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Manuscript Group 28
JAMES BUCHANAN COLLECTION
1815-1863
.1 cu. ft.



In 1856 when James Buchanan was elected America's fifteenth president he became the first, and so far the only, Pennsylvanian to serve in that office. His long and diverse political career included service as Pennsylvania General Assemblyman, United States Congressman, United States Senator, Minister to Russia, Secretary of State, and Ambassador to Great Britain. It is with this impressive resume that Buchanan entered the White House at a moment when long simmering sectional discontent over the issue of slavery was threatening to sunder the young Republic in two. Historians continue to debate the precise nature of Buchanan's role in failing to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War. A majority of the American people welcomed his election at this moment in history precisely because they believed that only his kind of deft conciliation and compromise could preserve the Union.

Born on April 21, 1791 in a log cabin at a frontier outpost called Stony Batter in Cove Gap, Franklin County, James Buchanan was the eldest of eleven children. His father, James Buchanan, Sr., was an Irish immigrant who operated a trading post. His mother, Elizabeth Speer Buchanan of Lancaster, was self-educated and a very religious woman who could recite long passages from the classics and from the Bible. In 1796 his father moved the family to Mercersburg where Buchanan began his formal education in Greek and Latin at the Old Stone Academy. At age 16, James Buchanan was admitted to Dickinson College in Carlisle where he proved a good and popular student. He was also, however, given to indulging in disruptive antics that got him expelled from the school. An influential family friend intervened on his behalf and Buchanan was readmitted, graduating with distinction in 1809. He subsequently studied law with James Hopkins and was admitted to the bar in Lancaster in 1812. After two years practicing law, he was elected to two terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly on the Federalist ticket.

In appearance, Buchanan was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and distinguished looking. He seldom gave campaign speeches, preferring to exert his political influence through writing personal letters. His letters reflect the disciplined logic of a lawyer but he also was very much at home in convivial social gatherings. A congenital eye deformity caused him to tilt one side of his head forward, creating an impression of giving his fullest attention to those with whom he conversed. He enjoyed entertaining large groups at his home and was noted in such private settings for a sense of humor that seldom showed itself in his public statements. He quickly established his reputation as a competent and thorough lawyer noted for developing sound legal strategies. Never regarded as a brilliant speaker, he won his cases by conducting exhaustive background research and presenting judges and juries with sound arguments grounded upon solid facts. Neither a brilliant or visionary thinker, it is this kind of minute attention to detail, strict legal logic, and hard work that would also distinguish his long political career.

Buchanan never married and some historians have attributed this to his tragic early love affair with Ann Caroline Coleman, daughter of Pennsylvania's wealthiest iron master Robert Coleman. When James and Ann became engaged in 1819, Ann's possessive father opposed the union. When Ann learned that, upon his return from Philadelphia on business one afternoon, Buchanan paid a visit at the home of another young woman rather than coming first to see her, she abruptly broke off the engagement. Shortly thereafter, Ann traveled to Philadelphia to avoid seeing Buchanan. While in the city, she fell ill and died under somewhat unusual circumstances that hint of a possible suicide. Buchanan was devastated by her death, and by Robert Coleman's refusal to allow him to attend her funeral. When he was elected president it would be his niece, Harriet Lane, who would serve as the White House hostess.

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1820, he served four terms. As the old Federalist Party gradually disintegrated, Buchanan became a Democrat and a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson for the presidency. A misunderstanding over an incident during the election of 1824 caused Jackson to distrust Buchanan, however. When Jackson was elected president in 1828, he appointed Buchanan United States Minister to Russia to prevent him from running for vice-president in the next election. During his fourteen months in St. Petersburg Buchanan negotiated the first U.S. trade agreement with Russia.

Upon his return to the United States, Buchanan won a special election to the United States Senate in 1834 where he served continuously until 1845. As a senator, he promoted the notion that governmental power ought be held in check by a strict interpretation of the Constitution and counseled restraint on the part of both private individuals and elected officials on the contentious issue of slavery. Though Buchanan was said to have been personally opposed to slavery, he also believed that the institution of slavery was protected by the federal Constitution. He was especially disturbed by what he saw as the irresponsible agitation of abolitionists that he believed served only to stir up anger and paranoia in the southern states.

