Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

As the nation enters the third century of the American presi­dency, only one Pennsylvanian has had the distinction of serving as its chief executive. In 1857, at the age of sixty-five, James Bu­chanan of Lancaster County became the fifteenth president of the United States. He was well prepared for the office, having spent more than thirty years in public service in various elected and appointed positions. Sectional differ­ences, the slavery issue, and the crisis leading to the Civil War, however, marred his administration and will, per­haps, cloud the public’s per­ception and understanding of Buchanan indefinitely.

James Buchanan was born in a one room log cabin at Stony Batter near Mercers­burg, Franklin County, on April 23, 1791. The eldest son of a family of eleven children, his father was an Irish immi­grant who had arrived in the United States several years earlier. James’ father ran a successful trading post at Cove Gap, a heavily trafficked pass through the Allegheny Mountains, which served travelers to and from Philadelphia, Balti­more, and Pittsburgh.

Buchanan’s older sister died when he was two, making him the eldest child, and the only boy, for the first fourteen years of his life. When James Bu­chanan was six, his father built a two story brick dwelling in Mercersburg for his growing family. Although he Jived in Mercersburg for only ten years, Buchanan biographer Philip S. Klein believed he tried to “duplicate those sur­roundings” whenever – and wherever – he could. This was most evident at Wheatland, a handsome country estate near Lancaster that became his home many years later. “Rural sympathies prevailed through his life,” Klein wrote. “He was an agrarian and never adjusted his thinking to the require­ments of a growing industrial society.”

Acquiring an interest in figures at a young age, he meticulously recorded mone­tary transactions in his account books. Political lessons were forthcoming from his father, an ardent Washington Federal­ist. Buchanan’s schooling included attendance at the Old Stone Academy in Mercers­burg; at the age of sixteen, he enrolled in the junior class of Dickinson College in Carlisle, where he studied mathemat­ics, history, geography, and classical literature. He com­pleted his first year with a fine academic record, but not long afterward received a stunning letter of dismissal for disor­derly conduct. While able to keep up with assignments, a streak of rowdiness and disre­spect for his elders was to cause him great embarrass­ment. Only after an appeal to the president of the college trustees – who, incidentally, was also his pastor – and for­mally pledging to improve his behavior, did he gain readmis­sion. Buchanan’s attitude improved, and he graduated on September 19, 1809. That same year, he moved to Lan­caster, where he studied law under attorney James Hopkins, the customary route to becoming a lawyer before the advent of law schools.

At the time, Lancaster was the State Capital and also laid claim to being the largest in­land town in the United States. Its population was largely German, but also had many English descendants; politically it was dominated by Federalists. Upon admission to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1812, Buchanan established his law practice in Lancaster. He was subsequently appointed to the post of deputy prosecutor – now the office of district attorney – in neighbor­ing Lebanon County.

In August 1814, while serv­ing as president of a young Federalist organization, the Washington Association, James Buchanan was nomi­nated for the State House of Representatives. By entering politics he hoped to gain expo­sure that would improve his law practice. The Federalist party was Pennsylvania’s mi­nority party and, although its influence was declining, it had controlled Lancaster since 1789, virtually assuring Bu­chanan of election.

Ironically, James Buchanan was to begin and end his polit­ical career dealing with war issues. During the summer of 1814, he castigated Pres. James Madison for his handling of the War of 1812, and later served briefly in a volunteer company from Lancaster that marched to defend Baltimore, Maryland.

Returning home to face the electorate, Buchanan was sent to Harrisburg, where the State Capital had been moved. Mili­tary manpower and conscrip­tion Legislation prompted the freshman legislator to deliver his maiden speech, and on February 1, 1815, Buchanan attacked a Senate conscription plan supported by Philadel­phians who feared an assault on their city. He favored a volunteer plan that had been introduced in the House. By doing so, he defended the poor against the rich and the West against the East. The speech caused him grave polit­ical difficulties, for he had uttered his private thoughts in a public forum. When the vote on conscription was finally taken, Buchanan found it politically expedient to be absent.

