Presidency of James Buchanan

The presidency of James Buchanan began on March 4, 1857, when James Buchanan was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1861. Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, took office as the 15th United States president after defeating former President Millard Fillmore of the American Party, and John C. Frémont of the Republican Party in the 1856 presidential election.

Buchanan was nominated by the Democratic Party at its 1856 convention, where he defeated both the incumbent President Franklin Pierce and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Despite his long experience in government, Buchanan was unable to calm the growing sectional crisis that would divide the nation at the close of his term. Prior to taking office, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Though Buchanan hoped that the Court's ruling would end the dispute over slavery in the territories, Buchanan's support of the ruling deeply alienated many Northerners. Buchanan also joined with Southern leaders in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the midst of the growing chasm between slave states and free states, the Panic of 1857 struck the nation, causing widespread business failures and high unemployment.

Tensions over slavery continued to the end of Buchanan's term. Buchanan had promised in his inaugural address to serve just one term, and with the ongoing national turmoil over slavery, no one asked him to rescind his pledge.[1] Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln, running on a platform devoted to keeping slavery out of all Western territories, defeated the splintered Democratic Party and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell to win the 1860 election. In response to Lincoln's victory, seven Southern states declared their secession from the Union. Buchanan refused to confront the seceded states with military force, but retained control of Fort Sumter. The secession crisis culminated in outbreak of the American Civil War shortly after Buchanan left office.

President James Buchanan (NARA 528318) colorized
Presidency of James Buchanan
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
PresidentJames Buchanan
CabinetSee list
SeatWhite House
Seal of the President of the United States
Seal of the President

Election of 1856

Results by county, indicating the percentage for the winning candidate. Shades of blue are for Buchanan (Democratic), shades of red are for Frémont (Republican), and shades of yellow are for Fillmore (Know Nothing).

After Franklin Pierce won the 1852 presidential election, Buchanan agreed to serve as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Buchanan's service abroad conveniently placed him outside of the country while a debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act roiled the nation.[2] While Buchanan did not overtly seek the 1856 Democratic presidential nomination, he most deliberately chose not to discourage the movement on his behalf, something that was well within his power on many occasions.[3] The 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, writing a platform that largely reflected Buchanan's views, including support for the Fugitive Slave Law, an end to anti-slavery agitation, and U.S. "ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico." Buchanan led on the first ballot, boosted by the support of powerful Senators John Slidell, Jesse Bright, and Thomas F. Bayard, who presented Buchanan as an experienced leader who could appeal to the North and South. President Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas also sought the nomination, but Buchanan was selected as the Democratic presidential nominee on the seventeen ballot of the convention. He was joined on the Democratic ticket by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.[4]

An anti-Buchanan political cartoon from the 1856 election

By 1856, the Whig Party, which had long been the main opposition to the Democrats, had collapsed. Buchanan faced not just one but two candidates in the general election: former Whig President Millard Fillmore ran as the American Party (or "Know-Nothing") candidate, while John C. Frémont ran as the Republican nominee. Sticking with the convention of the times, Buchanan did not himself campaign, but he wrote letters and pledged to uphold the Democratic platform. In the election, Buchanan carried every slave state except for Maryland, as well as five free states, including his home state of Pennsylvania. He won 45 percent of the popular vote and 174 electoral votes, compared to Frémont's 114 electoral votes and Fillmore's 8 electoral votes. Buchanan's election made him the first and so far only president from Pennsylvania. In his victory speech, Buchanan denounced Republicans, calling the Republican Party a "dangerous" and "geographical" party that had unfairly attacked the South.[5] President-elect Buchanan would also state, "the object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government."[6]


James Buchanan inauguration 1857
Photograph of James Buchanan's 1857 presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol; earliest known inaugural photograph.

Buchanan was inaugurated as the nation's 15th president on March 4, 1857 on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the Oath of office. This is the first inauguration ceremony known to have been photographed. In his inaugural address, Buchanan committed himself to serving only one term. He also spoke critically about the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories, stating,

It is the imperative and indispensable duty of the government of the United States to secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.[1]

Furthermore, Buchanan argued that a federal slave code should protect the rights of slave-owners in any federal territory. He alluded to a pending Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he stated would permanently settle the issue of slavery. In fact, Buchanan already knew the outcome of the case, and had even played a part in its disposition.[7]


The Buchanan Cabinet
PresidentJames Buchanan1857–1861
Vice PresidentJohn C. Breckinridge1857–1861
Secretary of StateLewis Cass1857–1860
Jeremiah S. Black1860–1861
Secretary of TreasuryHowell Cobb1857–1860
Philip Francis Thomas1860–1861
John Adams Dix1861
Secretary of WarJohn B. Floyd1857–1860
Joseph Holt1860–1861
Attorney GeneralJeremiah S. Black1857–1860
Edwin M. Stanton1860–1861
Postmaster GeneralAaron V. Brown1857–1859
Joseph Holt1859–1860
Horatio King1861
Secretary of the NavyIsaac Toucey1857–1861
Secretary of the InteriorJacob Thompson1857–1861
Buchanan Cabinet
President Buchanan and his Cabinet
From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)

As his inauguration approached, Buchanan sought to establish a harmonious cabinet that would not fall victim to the in-fighting that had plagued Andrew Jackson's top officials. Buchanan sought to be the clear leader of the cabinet, and chose men who would agree with his views. Anticipating that his administration would concentrate on foreign policy and that Buchanan himself would largely direct foreign policy, he appointed the aging Lewis Cass as Secretary of State.[8] Cass would become marginalized in Buchanan's administration, with Buchanan and Assistant Secretary of State John Appleton instead directing foreign affairs.[9] In filling out his cabinet, Buchanan chose four Southerners and three Northerners, one of whom was Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey, widely considered to be a "doughface," or Southern-sympathizer. Aside from the nearly-senile Cass, only Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black lacked partiality towards the South, but Black despised abolitionists and free-soilers.[10]