Considered a strong candidate for his party's nomination for the presidency in 1844, 1848, and 1852, he lost each time. In 1844, President Andrew Jackson gave his support to James K. Polk. Polk rewarded Buchanan for his support with appointment as secretary of state and during his tenure Oregon was acquired from Great Britain and military victories in the Mexican War resulted in the purchase of as much territory from Mexico as Congress was willing to fund. Buchanan wanted to go even further by acquiring Cuba and Central America, a policy particularly favored by southern slave owners hoping to expand the slave owning territory of the United States and thereby strengthen their position in Congress. Any annexation of such southern territories was opposed by northern abolitionists and free soil advocates, however, who feared such acquisitions precisely because they would increase the voting strength of southern slave owners.

When Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor won the presidency in 1848, Buchanan retired to Lancaster where he purchased the beautiful country estate called Wheatland. Buchanan always considered his retirement as temporary and continued to have an active interest in the presidency. Political discussions at Wheatland often centered on Buchanan's opposition to the Compromise of 1850. Buchanan, like many southerners, favored extending the 1820 Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, thereby maintaining a congressional balance of power between the sections. Under the Compromise of 1850, the south reluctantly accepted the admission of California as a free state in exchange for passage of a new fugitive slave law designed to test the good faith of the north. Though many leading Whigs and Democrats believed this compromise was the only way to quiet the agitation over slavery, Buchanan correctly feared that the Compromise of 1850 could only lead to further confrontation and ultimate disaster.

His hopes for the presidency again thwarted in 1852, Buchanan was appointed ambassador to Great Britain by President Franklin Pierce in 1853 in an effort to isolate him from domestic affairs, and any chance of obtaining the 1856 nomination for the presidency. While in England, Buchanan continued to promote the expansion of the United States and was instrumental in crafting the Ostend Manifesto, an unofficial notification that the United States meant to acquire Cuba even if Spain would not sell it. Frustrated at his inability to effect any lasting change in Britain's foreign policy in favor of the United States, Buchanan asked to go home in 1855.

In 1856 Buchanan, at the age of 65, at last enjoyed the solid support of the Democratic Party for the presidency. During his absence in England, all of the other potential candidates had seen their reputations tarnished by their involvement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the beginning of violent confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas territory. Since Buchanan believed that both secession and federal interference with slavery in states where it already existed were unconstitutional, he seemed the perfect compromise candidate for the majority of voters who wanted desperately to preserve the Union. In the general election he faced John C. Fremont, the first national candidate of the new Republican Party that drew support from northern free soil partisans and abolitionists. Some southern extremists threatened immediate secession if Fremont were elected. Buchanan carried all of the slave states except Maryland, as well as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, and California.

In his inaugural address, Buchanan said that the Supreme Court would soon decide slavery's status in the territories and therefore lay that contentious issue to rest. What he did not say is that he knew this because he had engaged in secret discussions with members of the Court. In these discussions he urged one of the northern justices to vote with the southern justices in the Dred Scott case in a decision that would be written broadly enough to clarify more that the status of just one slave. Handed down two days later, the majority decision declared that slaves were property under the federal Constitution and that no territory or state could alter their status. Rather than quieting the controversy, however, this decision angered not only abolitionists but also northern free soil partisans.