For a time he pondered whether or not he should seek reelection but tried again and was successful. Philosophi­cally, Buchanan had reached a momentous political cross­roads. He believed strongly in majority rule, but at the same time respected individual property rights and believed that the U.S. Constitution provided a balance between the two. His dilemma was that none of the political parties professed both of these ideals and, consequently, he was unsure of his party affiliation. As a local party tradition pre­vented him from seeking a third term in the state legisla­ture, Buchanan returned to Lancaster and spent the fol­lowing four years practicing law.

During this period, Bu­chanan befriended Ann Cole­man, a young, attractive Lancaster woman who was the daughter of Robert Coleman, owner of several iron furnaces and one of the country’s wealthiest individuals (see “A Dynasty Tumbles” by Jan Margut Habecker in the winter 1987 issue of Pennsylvania Heri­tage). James Buchanan and Ann Coleman soon became engaged, but her parents dis­approved, believing that he had designs on her family’s wealth. When James returned from a business trip and was persuaded to pay a social visit to the home of another eligible Lancaster woman, Ann abruptly ended their betrothal. She sank into severe depres­sion and, while visiting her sister in Philadelphia, died of what a physician described as “hysterical convulsions.” Bu­chanan was devastated by the news of Ann’s death, and was snubbed by her family when he asked to join the funeral procession as a mourner. Al­though in ensuing years Bu­chanan enjoyed relationships with other women, he never married. At the time of Ann’s death, he wrote, “I have lost the only object of my affec­tions, without whom life now presents to me a dreary blank …. I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.”

Maintaining his interest in politics, in part to quell his grief, Buchanan was elected to Congress in 1820 as a candidate of the Federalist party. Preferring to secure support through private letters and personal meetings, he made only a few formal speeches during the campaign. And so began his rise in the federal government that would culmi­nate with his election to the White House in 1856.

While a member of Con­gress, James Buchanan discov­ered that party labels, even affiliations, were meaningless; many Federalists held Demo­cratic views, and some Demo­crats espoused Federalist principles. Realizing that his viewpoints encompassed portions of both parties’ doc­trines, Buchanan was forced to bring his political philosophy into sharper focus. He did so over two issues: the first, whether to permit federal bankruptcy proceedings among all classes of citizens; and the second, whether or not the federal government should collect tolls to finance repairs to the Cumberland Road. His position on both issues was consistent, identify­ing him as a proponent of states’ rights.

Buchanan was reelected in 1822 and again in 1824, when he became an Andrew Jackson Federalist. By this time, the Federalist Party had declined to the point that it was evident that members would have to start a new party or join a faction of the opposition. In 1826, Buchanan was nomi­nated and elected once again on a Federalist ticket, his last campaign under the auspices of the party. To develop a coali­tion supporting Jackson, Bu­chanan formed an amalgamated party comprised of eastern Federalist German farmers and western Scotch­Irish frontier Democrats, both of which supported Jackson and opposed the interests of Philadelphia. By 1828, these diverse political elements had unified. In a stormy campaign Buchanan was reelected, this time as a Democrat-a testi­mony to the success of his alliance and a compliment to his character.

Although he announced his intention to retire from the House in 1830, Buchanan was not willing to give up politics entirely, as many friends and admirers throughout the Com­monwealth were mentioning him as a running mate for Andrew Jackson in 1832. When this did not materialize, he removed himself from further consideration and reluctantly agreed to serve as minister to Russia. President Jackson nominated him in June 1831, and he served until returning to the United States in Novem­ber 1833. The following year, he was elected to the United States Senate, in which he would serve until 1845. As a senator, he worked tirelessly to unite Democrats against the Whigs and Anti-Masons, be­came chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and dealt with the banking issue. His political principles solidified during his Senate years. Whatever position he took, it was consistent with his belief that political power should be held in check be­cause the foundation lay in the Constitution.

Many Pennsylvanians wanted James Buchanan to run for governor. He was offered the position of attorney gen­eral by Pres. Martin Van Buren, but he declined, setting his eyes on a bigger prize. In the late 1830s, it was certain that Van Buren would seek a second term, which would give Buchanan a chance at the presidency in 1844.

