Lecompton Constitution to Kansas voters with the attached incentive of land if ratified.

Minnesota Joins Union

A Republican-controlled Congress admits Minnesota to the Union as the thirty-second state (and a free one). Congressional approval had been delayed for several months due to the Kansas controversy.

Lecompton Constitution Defeated

The federal government submits the Lecompton Constitution to the people of Kansas for the third time. It again fails to win approval, with a vote of 11,300-1,788 against, turning Kansas into a non-slaveholding state when it enters the Union officially in 1861.

Oregon Joins Union

Oregon is admitted as the thirty-third state in the Union.

Southern Commercial Convention

The Southern Commercial Convention meets in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Southern slave owners advocate for the reopening of the African slave trade. A congressional act banned the slave trade in 1808.

Fourth Kansas Constitutional Convention

The fourth and final Kansas Constitutional Convention, held in Wyandotte, Kansas, considers the future of Kansas as a free or slave state and drafts a state constitution; the document prohibits slavery in the state. Additionally, Clarina Nichols, the sole woman present, successfully lobbies for the inclusion of three sections involving women's rights.

Kansas Constitution Ratified

The Kansas Constitution is ratified as an antislavery document by an overwhelming popular vote. A provisional state government is elected in December.

Harper’s Ferry Raid

John Brown raids Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with twenty men, including five blacks, in an effort to establish an abolitionist republic in the Appalachians. Unsuccessful, Brown is captured and hanged at Charles Town, Virginia, on December 2, for murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state of Virginia. Southerners regard Brown as a traitor who deserves death; the raid prompts the creation of militias throughout Southern states. Northerners hail Brown as a martyr and hero. Lincoln, Thoreau, and Longfellow all defend his actions, proclaiming that “when a government puts forth its strength . . . to kill the liberators of the slave, what a merely brute . . . force it is seen to be” (Thoreau). The episode further polarizes North and South.

John Brown's Raid

On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one men attempted to raid the federal armory and arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Their plan was to capture the armory and arsenal and recruit slaves to rise and join them. Once Brown and his men armed the slaves with guns from the arsenal, they hoped to head south to free more slaves and eventually destroy slavery.

At the start of their attack, Brown and his men cut telegraph wires and seized federal property. They captured two masters and ten slaves, and briefly detained a Baltimore and Ohio train and inadvertently killed the black baggage master. The conductor reported the raid to authorities in Washington, D.C. By dawn on October 17, Brown and his raiders were holed up inside an engine house with the local militia, angry townspeople, and farmers laying siege to the building. No slaves had escaped to join them.

President James Buchanan dispatched federal troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart to control the mob of citizens and local militia and capture those responsible for the raid. The next morning, Stuart and his men stormed the engine house and ended the fighting. By the time Brown and seven of his men were captured, five had escaped, and nine of his men were dead, including two of his sons. On the other side, seven people were dead, and ten were wounded.

Lee handed Brown and his remaining men over to Virginia to face charges of treason. Democratic presses, both in the North and South, blamed abolitionists and Republicans for the uprising but many people in the North cheered Brown. Brown was convicted of treason against Virginia on October 31 and hanged at Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2. Northern abolitionists made a martyr out of him, which shocked white Southerners who saw his actions as proof that the North meant to end slavery by any means necessary, even through murder.

In his annual message to Congress, in December 1859, President Buchanan declared that the raid on Harper's Ferry symbolized “an incurable disease in the public mind.” That “disease,” he predicted, might end up “in an open war by the North to abolish slavery in the South.” Buchanan added that he did not share Southerners' agitation over John Brown but gave no reassurances.

Buchanan, ever conciliatory, tried not to alienate anyone–either secessionist or unionist–but pleased no one. 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 many historians to have been a prime contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War.

Cooper Union Address

Abraham Lincoln delivers an address at Cooper Union in New York City. In it, he sets forth the platform of the Republican Party and confirms its no-compromise stance on slavery. The speech is also printed in the New York Tribune and pushes Lincoln into the lead for the presidential nomination on the Republican ticket. Lincoln follows his New York appearance with a two-week speaking tour of New England.

Democratic Convention

The national convention of the Democratic Party, led by Stephen Douglas, meets at Charleston, South Carolina. Southern delegates are determined to enforce a pro-slavery stance in the territories but Northern Democrats oppose such a code and support popular sovereignty in the regions. Douglas fails to reunify the party, and no nominations are handed out. The Alabama delegation walks out of the convention, leading an exodus of members from other Gulf states, as well as those from Georgia, South Carolina, and parts of Arkansas and Delaware.

Constitutional Union Party Nominates Bell

The Constitutional Union Party, comprised of remnants from the Whig and American parties, nominates John Bell for the presidency and Edward Everett for the vice presidency.

Republicans Nominate Lincoln

The Republican National Convention in Chicago nominates Abraham Lincoln for the presidency and Hannibal Hamlin for the vice presidency.

