Term: March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Vice President: John C. Breckinridge
Home State: Pennsylvania
Few leaders have faced the harrowing dilemma our 15th President, James Buchanan, suffered through during the Christmas season of 1860. In the most polarizing of elections, the nation had just chosen Abraham Lincoln as his successor. Numerous southern states saw Lincoln’s election as the death knell for slavery, the growing irrelevance of their role in the federal government and direction of the nation, and an end to the southern way of life. Led by South Carolina, seven (and later 11) of these disaffected commonwealths had begun the process of drawing up Articles of Secession as Buchanan, a man with southern sympathies but a protector of the Union first, scrambled to find a solution to the exploding crisis. Surely, the President had no time or inclination to send White House Christmas cards during that bleak winter.
Three weeks before Christmas, in his annual address to Congress, he attempted to appeal to both sides while pursuing a diplomatic solution. Buchanan attributed the crisis largely to northern agitation and interference in southern affairs but denounced the Constitutional right of any state to secede from the Union. However, he denied the right of the federal government to make war on a seceding state in an effort to coerce its continued loyalty. This seemingly contradictory position first came into play as the holidays drew near, when organized armed groups seized military installations and federal properties throughout the South. For many weeks, Buchanan declined to use force in an attempt to halt the aggressive behavior. In the early weeks of the crisis, he surrounded himself with southern sympathizers, many of them from his own cabinet, and refused to meet with abolitionist Republican leaders.
In a much criticized move, he sent a delegation to Charleston, asking that South Carolina put off any decision on secession until after Lincoln was inaugurated. Throughout that critical Christmas season, those around Buchanan described him as appearing nervous, with his cheek twitching and his hair often mussed. He spent much of his time in long meetings with his cabinet and his usually sharp mind seemed overwrought with distraction, forgetting orders he had given and documents he had read. He halted his recreational walks around Washington and made his advisors come to his quarters to see him, at times unable to rouse himself from bed. The normally elegant statesman cursed publicly, wept, and displayed a tremor in his hands. The symptoms he displayed led those around him to believe that the severe mental strain was affecting both his health and his judgment.
The situation boiled over on December 20, when South Carolina declared its formal secession and six other southern states signaled they were moving in a similar direction. In what was viewed as a provocative move by the state’s government, U.S. Major Robert Anderson used the cover of night to move his troops from the lightly-armored Fort Moultrie across Charleston harbor to the far more robust Fort Sumter on Christmas night, 1860. He and his men began mounting guns and strengthening casements. Still seeking compromise, Buchanan drew further criticism when he spent Christmas week negotiating with a South Carolina delegation, which pro-Union forces considered to be the representatives of an illegitimate government. He offered to have Anderson and his troops return to Moultrie if the state’s government promised to leave the forts unmolested, but no agreement was reached.
As the holiday season drew to a close, several of Buchanan’s pro-southern advisors and cabinet members resigned, leaving the President at a crossroads. With the preservation of the Union as his overriding objective, he replaced the departed cabinet members with northern, staunchly pro-Union diplomats and the fate of Sumter became the ultimate test of resolve. Immediately following the Christmas season, on January 5, 1861, Buchanan ordered the Union steamship Star of the West to set sail from New York towards Sumter with 250 men and supplies. As it drew near Charleston harbor, Confederate batteries opened fire, forcing the ship to retreat and return to port. Attempting to avoid war, Buchanan made no further attempts to resupply the fort but refused to surrender it to the Confederate government. He also shut down the Washington Constitution, the capital’s federally-funded newspaper which had printed editorials supporting the southern states’ right to secede. He again turned to diplomacy and the Washington Peace Conference was convened in February 1861 after six more deep-south states has formally declared their split from the Union. The conference discussed offering federal concessions on states’ rights and slavery in return for southern and border states renouncing secession. No progress was made and the War Between the States would begin when Buchanan’s successor made the subsequent ill-fated attempt to reinforce Sumter.
In happier times, Buchanan, a devout Presbyterian, would have his southern Pennsylvania estate lavishly decorated at Christmas for all of the community to enjoy. To this day, Wheatland is adorned in the same manor as it was in the mid-19th Century and Christmastime tours through the property transport visitors back to that bygone era.