Buchanan believed that an individual should not seek the presidency, but merely be available. Because of this atti­tude, many of his faithful supporters became confused and mistakenly believed that he was unwilling to fight for himself. Without a unified Pennsylvania slate Buchanan could not be nominated, as delegates would be split among James K. Polk, John Tyler, Van Buren, and his own candidacy. Buchanan withdrew from the race and pledged to campaign through­out the Commonwealth for Polk, the party nominee. Polk rewarded him for his diligence, as well as loyalty, by selecting him in 1845 as his new secretary of state. As chief of the State Department, Bu­chanan won recognition and praise from Southern interests when he supported both the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. Although he disagreed with the president on almost every important diplomatic decision, Polk re­tained him and later wrote in his diary, “Mr. Buchanan is an able man.”

Buchanan plotted to secure the Democratic nomination again in 1848, believing that a Northern candidate who genu­inely understood the South’s problems could win. He had no national political organiza­tion, but relied on a network of friends to promote his candi­dacy. Despite his years of experience, he was unable to win the Democratic Party nomination, which went to Michigan’s Lewis Cass. After the election of Whig Zachary Taylor, Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his Lancaster residence, at the age of fifty­-eight with a wealth of govern­mental experience. Not willing to end his quest for the presi­dency, Buchanan looked ahead to 1852 by entertaining promi­nent political visitors at Wheatland, and letting it be known that he still aspired to be president.

Following the acquisition of western territories from Mex­ico at the conclusion of the Mexican War, pro-slavery fac­tions began to feel threatened. In 1850, U.S. Sen. Henry Clay offered a compromise to calm both the North and the South and solve several questions that divided the two. While most Democrats favored popu­lar sovereignty, which permit­ted each new state to decide, Buchanan thought Congress should extend the Missouri Compromise line to California and allow the people to deter­mine the fate of slavery south of the line. Furthermore, in opposition to the Democratic Platform of 1848, he believed that Congress should define the status of slavery in the territories. As a presidential hopeful, he had to publicly state his position on the Com­promise. When it appeared at the Democratic Convention that Buchanan could not win the nomination, many of his supporters turned to Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. On the forty-ninth ballot Pennsyl­vania’s delegation provided the votes necessary to endorse Pierce. Once again, the party’s nomination had eluded James Buchanan.

The following year, Pierce named Buchanan minister to Great Britain. International affairs further solidified his standing in the South, as he assisted in the writing of the Ostend Manifesto, which called for the annexation of Cuba. Although Buchanan originally had reservations about being out of the country preoccupied with diplomatic concerns – thus losing touch with the people and issues needed to win the presidential nomination in 1856 – his ab­sence actually worked to his advantage. A Northerner with proven Southern sympathies, he was a logical choice for the Democratic nomination and, by serving abroad, he dis­tanced himself from several political skirmishes that could have hindered his prospects.

In February 1856, Buchanan wrote to Secretary of State William March: “I believe that the next Presidential term will be perhaps the most important and responsible of any which has occurred since the origin of the Government; and whilst no competent and patriotic man to whom it may be of­fered should shrink from the responsibility, yet he may well accept it as the greatest trial of his life.” The following several years, indeed, posed the great­est trial of James Buchanan’s life.

At the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in June 1856, Buchanan faced Pres. Franklin Pierce and Sen. Stephen Douglas, both of whom supported the pro­slavery cause in Kansas, which had erupted into civil disorder. Because Buchanan had been in harmony with the South over the years and was not con­nected to the Kansas issue, he finally won the nomination. His years of frustration had ended. Kentucky’s John C. Breckenridge was named his running mate.

In the election, factions of the defunct Whig organization formed two new parties. The anti-slavery Republican Party selected John C. Fremont, while the Know-Nothings chose former president, Mil­lard Fillmore. Buchanan imme­diately set the stage for the campaign. “This race ought to be run on the question of Union or disunion:’ Although outpolled by the combined total of his opponents in the popular vote, he easily won the election. Buchanan carried five free states and fourteen slave states – all except Mary­land, which was won by Fillmore – while Fremont was victorious in eleven free states. Buchanan captured 174 electo­rial votes; Fremont, 114; and Fillmore, eight. Of the popular votes, Buchanan garnered 1,832,955; Fremont, 1,339,932; and Fillmore, 871,731. Pennsyl­vania’s own James Buchanan had finally become president of the United States.