Failing to appreciate the growing power of free soil ideology in the north, Buchanan continued his long-standing policy of appeasing the slave states by appointing many southerners to his cabinet. He also showed his southern leaning in the matter of "Bleeding Kansas." The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise line of 1820 and destroyed the finality of the Compromise of 1850 by allowing voters in the western territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The result was that large numbers of pro-slavery and antislavery settlers rushed into the Kansas territory. When voters met at Lecompton to write a state constitution, free-soil Kansans boycotted the registration and delegate election process, resulting in the election of a pro-slavery convention. When only a pro-slavery constitution was presented to voters, the antislavery faction again refused to participate in the election and the pro-slavery constitution was sent to Buchanan for congressional approval. Meanwhile, the territorial legislature in Kansas called for a referendum on the entire constitution and, with antislavery partisans participating this time, the result was a large majority against the Lecompton Constitution. Amidst the ensuing national firestorm, Buchanan characteristically decided his course by applying a narrow legalistic logic to the case. Since the first election had been legal, neither the president nor a territorial legislature had authority to intervene and so he submitted the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution to Congress. Fellow Democrat Stephen A. Douglas immediately broke with Buchanan, fracturing the Democratic Party into pro-Lecompton and anti-Lecompton factions.

In 1859 Buchanan announced he would not run for reelection. In the ensuing contest, the Democratic Party remained split and Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected in a four-way race in which he carried not a single southern state and less than 40% of the popular vote. Upon learning the results of the election, South Carolina immediately seceded from the Union and was quickly followed by seven other southern states. During the remaining three months of his term, Buchanan refused to recognize the right of secession but also vowed he would commit no act of aggression toward the seceded states. He hoped for a constitutional convention to draft amendments to the federal Constitution that would settle the slavery issue but believed that as president he did not possess the power to call such a convention without the support of Congress. When southern appointees resigned from his cabinet, he replaced them with northern Unionists. Informal agreements between Buchanan and South Carolina prevented the outbreak of war until after Lincoln had moved into the presidential mansion.

Following his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln at first followed many of the same conciliatory strategies pursued by Buchanan. Lincoln had already pledged during the campaign not to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states where it already existed and resolved that if war were to come the South would have to fire the first shot. When South Carolina did fire that shot in April 1861, Buchanan fully backed Lincoln's policies. In 1866 Buchanan published a full defense of his actions as president in a book entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion believing that in time the wisdom of his actions would be appreciated. Most historians today, however, agree that his inability to grasp the importance of the emerging free soil ideology, his narrow legalistic reasoning and a lack of visionary thinking hastened rather than retarded the final rift. In the spring of 1868 Buchanan contracted a serious cold from which he rapidly developed complications. When he died on June 1, 1868, nearly twenty thousand people attended his funeral.

This collection consists of eighteen letters written by James Buchanan including one to Ovid F. Johnston, dated February 2, 1837 touching on the question of appropriating public money for the colonization of freed slaves in Africa. For related Buchanan materials at the Pennsylvania State Archives see also the Herman Blum Collection (Manuscript Group 169). For related Buchanan materials held by other institutions see the James Buchanan Papers (MC 198.10) at the Dickenson College Archives and Special Collections Library; the James Buchanan Collection (Manuscript Group 96) at the Lancaster County Historical Society; the James Buchanan Papers (accession 1988-15H) at The Pennsylvania State University Special Collections Department; the James Buchanan Collection at the James Buchanan Foundation for the Preservation of Wheatland; the Reynolds Family Papers at the Franklin and Marshall College Special Collections Library; the Papers of James Buchanan and Harriet Lane Johnston at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, and the James Buchanan materials located among several collections and manuscript groups at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Other institutions that also hold manuscript items related to James Buchanan include the Alabama Department of Archives and History, American Philosophical Society Library, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, Brigham Young University Archives, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brown University John Hay Library, Cornell University Libraries Rare Book and Manuscript Collections, Crawford County Historical Society, Duke University Special Collections Library, Emory University Robert W. Woodruff Library; Hagley Museum and Library, Kentucky Historical Society, Knox College Seymour Library, Maryland Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, New Jersey Historical Society, New York Historical Society, New York Public Library, Pierpont Morgan Library; Princeton University Seeley G. Mudd Library, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, South Carolina Historical Society, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Syracuse University, Temple University Rare Book and Manuscripts Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, University of Michigan William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, University of Nevada, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Southern Historical Collection, University of Pennsylvania, University of Toledo, University of Virginia Alderman Library, Utah Historical Society, Virginia Historical Society, Washington and Jefferson College, Western Kentucky University Library Special Collections, and Yale University Libraries Manuscripts and Archives.



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