Buchanan's appointment of Southerners and Southern sympathizers alienated many in the North, and his failure to appoint any followers of Stephen Douglas divided the party.[8] Though Buchanan owed his nomination to Douglas's decision to withdraw from consideration at the 1856 Democratic convention, he disliked Douglas personally and favored Jesse D. Bright, who hoped to unseat Douglas as the leader of the Midwestern Democrats.[11] Outside of the cabinet, Buchanan left in place many of Pierce's appointments, but removed a disproportionate number of Northerners who had ties to Pierce or Douglas. Buchanan quickly alienated his vice president, Breckinridge, and the latter played little role in the Buchanan administration.[12]

Judicial appointments

Buchanan appointed one Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States, Nathan Clifford of Maine. Clifford had served with Buchanan in James K. Polk's cabinet, and his views on major issues largely aligned with those of Buchanan. Clifford succeeded Benjamin Robbins Curtis, who had resigned in protest of the Dred Scott decision. Clifford's nomination was opposed by many Northern senators, but he won confirmation in a 26-to-23 vote. A second vacancy arose after the death of Peter Vivian Daniel in 1860, and Buchanan nominated Attorney General Black to fill the opening. In the aftermath of the election of 1860, Black fell just one vote short of confirmation, leaving one Supreme Court seat open as Buchanan left office.[13] Aside from Clifford, Buchanan appointed only seven other Article III federal judges, all to United States district courts.

Dred Scott case

US SlaveFree1858
The balance of free and slave states in 1858, after the admission of Minnesota

In the aftermath of the Mexican–American War, a new debate had arisen over the status of slavery in the western territories. While abolitionism had not emerged as a strong force, many Northerners saw slavery as a moral blight and opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. Many Southerners, meanwhile, were deeply offended by the moral assault on the institution of slavery, and feared that an attack on slavery in the territories could lead to an attack on slavery in the South. The Compromise of 1850 had temporarily defused the situation, but every Northern defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act (passed as part of the compromise) inflamed tensions in the South. The 1852 publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin further divided opinion. In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had excluded slavery from territories north of the 36°30′ parallel. Each new state would instead decide upon the status of slavery under the concept of popular sovereignty. The bill was very unpopular in the North, and its passage contributed to the collapse of the Whig Party and the rise of the Republican Party, which consisted almost entirely of Northerners opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories. Though few Republicans sought to abolish slavery in the South, Southerners saw the very existence of the Republican Party as an affront, and the Republicans made little effort to appeal to the South with any of their other policies, such as support for high tariffs and federally-funded internal improvements.[14]

Upon taking office, Buchanan hoped to not only end the tensions over slavery but also vanquish what he saw as a dangerously-sectional Republican Party. The most pressing issue regarding slavery concerned its status of in the territories, and whether popular sovereignty meant that territorial legislatures could bar the entrance of slaves. Seeing an opening in a pending Supreme Court case to settle the issue, President-Elect Buchanan had involved himself in the decision-making process of the Court in the months leading up to his own inauguration.[15]

Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, which asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories.[16] Prior to his inauguration, Buchanan had written to Justice John Catron in January 1857, inquiring about the outcome of the case and suggesting that a broader decision would be more prudent.[17] Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10 that the Supreme Court's Southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds if there was no support from the Court's northern justices—unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority.[18] Buchanan hoped that a broad Supreme Court decision protecting slavery in the territories could lay the issue to rest once and for all, allowing the country to focus on other issues, including the possible annexation of Cuba and the acquisition of more Mexican territory.[19] So Buchanan wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him, allowing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott's case to declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.[20][21] When the Court's decision in Dred Scott was issued two days after Buchanan's inauguration, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result.[22] Buchanan's strong public support of the decision earned him and his party the enmity of many Northerners from the outset of his presidency.[23]

Panic of 1857 and economic policy

The Panic of 1857 began in the middle of that year, ushered in by the sequential collapse of fourteen hundred state banks and five thousand businesses. While the South escaped largely unscathed, Northern cities saw numerous unemployed men and women take to the streets to beg. Reflecting his Jacksonian background, Buchanan's response was "reform not relief". While the government was "without the power to extend relief", it would continue to pay its debts in specie, and while it would not curtail public works, none would be added.[24] Buchanan urged the states to restrict the banks to a credit level of $3 to $1 of specie, and discouraged the use of federal or state bonds as security for bank note issues.[25] Though the economy recovered by 1859, the panic inflamed sectional tensions, as many Northerners blamed the Southern-backed Tariff of 1857 (passed during Pierce's last day in office) for the panic. Southerners, as well as Buchanan, instead blamed the overspeculation of Northern bankers.[26] In part due to the worsened economy, by the time Buchanan left office the federal deficit stood at $17 million, higher than it had been when Buchanan took office.[24]

Throughout 1858 and 1859, Congress continued to debate perennial issues such as the tariff and infrastructure spending. Southern and Western congressmen succeeded in retaining the low rates of the Tariff of 1857 until 1861. Many in Congress pushed for the construction of a transcontinental railroad, but its construction was prevented by a combination of Southern and New England congressmen.[27] Among the pieces of legislation that Buchanan vetoed were the Homestead Act, which would have given 160 acres of public land to settlers who remained on settled land for five years, and the Morrill Act, which would have granted public lands to establish land-grant colleges. Buchanan argued that these acts were beyond the power of the federal government as established by the Constitution.[28][27] Following the secession of several Southern states, Congress passed the Morrill Tariff, significantly raising rates. Despite his long opposition to higher tariffs, Buchanan signed the tariff into law on March 2, 1861. The Morrill Tariff tariff to the highest levels seen since the 1840s, and passage of the law marked a new period of protectionist tariffs that would continue long after Buchanan left office.[29]

