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James Buchanan


In 1783, the year in which the American Revolution ended, James Buchanan, a young Scotch-Irish farmer from the County of Donegal, landed in Philadelphia. He had come to make his home in the land of promise beyond the seas. After looking around him for a good location, he settled at a place with the queer name of Stony Butter, "in a mountain gorge at the foot of the eastern ridge of the Alleghenies." 

Here he got a position in a store, and did so well that in five years he had a store of his own—and a wife, too, for he got married that year. In 1791, on April 23d, his first son was born, and was given his own name, that of James Buchanan. It was a name that he would make widely and well known. 

Young James was a boy of promise and a good student. At fourteen he was ready to enter Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He graduated at the head of his class. Then he studied law, and in 1812, when he was twenty-one years old, was admitted to the bar.  In 1814 there came an exciting time, when the British plundered and burned Washington. The people were furious when they heard of it. A great meeting was held at Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, and a young lawyer, who had never made a public speech, now burst out in an address full of fire and patriotic spirit. His name was James Buchanan. As soon as he was done speaking he volunteered in a company that was organized on the spot. They got out their horses, called themselves dragoons, and rode away for Baltimore; but the British were gone before they got there, and they were discharged with honor.

Young Buchanan's fiery speech made him very popular in Lancaster, and he was elected soon after to the Pennsylvania Legislature. Here he made another ardent speech, demanding that soldiers should be enlisted for the war and properly supported. He said that Congress had not done its duty, and the people must take the matter in their own hands. He did not know then that the war was at an end and a treaty of peace signed. At any rate, what he said was to the point and made him very prominent in the House. Front that time the Lancaster lawyer went on rapidly. His law business grew fast, and he was looked on as one of the leading lawyers of the State. He was sent twice to the Legislature and in 182o was elected to Congress. Here he remained for ten years, his political feelings changing from a Federalist until he became a strong Democrat. Now let us go back to his home affairs. All our Presidents have had their love stories, and Buchanan had his. But his was a very sad one. He fell in love in 1818 with a beautiful girl, Anne C. Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy citizen of Lancaster. They were betrothed, and all went happily till the summer of 1819, when a letter came from her, breaking off the engagement, and nearly breaking his heart. 

Some evil tongue had made sad mischief between the lovers. Whatever the trouble, the lady refused to be reconciled, and a few months afterward, while on a visit to Philadelphia, she suddenly died. The shock was a great one to Buchanan, who loved her dearly.  " My prospects are all cut off,"  he wrote to her father,  " and I feel that my happiness is buried with her in the grave. The time will come when you will discover that, she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it."  It was his last love affair, and he lived and died unwedded.

In the famous Presidential election of 1824, Buchanan used all his influence in favor of  General Jackson  for the Presidency. The old hero of New Orleans never forgot his friends, and when, four years later, he won his seat, he repaid Buchanan by making him United States Minister to Russia.

Buchanan was just the man for the place. He was refined, courteous and polished, knew how to yield gracefully when it was wise to do so, and was of a disposition and manner that fitted him for the associations of court life. He obtained a treaty of commerce from Russia, and won the favor of the Czar, who asked him, when the time came to leave,  "to tell President Jackson to send him another minister like himself."

When he came home in 1834 he was elected to one of the highest offices in the gift of the people, that of Senator of the United States. He had now become a decided Democrat and a strong advocate of State-rights. In 1844  James K. Polk  was made President, and in forming his Cabinet he chose Mr. Buchanan for the most important office in it, that of Secretary of State. 

The name of James Buchanan was first brought up for President in 1852. But it was one among more than a dozen, and as no one was strong enough to beat the others, a new name, that of Franklin Pierce, was brought up and carried through. When the new President came into office, he appointed Buchanan minister to England. The courtly Pennsylvanian was well received at the Court of St. James; but he had his troubles, for a question arose that made some annoyance for the ministers abroad and some annoyance fun for the journalists of the United States. Up to this time our ministers had worn a simple uniform which complied with the court dress regulations in Europe. But now Mr. Marcy, the new Secretary of State, sent them word that they must appear "in the simple dress of an American citizen."

What was this "simple dress ? "  One writer said it must mean war paint and leggings, with feathers, perhaps.  Another suggested a red shirt and tow trousers.  Those who had been military officers put on their uniform.  Some kept away from court.  Minister Buchanan kept away, too, for a time.  Then he got over the difficulty by adding a sword to his swallow-tail black suit.

It cannot be said that Buchanan enjoyed his new position any too much.  There were other questions to be settled—ugly ones, some of them—and a good deal of bad feeling arose between the two countries.  For that reason he was glad when the time was up and he could return home.

He was soon to be wanted for a higher post at home, for when the time came in 1856 for another Presidential election, it was soon seen that Mr. Buchanan was the strongest man in his party, so he was nominated and elected. A terrible time lay before the new President. None before him had been in so desperate a strait The country was fast drifting into war. It was impossible for him to stop it, and it cannot be said that he made any strong efforts to do so. 

Meanwhile the courtesies and amenities of the White House went on as usual.  President Buchanan had no wife, but his beautiful and accomplished niece, Miss Harriet Lane,  who had been with him in London, now ably took up the duties of mistress of the Presidential mansion, and performed them with a grace that has never been surpassed. Among those received by her was the Prince of Wales, now King Edward of England.

In 1860 the deluge came.  The Republican party was triumphant and elected its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to the Presidential chair.  Now was the time for a resolute soul and a strong hand in the executive office.  An Andrew Jackson or a man of his kind was sadly needed.  But James Buchanan was utterly unfit for the exigency, and he let the South drift into secession while scarcely lifting his hand to hinder or prevent.

No doubt, his position was a very trying and difficult one. The wisest of men would have been in doubt as to what was best to do. But for a crisis like this no weaker man could have been found. He helped neither North nor South; he only waited and watched, and when his successor took his place he found the situation made very much worse by the lack of energy in James Buchanan.

The final years of Buchanan's life were passed at his home at Wheatland, near Lancaster, amid leisure, wealth and affection. He saw the end of the Civil War and was glad enough that the union was preserved, though very sorry, we may be sure, that he had had the misfortune to be President in such perilous times. On June 1, 1868, the old statesman and ex-President passed away.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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