The election of 1856 re­vealed the emerging strength of the Republican Party and the demise of Jacksonian De­mocracy. Buchanan was the last of a political generation that had come and gone. The swift ascent of the Republican Party with its strong geo­graphic and ideological iden­tity revived Southern secessionists who believed that they soon would be controlled by the party of the North if they did not secede. Bu­chanan’s long sought goal of the presidency had been won, but the campaign was a har­binger of dissension, disharmony and, eventually, a bloody war that would pit family against family, brother against brother, and father against son.

Buchanan’s administration was hampered by the Su­preme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision, the Panic of 1857, and “bleeding” Kansas. In an effort to end unrest in Kansas, Buchanan called for its admission as a slave state by urging Congress to approve the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. This further split the Democratic Party, as north­ern Democrats revolted and joined House Republicans to defeat the bill. When an effort was made to revive the measure, citizens of Kansas rejected the Lecompton Constitution, and anti-Lecompton candidates won elections throughout the North.

­Faced with secession near the close of his administration, James Buchanan simply did nothing, believing that Congress should act. He believed secession was unconstitutional, but thought that the use of force by the executive against it also violated the Constitution. In his inaugural address he announced that he would not seek a second term, and several Democrats, including Stephen Douglas, began vying for the nomination. Buchanan’s handling of the Kansas issue, however, assured a victory for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In standing firm on the Constitution the President hoped for patience and compromise would prevail, but it was not to be so.

In early spring of 1861, James Buchanan left office disappointed and tired, remarking to Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.” Buchanan lived out the remainder of his years at Wheatland supporting the Union, but defending his decision not to take action to prevent the Civil War.

In 1866, he published his memoirs entitled Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. In the preface, Buchanan stated that his narration proves that, “the original and conspiring causes of all our future troubles are to be found in the long, active, and persistent hostility of the Northern Abolitionists; and on the other hand, the corresponding antagonism and violence with which the advocates of slavery resisted these efforts….Many grievous errors were committed by both parties from the beginning, but the most fatal of them all was the secession of the cotton States.” His memoirs placed the blame where he believed it belonged, established his innocence for future generations, and offered him some peace of mind.

Two years later, James Buchanan died, having “no regret for any public act.”

 

James Buchanan’s beloved Wheatland, a fine example of Federal style architecture, was originally built in 1828 for William Jenkins, a wealthy lawyer and banker, who named the county estate “The Wheatlands” because of its location near wheat fields. Buchanan purchased the twenty-two acre farm in 1848 while serving as Secretary of State in Pres. James K. Polk’s cabinet. He loved the property and praised “comforts and tranquility of home as contrasted with the troubles, perplexities, and difficulties” of public life. Buchanan owned Wheatland – described as a “beau ideal of a stateman’s abode” – until his death on June 1, 1868. Today, the restored National Historic Landmark, preserved and operated by The James Buchanan Foundation for the Preservation of Wheatland, offers visitors a unique glimpse into the life and lifestyle of an American President in the mid-nineteenth century. For additional information regarding tours, group rates and special activities, such as the annual holiday candlelight tours held each December, write: Wheatland, 1120 Marietta Ave., Lancaster, PA 17603; or telephone (717) 392-8721.

 

For Further Reading

Buchanan, James. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company, 1990.

Cahalan, Sally Smith. James Buchanan’s Wheatland. Lancaster: The James Buchanan Foundation, 1988.

Coleman,John E. The Disruption of Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1975.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1970.

Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan, A Biography. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.

____. The Story of Wheatland. Lancaster: Junior League of Lancaster, 1936.

McClure, Alexander K. Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Winston, 1905.

Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.

____. Ordeal of the Union. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947.

Smith, Elbert D. The Presidency of James Buchanan. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975.

 

Kurt D. Zwikl, a resident of Allentown, served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1973 to 1984, during which he acted as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a legislative member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. A graduate of East Stroudsburg University, he earned a master’s degree in American History from Lehigh University. He is currently vice president of the Lehigh County Historical Society. In 1988, Gov. Robert P. Casey appointed the author to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and subsequently named him chairman. He is the author of a pamphlet entitled Hunting For History: A Guide to Historic Sites in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and wrote the text for Taking Pictures, a book which features the work of his late father, William Zwikl, a professional photographer. The author is vice president of community and public affairs for Merchants Bank in Allentown.