Tuesday, May 24, 2022

This Day In History: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln’s Predecessor, Was Born

American politician, secretary of state under the presidency of James Knox Polk (1845-1849) and fifteenth president of the United States of America (1857-1861).

He was born on April 23, 1791, in Mercersburg, Franklin County (Pennsylvania), and died on July 1, 1868, in Lancaster (Pennsylvania). Leader of the moderate faction of the Democratic Party, his accession to the presidency was due to the strong support he obtained from the Southern states. His work was characterized by his excessive support for the slavery practices of those states in order to avoid secession, thus laying the foundation for the inevitable civil war that broke out between the North and the South and devastated the entire country.

A member of a humble farming family of Irish origin, young James Buchanan worked helping his father in the family’s small store in Stony Batter, while learning the basics of arithmetic to help in the family business. Thanks to his good qualities as a student, Buchanan was able to enter Dickinson College in Mercersburg, where he graduated with honors in 1809, at which time he left for Lancaster to study law. In 1812, James Buchanan graduated and began to practice his profession successfully.

After the end of the war against Great Britain, in 1814, James Buchanan decided to devote himself to politics following the sudden death of his fiancée, seeking, in his own words, a distraction from such a misfortune. Affiliated with the Federalist Party, Buchanan was elected member of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, from where he went, in 1820, to the House of Representatives in Washington. Eight years later, he replaced Congressman Daniel Webster at the head of the congressional Judiciary Committee.

As a consequence of the disappearance of the Federalist Party from the political scene and the political admiration he felt for General Andrew Jackson, Buchanan decided to join the Democratic Party, recently founded by Jackson, whom he helped decisively in the political campaign that ended up taking him to the White House in 1829.

Between 1831 and 1833, Buchanan was appointed ambassador plenipotentiary of his country in St. Petersburg (Russia), where he managed to sign a very advantageous commercial treaty between both countries. On his return to the United States, he was elected Democratic senator for Pennsylvania, a position he retained consecutively until 1845, when the newly elected president James Knox Polk appointed him secretary of state (minister of foreign affairs). In his new position, Buchanan negotiated and fixed, in 1846, the border limits of the Oregon territories with Great Britain, opposed the so-called Wilmot Provision, which sought to prohibit the extension of the slave system in the new Union territories and, above all, prepared the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), by which the United States annexed Texas and obtained the cession of California and New Mexico from the Mexican side. James Buchanan also had a powerful influence on the president to revive the forgotten Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States declared itself willing not to allow any interference by a non-American foreign power in the political development of the continent, in clear reference to British interests in Central America.

When the Republican Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) became president in 1849, Buchanan temporarily retired from active politics to rededicate himself to his activities as a lawyer. On March 4, 1853, the Democrat Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) acceded to the White House, where he appointed James Buchanan ambassador plenipotentiary to Great Britain. In his new ambassadorship, Buchanan was directly responsible for the Pact of Ostend, signed on October 18, 1854, with the American ambassadors in Paris and Madrid, Mason and Soulé, respectively, by which he recommended to Pierce the annexation by force of the island of Cuba in the event that the Crown of Spain was not capable of repressing the emancipation movement of the black slaves. Although this resolution was highly criticized by Congress, it did not prevent him, upon his return to the United States, from being named presidential candidate by the Convention of his party, in 1856, in clear confrontation with the Republican candidate John C. Frémont, whom he defeated without palliation, in March 1857.

Due to his long experience as a politician, James Buchanan began his presidency accepted by all the states of the nation, both South and North. Apart from certain successes in international affairs, in which Buchanan had proved himself a master, such as the settlement with Great Britain of all outstanding disputes in Central America and the signing of the first commercial treaty with imperial and millenarian China, James Buchanan’s presidency was entirely marked by the pre-war climate throughout the Union due to the growing enmity and political and social differences that arose between the Northern states, which favored the abolition of slavery and the industrialization of the country, and the Southern states, with an economy based on extensive commercial agriculture worked by a huge slave labor force.

In his desire to please everyone, James Buchanan was in favor of the right of the inhabitants of each state to abolish slavery or not. But as soon as he became president, he was determined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which dated back ten years, and in 1859 he supported the annexation of the state of Kansas to the Union, which was totally dominated by a ruling class that favored the slave system. This measure caused a deep split within the Democratic Party, from which two factions emerged, led by Vice-President John C. Breckinridge and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, which made possible the subsequent victory in the presidential elections of the Republican Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).

As a result of the serious economic crisis that shook the whole country in 1857 and the attempted insurrection movement carried out by a large number of slaves led by the abolitionist John Brown in Harpers Ferry (Virginia), the political position of James Buchanan became extremely fragile, attacked by all the political and social forces of the country.

As soon as the presidential elections of 1860 were held, which gave the victory to the Republican Abraham Lincoln, on December 20 South Carolina proclaimed its separation from the Union, which was immediately followed, at the beginning of the following year, by six more states. Buchanan reacted promptly by refusing to receive the representatives of the rebel states who went to Washington to meet with the still president of the country, who, in a last attempt to stop what seemed inevitable, ordered the reinforcement of Fort Sunter, located in the port of Charleston (South Carolina), with troops and ammunition. But, when all his efforts to provision the fort and other border points and to gather an emergency Constitutional Assembly failed, given the great opposition he had in the Senate, James Buchanan transferred all his presidential powers a few days before the legal deadline to Abraham Lincoln and retired to his Lancaster estate, disappointed and politically discredited. There he wrote an impassioned defense of his presidential policies and performance entitled “Buchanan’s administration on the Ere of the Rebellion.”