Utah War

Utah had been settled by Mormons in the decades preceding Buchanan's presidency, and under the leadership of Brigham Young the Mormons had grown increasingly hostile to federal intervention. Young harassed federal officers and discouraged outsiders from settling in the Salt Lake City area, and in September 1857 the Utah Territorial Militia perpetrated the Mountain Meadows massacre against Arkansans headed for California. Buchanan was also personally offended by the polygamous behavior of Young.[30]

Accepting the wildest rumors and believing the Mormons to be in open rebellion against the United States, Buchanan sent the army in November 1857 to replace Young as governor with the non-Mormon Alfred Cumming. While the Mormons' had frequently defied federal authority, some question whether Buchanan's action was a justifiable or prudent response to uncorroborated reports.[16] Complicating matters, Young's notice of his replacement was not delivered because the Pierce administration had annulled the Utah mail contract.[16] After Young reacted to the military action by mustering a two-week expedition destroying wagon trains, oxen, and other Army property, Buchanan dispatched Thomas L. Kane as a private agent to negotiate peace. The mission succeeded, the new governor was shortly placed in office, and the Utah War ended. The president granted amnesty to all inhabitants who would respect the authority of the government, and moved the federal troops to a nonthreatening distance for the balance of his administration.[31] Though he continued to practice polygamy, Young largely accepted federal authority after the conclusion of the Utah War.[32]

Bleeding Kansas

After the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854, two competing governments had been formed in Kansas Territory. The anti-slavery settlers organized a government in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton, Kansas. For Kansas to be admitted as a state, a constitution had to be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of residents. Under President Pierce, a series of violent confrontations known as "Bleeding Kansas" occurred as supporters of the two governments clashed. The situation in Kansas was watched closely throughout the country, and some in Georgia and Mississippi advocated secession should Kansas be admitted as a free state. Buchanan himself did not particularly care whether or not Kansas entered as a slave state, and instead sought to admit Kansas as a state as soon as possible since it would likely tilt towards the Democratic Party. Rather than restarting the process and establishing one territorial government, Buchanan chose to recognize the pro-slavery Lecompton government.[33]

Upon taking office, Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker to replace John W. Geary as territorial governor of Kansas, with the mission of reconciling the settler factions and approving a constitution. Walker, who was from the slave state of Mississippi, was expected to assist the pro-slavery faction in gaining approval of a new constitution.[34] Buchanan overcame Walker's initial reluctance to accept the appointment by persuading Walker that a successful resolution to the Kansas issue could catapult Walker to the presidency in 1860. Buchanan also promised Walker that Kansas would hold a free and fair referendum on any state constitution. Shortly after arriving in Kansas, Walker remarked that an "isothermal line" (i.e. the climate) had made Kansas unsuitable to slavery, angering pro-slavery leaders in Kansas and across the United States. In October 1857, the Lecompton government organized territorial elections that resulted in a pro-slavery legislature, despite Walker's discovery of fraud in several counties.[35]

The convention framed a pro-slavery state constitution (known as the "Lecompton Constitution") and, rather than risking a referendum, sent it directly to Buchanan. Though eager for Kansas statehood, even Buchanan was forced to reject the entrance of Kansas without a state constitutional referendum, and he dispatched federal agents to bring about a compromise. The Lecompton government agreed to a limited referendum in which Kansas would vote not on the constitution overall, but rather merely on whether or not Kansas would allow slavery after becoming a state. The anti-slavery Topeka government boycotted the December 1857 referendum, in which slavery overwhelmingly won the approval of those who did vote. A month later, the Topeka government held its own referendum in which voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution.[36]

Despite the protests of Walker and two former governors of Kansas, Buchanan decided to accept the Lecompton Constitution.[37] In a December 1857 meeting with Stephen Douglas, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories and an important Northern Democrat, Buchanan demanded that all Democrats support the administration's position of admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution.[38] Facing re-election and outraged by the perceived fraud in Kansas, Douglas broke with Buchanan and attacked the Lecompton Constitution.[39] On February 2, Buchanan transmitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress. He also transmitted a message that attacked the "revolutionary government" in Topeka, conflating them with the Mormons in Utah. Buchanan made every effort to secure congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments, and even cash for votes. The Lecompton Constitution won the approval of the Senate in March, but a combination of Know-Nothings, Republicans, and Northern Democrats defeated the bill in the House. Rather than accepting defeat, Buchanan backed the English Bill, which offered Kansans immediate statehood and vast public lands in exchange for accepting the Lecompton Constitution. Despite the continued opposition of Douglas, the English bill won passage in both houses of Congress.[40]

Despite congressional approval of the constitution, Kansas voters strongly rejected the Lecompton Constitution in an August 1858 referendum.[38] Southerners were outraged that the Lecompton Constitution had been defeated by a supposed Northern conspiracy led by Douglas, while many Northerners now saw Buchanan as a tool of the Southern "Slave Power."[40] Anti-slavery delegates won a majority of the elections to the 1859 state constitutional convention, and Kansas won admission as a free state in the final months of Buchanan's presidency.[41] Guerrilla warfare in the state would continue throughout Buchanan's presidency and extend into 1860s.[42]

The battle over Kansas escalated into a battle for control of the Democratic Party. On one side were Buchanan, most Southern Democrats, and "doughface" Northern Democrats; on the other side were Douglas and most Northern Democrats, as well as a few Southerners. Douglas's faction continued to support the doctrine of popular sovereignty, while Buchanan insisted that Democrats respect the Dred Scott decision and its repudiation of federal interference with slavery in the territories.[43] The struggle lasted the remainder of Buchanan's presidency. Buchanan used his patronage powers to remove Douglas' sympathizers in favor of pro-administration Democrats.[44]