Democrats Nominate Douglas

The Democratic Party meets again in Baltimore and nominates Stephen Douglas for the presidency and Herschel Johnson for the vice presidency.

Southern Democrats Nominate Breckinridge

The delegations of Southern Democrats, that abandoned the April meeting in Charleston, nominate John C. Breckinridge for the presidency and Joseph Lane for the vice presidency. Their platform supports slavery in the territories.

Lincoln Wins Election

Abraham Lincoln is elected the sixteenth President of the United States, winning roughly 39 percent of the popular vote. The electoral vote stands at Lincoln with 180, Breckinridge with 72, Bell with 39, and Douglas with 12. In the popular vote, Douglas wins 30 percent, Breckinridge gets 18 percent, and Bell 12 percent. Lincoln carries only 2 of 996 counties in the South.

Crittenden Compromise

The Crittenden Compromise is put forth as a last attempt to persuade Southern states to remain in the Union. Kentucky senator John Crittenden proposes constitutional amendments that would extend the Missouri Compromise line across the country, allowing slavery south of the line. Lincoln opposes the plan, affirming that he will not compromise on the issue of slavery, as stated in his Cooper Union address.

South Carolina Secedes

A South Carolina convention votes unanimously for an Ordinance of Secession and secedes from the Union.

South Carolina Secedes

On December 20, 1860, a secession convention called by the South Carolina legislature voted unanimously, 169-0, to secede from the United States. After the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, South Carolinians perceived a threat to their slave system that Congressional compromise could not pacify. One South Carolina writer observed, “the Secessionist Party of 1860 is literally and emphatically the State itself.”

The secession movement in South Carolina was explosive. Leaders mobilized citizens and held torch light processions. Fiery speeches by prominent Carolinians complemented the fireworks and rockets that were set off. While many Unionists in the upper South attempted compromise, South Carolina politicians fanned the flames of “popular excitement” over secession. On November 10, South Carolina senator James Chesnut resigned, followed by Senator James H. Hammond. Governor William H. Gist called for ten thousand volunteers to form a militia. Some South Carolinians were hesitant that the Palmetto State was acting too swiftly and might be isolated. It soon became clear that six other Southern states, including Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, would each hold secession conventions. Few who supported secession in South Carolina hesitated to act. Francis W. Pickens, who became South Carolina's new governor in December, announced the state's secession on December 24.

In his annual message to Congress, President James Buchanan repudiated any state's right to secede but blamed the South Carolina secession movement on the “long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery.” Buchanan tried diplomacy to keep South Carolina from seceding. The two sides could not reach an agreement. On December 26, Buchanan ordered Major Robert Anderson to move from Fort Moultrie to the more isolated Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. South Carolina forces moved into Moultrie and other federal installations. On January 5, 1861, Carolinians fired on a ship sent to re-supply Fort Sumter, but Buchanan refused to respond with force. Buchanan deferred to Congress, which refused to authorize military action. The President gratefully acquiesced. Unless attacked or starved, he would leave the Fort Sumter situation to President-elect Abraham Lincoln.

Many Southerners in Buchanan's cabinet resigned, and his administration was thrown into disarray. Hasty cabinet replacements were no help, and the administration fell apart. Buchanan's indecisiveness and willingness to compromise with the secessionists appalled Northerners, and South Carolina's example encouraged more states to rise. When Buchanan took office, there were thirty-two states in the Union; when he left there were only twenty-five.

Buchanan’s Final Message

Buchanan makes his final message to Congress and calls the Union “a sacred trust.” Unfortunately, throughout his term, he hesitated to take strong action against secessionist leanings.

Mississippi Secedes

Mississippi becomes the second state to secede from Union.

Florida Secedes

Florida secedes from Union.

Alabama Secedes

Alabama secedes from Union.

Georgia Secedes

Georgia secedes from Union.

Louisiana Secedes

Louisiana secedes from Union.

Kansas Joins Union

Kansas is admitted to the Union as the thirty-fourth state, entering as a free state.

Confederacy Formed

The Confederate States of America (CSA) is formed in Montgomery, Alabama, from seven secessionist states. On February 7, it adopts a provisional constitution.

Davis Elected Confederate President

Jefferson Davis is elected President of the CSA, with Alexander Stephens as vice president. A provisional congress asserts that all U.S. laws not in accordance with those of the CSA constitution would have no authority in the CSA.

Davis Inaugurated

Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederacy. The capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama, will later be moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Texas Secedes

Texas secedes from Union.

Territories of Nevada and Dakota Formed

An act of Congress establishes that the territories of Nevada and Dakota will be carved out of Utah Territory and Nebraska Territory, respectively.

Confederate Flag Created

The Confederate “stars and bars” flag, containing seven stars and three stripes, is established and adopted at a convention. During the Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate flag becomes confused with the Union flag, resulting in the creation of a new battle flag, a red field with the blue cross of St. Andrew holding thirteen stars.

Lincoln Inaugurated

Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as President of the United States. By this time, seven states have already seceded from the Union.