The son of a wealthy merchant and farmer, James Buchanan was born in the frontier town of Cove Gap, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791. He spent his youth and young adulthood in the southern part of the state, graduating from Dickinson College in 1809 and studying law in Lancaster. He was admitted to the bar in 1812 and set up a successful law practice. In 1814, he was nominated as a Federalist candidate for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Although Buchanan at first opposed the war of 1812, after the British burned Washington, he served for several weeks in a volunteer cavalry unit during the siege of Baltimore. He was then elected to two terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly.
At the age of 28, Buchanan became engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy ironmaster. After a misunderstanding, Ann broke off their engagement and soon became distraught. She died tragically from a drug overdose shortly before Christmas of 1819, with some historians attributing her death to suicide. After her passing, Buchanan swore not to marry, and to this day, remains America’s only bachelor president. When he was elected, his 27-year-old niece, Harriet Lane, fulfilled the duties of the First Lady. There is no formal record of her or President Buchanan sending White House Christmas cards.
In 1821, at the age of 30, Pennsylvania voters elected Buchanan to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson appointed him Minister to Russia. After two terms as a Pennsylvania senator, he became President James Polk’s Secretary of State. During his tenure, the Annexation of Texas and subsequent Mexican War took place, and Buchanan helped negotiate the treaty with Great Britain, which established the northwestern border between the U.S. and Canada.
Failing to receive the Democratic presidential nomination in 1848, Buchanan retired from public life until 1853, when President Franklin Pierce appointed him Ambassador to Great Britain. While he was in Britain, a number of sectional disputes arose over the issue of slavery with some incidents turning violent, particularly in the Kansas territory. In those tumultuous days, politicians from the northern and southern regions of the country were highly unlikely to exchange Christmas greetings. A shocking episode occurred shortly before the 1856 political conventions when South Carolina senator Preston Brooks savagely beat his Massachusetts counterpart, Charles Sumner, with a cane on the senate floor. Buchanan’s absence during this time as well as his reputation as a doughface (a northern man with southern sympathies) made him the ideal uncontroversial, moderate candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Buchanan won the nomination over incumbent president Franklin Pierce and campaigned on the promise to let the courts and Constitutional doctrines decide the fate of the expansion of slavery. His personal opinion was that slavery was morally wrong but he was against freeing the slaves for fear of unleashing an insurrection in the South. In the general election, he defeated abolitionist candidate John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential nominee, and former president Millard Fillmore before the 1856 Christmas season.
A few days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision. This ruling stated that under the Constitution, slaves were considered to be property and Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. This ruling enraged most northerners who accused Buchanan of being in league with pro-slavery forces and attempting to increase the power, influence, and total number of slave states.
Buchanan underestimated the depth of the antipathy of feelings between northern abolitionist forces and the southern pro-slavery ranks. He reacted slowly to the sectional forces swirling around him as the nation careened toward an epic, blood-soaked cataclysm. His strategy for the preservation of the Union consisted of the suppression of northern antislavery agitation and the enforcement of most aspects of the Compromise of 1850 – legislation which attempted to maintain a balance in the senate between representation of slave and free states and the return of runaway slaves to their masters.
Caught up in the volatile struggle in Kansas over the expansion of slavery, Buchanan attempted to persuade local voters to accept the unpopular Lecompton Constitution which, if enacted, would have permitted slavery there. He was thwarted by congressional pressure and by free-soil-supporting residents. The economic panic of 1857 and the raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859 by the abolitionist John Brown added to the national turmoil. His standing was also weakened by financial scandals within his administration.
By the 1860 election, President Buchanan’s unpopularity made it a foregone conclusion that he would not be re-nominated. The party split between the more moderate northern branch and the more fervently pro-slavery southern wing and nominated two different candidates for the presidency. This ensured the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln followed by the secession of the deep-South states and ultimately, the Civil War.
Buchanan retired to his Wheatland estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he would spend his last seven Christmases. He supported Lincoln during the war, as he felt that saving the Union was the paramount issue. He died from pneumonia on June 1, 1868. Most historians have judged Buchanan harshly for what they consider his tacit support of slavery and his slow, ineffective reaction to the secession crisis. While many feel the Civil War was inevitable and caused by intractable problems which began long before he took office, Buchanan may have been able to reduce the scale and duration of the war with more timely and decisive action.