1858 mid-term elections

Douglas's Senate term ended in 1859, so the Illinois legislature elected in 1858 would determine whether Douglas would win re-election. The Senate election was the primary issue of the legislative election, marked by the Lincoln-Douglas debates between Douglas and the Republican candidate, former Congressman Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan, working through federal patronage appointees in Illinois, ran candidates for the legislature in competition with both the Republicans and the Douglas Democrats. This could easily have thrown the election to the Republicans—which showed the depth of Buchanan's animosity toward Douglas.[45]

In his 1858 re-election bid, Douglas defeated Lincoln, who warned that the Supreme Court would soon bar states from excluding slavery.[46] As part of his campaign, Douglas laid out his "Freeport Doctrine," which held that territorial legislatures retained the de facto right to exclude slavery despite the Dred Scott decision, because said legislatures could refuse to recognize slavery as property.[47] In the 1858 elections, Douglas forces took control of the Democratic Party throughout the North, except in Buchanan's home state of Pennsylvania, leaving Buchanan with a narrow base of Southern supporters.[34][48] However, the Freeport Doctrine further diminished Douglas's support in the South, which was already in decline following his refusal to support the Lecompton Constitution.[49]

The division between Northern and Southern Democrats helped the Republicans win a plurality in the House in the elections of 1858. While campaigning for a Republican congressional candidate in New York, Republican Senator William Seward described the party struggle between Republicans and Democrats as part of a larger "irrepressible conflict" between systems of free and slave labor. Though Seward quickly walked back his remarks and relatively few Northerners actually sought the immediate abolition of slavery in the South, Seward's remarks and the subsequent Republican victories in the 1858 elections caused many in the South to believe that the election of a Republican president would lead to the abolition of slavery. The election losses served as a Northern rebuke to the Buchanan administration, and Republican control of the House allowed Republicans to block much of Buchanan's agenda in the second half of his term.[50][51]

Continuing tensions over slavery

Following the 1858 elections, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and fellow Southern radicals sought to pass a federal slave code that would protect slavery in the territories, thereby closing the loophole contemplated by Douglas's Freeport Doctrine. In February 1859, as debate over the federal slave code began, Davis and other Southerners announced that they would leave the party if the 1860 party platform included popular sovereignty, while Douglas and his supporters likewise stated that they would bolt the party if the party platform included a federal slave code. Despite this continuing debate over slavery in the territories, the decline of Kansas as a major issue allowed unionists to remain a powerful force in the South.[52]

In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led raid on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in hopes of initiating a slave revolt. Brown's plan failed miserably, and the majority of his party was killed or captured. In the aftermath of the attack, Republican leaders denied any connection to Brown, who was executed in December 1859 by the state of Virginia. Though few leaders in the North approved of Brown's actions, Southerners were outraged, and many accused Republican leaders such as Seward of having masterminded the raid. In his December 1859 annual message to Congress, Buchanan characterized the raid as part of an "open war by the North to abolish slavery in the South," and he called for the establishment of a federal slave code. Senate hearings led by Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia cleared the Republican Party of responsibility for the raid after a long investigation, but Southern Congressmen remained suspicious of their Republican colleagues.[53]

Foreign policy

Buchanan took office with an ambitious foreign policy that centered around establishing U.S. hegemony over Central America at the expense of Great Britain.[54] He hoped to re-negotiate the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which he viewed as a mistake that limited U.S. influence in the region. He also sought to establish American protectorates over the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, and, perhaps most importantly, he hoped to finally achieve his long-term goal of acquiring Cuba. After long negotiations with the British, he convinced them to agree to cede the Bay Islands to Honduras and the Mosquito Coast to Nicaragua. However, Buchanan's ambitions in Cuba and Mexico were blocked in the House of Representatives.[55]

Buchanan also considered buying Alaska from the Russian Empire, possibly as a colony for Mormon settlers, but the U.S. and Russia were unable to agree upon a price. In China, despite not taking direct part in the Second Opium War, the Buchanan administration won trade concessions in the Treaty of Tientsin.[56] In 1858, Buchanan ordered the Paraguay expedition to punish Paraguay for firing on the USS Water Witch, and the expedition resulted in a Paraguayan apology and the payment of an indemnity.[55]

Covode committee

Buchanan and his allies awarded no-bid contracts to political supporters, used government money to wage political campaigns and bribe judges, and sold government property for less than its worth to cronies. According to historian Michael F. Holt, the Buchanan administration was "undoubtedly the most corrupt [administration] before the civil War and one of the most corrupt in American history."[57] In March 1860, the House created the Covode Committee to investigate the administration for evidence of corruption, bribery, and extortion. The committee, with three Republicans and two Democrats, was accused by Buchanan's supporters of being nakedly partisan; they also charged its chairman, Republican Congressman John Covode, with acting on a personal grudge due to Buchanan's veto of a land grant bill for agricultural colleges.[58] Despite this criticism, the Democratic committee members, as well as Democratic witnesses, were equally enthusiastic in their pursuit of Buchanan as were the Republicans.[59][60]

The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan; however, the majority report issued on June 17 exposed corruption and abuse of power among members of his cabinet, as well as allegations (if not impeachable evidence) from the Republican members of the Committee, that Buchanan had attempted to bribe members of Congress in connection with the Lecompton constitution. The Democratic report, issued separately the same day, pointed out that evidence was scarce, but did not refute the allegations; one of the Democratic members, Rep. James Robinson, stated publicly that he agreed with the Republican report even though he did not sign it.[60] Buchanan claimed to have "passed triumphantly through this ordeal" with complete vindication. Nonetheless, Republican operatives distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Committee report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year's presidential election.[61][62]

Election of 1860

The 1860 Democratic National Convention convened in April 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina. Buchanan had decided to stick to his pledge to serve just one term, but his administration actively sought a successor who would uphold his policies.[63] Stephen Douglas had emerged as the most popular Northern Democratic leader after the 1858 elections, but he had alienated Buchanan and much of the South with his stance on slavery in the territories.[64] Some Southern Democrats, especially those from the Deep South, preferred a Republican president to Douglas because the election of a Republican president would encourage secession.[65] After a long and acrimonious fight, the convention adopted a platform favoring Douglas's conception of popular sovereignty and rejecting a federal slave code. Seven Southern delegation chairmen walked out on the convention in reaction to the party platform.[66]

After Southern leaders bolted from the convention, Caleb Cushing, a Buchanan ally who had won election as chair of the convention, ruled that the presidential ballot would require a two-thirds majority of all delegates (including the bolters), meaning that the nominee would have to win support from five-sixths of the delegates present. After fifty-seven ballots, all of which Douglas led, the convention adjourned with plans to reconvene in June in Baltimore, Maryland. After re-convening, most of the remaining Southern delegates, as well as some Northern delegates loyal to Buchanan, left the convention after losing a vote to re-seat the delegates that had bolted in Charleston. The remaining delegates nominated Douglas for president. Douglas preferred Alexander H. Stephens as his running mate, but left the decision to the remaining Southern delegates, who eventually picked former Governor Herschel Johnson of Georgia.[66]

The delegates who had bolted from the Charleston and Baltimore conventions met elsewhere in Baltimore. After stating that he did not believe that the South should secede if Republicans won the 1860 election, Vice President Breckinridge was nominated on the first ballot of the convention. Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon was nominated as Breckinridge's running mate. Buchanan and former President Franklin Pierce both endorsed Breckinridge and his platform, which called for the federal protection of slavery in the territories.[67] A group of former Whigs opposed to both Breckinridge and the Republicans, and unable to reach an accommodation with Douglas, formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for vice president. The nascent party emphasized unionism and sought to push aside the issue of slavery. Though the party initially hoped to compete in both the North and the South, some Constitutional Unionists in the South endorsed a federal slave code, which destroyed the party's support in the North.[68]

The 1860 Republican National Convention opened with five major candidates: Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Edward Bates of Missouri. Despite Seward's lead on the first two ballots, Lincoln emerged as the party's nominee on the third ballot. Lincoln's candidacy was boosted by the widely-held view that his reputation for honesty and moderation made him a strong candidate, especially in key Northern swing states like Indiana and Illinois. For vice president, the Republicans nominated Hannibal Hamlin, a former Democrat from Maine who maintained warm relations with both Lincoln and Seward. Republicans, including Seward, rallied to Lincoln as did many former Whigs.[69] Lincoln argued for the containment of slavery to the Southern states, but promised that Republicans would not seek to abolish slavery in the South itself. With four major candidates in the field, Buchanan hoped that no one candidate would win an electoral vote majority and the election would be thrown to the House.[70]

Results by county, indicating the percentage for the winning candidate. Shades of red represent Lincoln's support, shades of blue represent Douglas's support, shades of green represent Breckinridge's support, and shades of yellow represent Bell's support.

The 1860 election was essentially two races; in the North, Lincoln competed with Douglas for votes, while in the South, Breckinridge and Bell garnered the most support.[71] Like his successful Whig predecessors, Lincoln largely refrained from campaigning after the convention, instead leaving that to others in the party. In his silence, Lincoln failed to refute the charge of Southern radicals that he hoped to abolish slavery. During the summer and fall of 1860, Southern governors corresponded about potentially seceding from the union, and Buchanan did little to denounce secessionists. Douglas, on the other hand, focused much of his campaign on attacking secessionists, who he worried would attempt to seize control of the federal government in the aftermath of a Lincoln victory. As Breckinridge and Bell lacked support in the North, the defeat of the Lincoln required the victory of Douglas in at least some Northern states, but Buchanan remained focused on defeating Douglas.[72] Some anti-Republican leaders attempted to form a fusion ticket in the North, but they achieved little success outside of New Jersey.[73]

With the Democrats divided, Lincoln won the 1860 election with a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. Lincoln won virtually no support in the South, but his strong performance over Douglas in the North gave him a majority of the electoral vote. Breckinridge won most of the South, Bell won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and Douglas won Missouri and three electoral votes in New Jersey.[74] Despite Lincoln's presidential victory, Republicans failed to win a majority in the House or Senate, and the Supreme Court membership remained largely the same as it had been when it issued the Dred Scott decision. Thus, despite the election of a Republican president, slavery in the South faced no immediate danger.[75]

As early as October, the army's Commanding General, Winfield Scott, warned Buchanan that Lincoln's election would likely cause at least seven states to secede. He recommended that massive amounts of federal troops and artillery be deployed to those states to protect federal property, and warned that few reinforcements were available.[76] Buchanan, however, distrusted Scott (the two had long been political adversaries) and ignored his recommendations.[77] After Lincoln's election, Buchanan directed Secretary of War Floyd to reinforce southern forts with such provisions, arms and men as were available; however, Floyd convinced him to revoke the order.[76]


Compromise attempts

Buchanan as Dog Buck 1861
Columbia as Little Bo Peep; her lost sheep are the Southern states. Buchanan as "dog buck" tries in vain to herd states back into the Union.

With Lincoln's victory, talk of secession and disunion reached a boiling point. A Cincinnati newspaper wrote, "the doctrine of secession is anarchy. If any minority have the right to break up the government at pleasure, because they have not had their way, there is an end of all government..[78] In his annual message, delivered on December 3, 1860, Buchanan blamed the crisis entirely on Northerners and their anti-slavery agitation. He also argued that the Constitution made no provision for secession and that such an act would be unconstitutional. He stated that a "revolution" is justifiable in some instances, but argued that the South should wait for an "overt or dangerous" act before resorting to such a drastic action. Despite his opposition to secession, Buchanan argued that the president had no power to coerce states to remain in the Union, though he did state the president could defend federal property in seceding states. Finally, Buchanan asked Congress to call a convention of states to propose a constitutional amendment that would recognize slaves as property throughout the United States.[79] His address was sharply criticized both by the North, for its refusal to stop secession, and the South, for denying its right to secede.[80]

During the lame duck session of the 36th Congress, the Senate established the Committee of Thirteen in an attempt to defuse the crisis. The committee consisted of a mix of Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Republicans. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed a package of constitutional amendments known as the Crittenden Compromise. The compromise would protect slavery in federal territories, current and future, south of the 36°30′ parallel. Congress would be forbidden from abolishing slavery in any state or interfering with the domestic slave trade. President-elect Lincoln refused to acquiesce to any extension of slavery into the territories, as he feared that the compromise would encourage Southern leaders to attempt to annex new territory South of the 36°30′ parallel in order to extend slavery. He also believed that adoption of the Crittenden Compromise would set a precedent through which Southern leaders could use the threat of secession to extract concessions. On Lincoln's direction, a majority of the Republicans on the committee opposed the Crittenden Compromise, and it was defeated by a combination of Republican and Southern votes. Crittenden nonetheless brought his package to the Senate floor, where was defeated in a 25-to-23 vote on January 16, 1861.[81]

US Secession map 1861
1861 United States Secession Crisis map.
   States that seceded before April 15, 1861
   States that seceded after April 15, 1861
   States that permitted slavery, but did not secede
   States of the Union where slavery was banned
   U.S. territories, under Union Army control

In 1850, Southern extremists had called the Nashville Convention in an attempt to organize the simultaneous secession of Southern states. In 1860, pro-secession leaders pursued a state-by-state strategy, hoping to trigger a chain reaction by leading states to secede one-by-one. A minority of leaders in the Deep South, including Alexander Stephens, opposed secession before Lincoln made a move that would threaten slavery in the Southern states. However, the wide popularity of secession in the Deep South precluded delay until after Lincoln took office.[82] As Congress scrambled to devise a compromise acceptable to North and South, the first Southern state seceded. South Carolina, long the most radical Southern state, declared its secession on December 20, 1860. The state ordnance of secession accused the North of having "assumed the right to decide upon the propriety of our domestic institutions" and also declared that the Republican Party believed that "a war must be waged against Slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States."[83] After declaring its own secession, South Carolina sent commissioners to the other Southern states. By February 1, 1861, another six states had seceded. Conventions in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida overwhelmingly voted to secede, while unionists in Alabama and Georgia put up a stronger, but still unsuccessful, fight. In a referendum, two-thirds of Texans also voted to secede, despite the opposition of long-time Texas leader Sam Houston. The other eight slave states rejected secession, though North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas would later secede during Lincoln's presidency.[84] The seceded states organized into the Confederate States of America, and Jefferson Davis was elected as the Confederacy's first president on February 9.[85]

After trying in vain to convince Lincoln to publicly support a constitutional convention or a national referendum on the Crittenden Compromise, Buchanan sent a special message to Congress, asking it to authorize a referendum or find some other method of compromise that would allay the fears of the South.[86] Leaders in both the North and South competed for the allegiance of the upper South, and both attempted to project an image of moderation. The House of Representatives established the Committee of Thirty-Three to help foster a compromise to prevent more states from seceding. Charles Francis Adams Sr. put forth a proposal to admit New Mexico as a slave state, but the lack of slaves in that territory led most congressmen to believe that it would become a de facto free state. With the support of Seward and Lincoln, the Committee of Thirty-Three put forth a resolution to repeal all state personal liberty laws, which were designed to make enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act more difficult. The committee also proposed the Corwin Amendment, which would bar Congress from interfering with slavery in the states. A significant number of Republicans refused to support the Corwin Amendment, but it passed both of houses of Congress and was proposed to the states for ratification. On February 4, delegates convened from most states outside of the Deep South convened in Washington for the Peace Conference of 1861, which was chaired by former President John Tyler. The convention proposed a solution similar to the Crittenden Compromise, with the major change being that slavery would be protected only in current territories below the 36°30′ parallel. Republican opposition to the Peace Conference's proposal killed its chances, and its proposals were rejected by Congress.[87] The Corwin Amendment would never be ratified by the requisite number of states, but as Congress did not set a time limit for its ratification, the amendment is still technically pending.[88][89]

Fort Sumter

With all compromise efforts failing, and with several Southern states having seceded, Buchanan's final days in office would be dominated by the issue of federal forts in the South, especially Fort Sumter.[86] All sides recognized that the status of Fort Sumter and two other forts located near Charleston could decide whether or not the South would secede peacefully. As long as they remained under federal control, they would be a hated symbol of Northern power, but a Southern attack on them would incite Northern public opinion and possibly spark a civil war.[90] Because whichever side that fired the first shot would look like the aggressor and pay a price in the crucial border states, many Southerners hoped to persuade Buchanan to peacefully surrender the forts.[91]

Shortly after Lincoln's election, Buchanan and Secretary of War Floyd had appointed Major Robert Anderson to command Fort Sumter and the other two nearby federal installations. Buchanan ordered Anderson to hold the forts, while avoiding any act that would provoke aggression.[92] On December 27, Anderson evacuated from the more vulnerable Fort Moultrie. Meeting with several Southern leaders, Buchanan acknowledged that Anderson's actions had gone against his orders, but he refused to remove Anderson or surrender the forts. Outraged, Secretary of War Floyd, who himself was from Virginia, resigned. Buchanan considered ordering Anderson to return to Fort Moultrie, but his Northern cabinet members, who now made up a majority of the cabinet, threatened to resign. Buchanan instead composed a public message in which he stated that he would do all within his power to defend Fort Sumter.[93]

On January 5, 1861, Buchanan decided to reinforce Fort Sumter, sending the Star of the West with 250 men and supplies. However, Buchanan failed to ask Major Anderson to provide covering fire for the ship, and it was forced to return North without delivering troops or supplies.[94] Following the expedition, the last of Buchanan's Southern cabinet members resigned. The Buchanan administration debated ways to reinforce Fort Sumter, but Anderson did not ask for supplies and Buchanan was content to deliver the issue of Fort Sumter to President Lincoln. In February, South Carolina became part of the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Congress authorized President Davis to take the fort by any means necessary, but the Confederates would not strike until after the end of Buchanan's presidency.[95] On March 3, a message from Anderson reached Buchanan stating that Fort Sumter's supplies were running low. The following day, Buchanan was succeeded by Lincoln, who was left to deal with the crisis that eventually became the American Civil War.[94]

States admitted to the Union

Three new states were admitted to the Union while Buchanan was in office:

Historical reputation

BUCHANAN, James-President (BEP engraved portrait)
BEP engraved portrait of Buchanan as President.

The day before his death, Buchanan predicted that "history will vindicate my memory".[99] Historians have defied that prediction and criticize Buchanan for his passivity as the debate over slavery tore at and disrupted the country in the late 1850s.[100] When asked to rank the best and worst presidents, Buchanan is consistently placed among the worst.[101] Many consider him as the worst president in American history, for during his administration, the Union broke apart, and when he left office, civil war threatened.[102][103]

A 2017 C-SPAN survey ranked him the least effective U.S. president of all-time. The survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents (including then-out-going president Barack Obama) in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking; Buchanan was ranked 43rd. His rankings in the various categories of this most recent poll were: public persuasion (43), crisis leadership (43), economic management (43), moral authority (43), international relations (43), administrative skills (41), relations with congress (42), vision/setting an agenda (43), pursued equal justice for all (43), performance with context of times (43).[104] A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Buchanan as the second-worst president.[105] A 2006 poll of historians ranked Buchanan's failure to prevent the Civil War as the worst mistake ever made by a sitting president.[106]

Buchanan biographer Philip Klein explains the challenges Buchanan faced:

Buchanan assumed leadership ... when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement. His weaknesses in the stormy years of his presidency were magnified by enraged partisans of the North and South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents, were quickly overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of civil war and by the towering Abraham Lincoln."[107]

Biographer Jean Baker is less charitable to Buchanan:

Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive...In fact Buchanan's failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.[108]


  1. ^ a b "James Buchanan: Domestic Affairs". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved March 9, 2017.
  2. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 67-68.
  3. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 248–252.
  4. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 69-70.
  5. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 70-73.
  6. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 261–262.
  7. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 80–83, 85.
  8. ^ a b Baker 2004, pp. 77-80.
  9. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 68-69.
  10. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 18-19.
  11. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 20-21.
  12. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 86-88.
  13. ^ Abraham 2008, pp. 91–92.
  14. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 1–9.
  15. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 15–16, 23–24.
  16. ^ a b c Klein 1962, p. 316.
  17. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 271–272.
  18. ^ Hall 2001, p. 566.
  19. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 83–84.
  20. ^ Armitage et al. 2005, p. 388.
  21. ^ Baker 2004, p. 85.
  22. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 85–86.
  23. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 26–29.
  24. ^ a b Baker 2004, p. 90.
  25. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 314–315.
  26. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 56-57.
  27. ^ a b Smith 1975, pp. 60-61.
  28. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 117-118.
  29. ^ Johnson 2018, pp. 92–93.
  30. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 90-91.
  31. ^ Klein 1962, p. 317.
  32. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 92-93.
  33. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 93-98.
  34. ^ a b Potter 1976, pp. 297–327.
  35. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 33-37.
  36. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 97-100.
  37. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 42-43.
  38. ^ a b Baker 2004, pp. 100-105.
  39. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 40-41.
  40. ^ a b Smith 1975, pp. 45-46.
  41. ^ McPherson 1988, p. 169.
  42. ^ McPherson 1988, p. 784.
  43. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 120-121.
  44. ^ Chadwick 2008, p. 91.
  45. ^ Chadwick 2008, p. 117.
  46. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 179-181.
  47. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 49-54.
  48. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 286–299.
  49. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 52-53.
  50. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 82-83.
  51. ^ Klein 1962, p. 312.
  52. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 84-89.
  53. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 89-99.
  54. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 69-70.
  55. ^ a b Baker 2004, pp. 107-112.
  56. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 74-75.
  57. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 225-226.
  58. ^ Klein 1962, p. 338.
  59. ^ Klein 1962, pp. 338–9.
  60. ^ a b Grossman 2003, p. 78.
  61. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 114–118.
  62. ^ Klein 1962, p. 339.
  63. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 103-104.
  64. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 84-85.
  65. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 213-214.
  66. ^ a b Smith 1975, pp. 106-112.
  67. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 112-113.
  68. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 221-222.
  69. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 216-222.
  70. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 115-116.
  71. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 222-223.
  72. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 122-126.
  73. ^ McPherson 1988, p. 232.
  74. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 232-233.
  75. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 127-129.
  76. ^ a b Klein 1962, pp. 356–358.
  77. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 76, 133.
  78. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 246–247.
  79. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 146-151.
  80. ^ Klein 1962, p. 363.
  81. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 252–254.
  82. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 234–239.
  83. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 129-137.
  84. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 138-140.
  85. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 258–259.
  86. ^ a b Smith 1975, pp. 161-165.
  87. ^ McPherson 1988, pp. 254–259.
  88. ^ Huckabee, David C. (September 30, 1997). "Ratification of Amendments to the U.S. Constitution" (PDF). Congressional Research Service reports. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.
  89. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 152-160.
  90. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 168-169.
  91. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 187-188.
  92. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 168-172.
  93. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 178-182.
  94. ^ a b Baker 2004, pp. 135-140.
  95. ^ Smith 1975, pp. 184-187.
  96. ^ "Today in History: May 11". Library of Congress.
  97. ^ "Oregon". A+E Networks Corp. Retrieved February 16, 2017.
  98. ^ "Today in History: January 29". Library of Congress.
  99. ^ "Buchanan's Birthplace State Park". Pennsylvania State Parks. Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Retrieved March 28, 2009.
  100. ^ "James Buchanan: Impact and Legacy". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  101. ^ Tolson, Jay (December 14, 2014). "Worst Presidents: Conclusion Were these America's worst presidents?". U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  102. ^ Silver, Nate (January 23, 2013). "Contemplating Obama's Place in History, Statistically". The New York Times. Retrieved April 18, 2014.
  103. ^ "James Buchanan: Life in Brief". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  104. ^ "Historians Survey Results: James Buchanan". Presidential Historians Survey 2017. National Cable Satellite Corporation. 2017. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  105. ^ Rottinghaus, Brandon; Vaughn, Justin S. (19 February 2018). "How Does Trump Stack Up Against the Best — and Worst — Presidents?". New York Times. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  106. ^ "Scholars rate worst presidential errors". USA Today. AP. 18 February 2006. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  107. ^ Klein 1962, p. 429.
  108. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 141.

Works cited

  • Abraham, Henry Julian (2008). Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Bush II. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780742558953.
  • Baker, Jean H. (2004). James Buchanan. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8050-6946-1. excerpt and text search
  • Chadwick, Bruce (2008). 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See. Sourcebooks, Inc. ISBN 140220941X.
  • Grossman, Mark (2003). Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-060-3.
  • Hall, Timothy L. (2001). Supreme Court justices: a biographical dictionary. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8153-1176-8.
  • Johnson, C. Donald (2018). The Wealth of Nations: A History of Trade Politics in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190865917.
  • Klein, Philip S. (1962). President James Buchanan: A Biography (1995 ed.). Newtown, Connecticut: American Political Biography Press. ISBN 0-945707-11-8.
  • McPherson, James M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199743902.
  • Potter, David Morris (1976). The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 9780060905248. Pulitzer prize.
  • Smith, Elbert B. (1975). The Presidency of James Buchanan. The University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0132-5.

Further reading

Primary sources

Secondary sources

External links

Primary sources

1856 United States presidential election

The United States presidential election of 1856 was the 18th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 4, 1856. In a three-way election, Democrat James Buchanan defeated Republican nominee John C. Frémont and American Party nominee Millard Fillmore.

This was the only time in U.S. history in which a political party denied renomination to the incumbent President and won. Incumbent Democratic President Franklin Pierce was widely unpopular due to the ongoing civil war in Kansas Territory, and Buchanan defeated Pierce at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan, a former Secretary of State, had avoided the divisive debates over the Kansas–Nebraska Act by virtue of his service as the Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Slavery, though not its abolition, was the main issue. Opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories drove the rise of the nascent Republican Party. The Republicans and the nativist Know Nothings (known formally as the American Party) competed to replace the moribund Whig Party as the primary opposition to the Democrats. The 1856 Republican National Convention nominated a ticket led by Frémont, an explorer and military officer who had served in the Mexican–American War. The Know Nothings, who ignored slavery and instead emphasized anti-immigration and anti-Catholic policies, nominated a ticket led by former Whig President Millard Fillmore. His political allies controlled the American Party and he welcomed the nomination, but Fillmore had not sought it and was in Europe during the nominating convention. The fact that two of the three nominees, Buchanan and Fillmore, appealed specifically in part because of their recent time abroad reflects severe domestic political turmoil.

The Democrats endorsed popular sovereignty as the method to determine slavery's legality for newly admitted states. Frémont decried the expansion of slavery, while Buchanan warned that the Republicans were extremists whose victory would lead to civil war. The Know Nothings attempted to present themselves as the one party capable of bridging the sectional divides. All three major parties found support in the North, but the Republicans had virtually no backing in the South.

Buchanan won a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote, taking all but one slave state and five free states. His popular vote margin of 12.2% was the greatest margin between 1836 and 1904. However, the election was closer than it appears. A shift of a few thousand votes to Fillmore in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky would have transferred the election of the President to the incumbent House of Representatives, controlled by a new coalition of inchoate parties united in opposing the Democrats.

Frémont won a majority of electoral votes from free states and finished second in the nationwide popular vote, while Fillmore took 21.5% of the popular vote and carried Maryland. The Know Nothings soon collapsed as a national party, as most of its anti-slavery members joined the Republican Party after the Supreme Court's disastrous 1857 ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. 1856 also proved to be the last Democratic presidential victory until 1884, as Republicans emerged as the dominant party during and after the Civil War.

1859 State of the Union Address

The 1859 State of the Union Address was written by James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States. It was read to both houses of the 36th United States Congress on Monday, December 19, 1859, by a clerk. Predicting the American Civil War, he stated, "Whilst it is the duty of the President "from time to time to give to Congress information of the state of the Union," I shall not refer in detail to the recent sad and bloody occurrences at Harpers Ferry. Still, it is proper to observe that these events, however bad and cruel in themselves, derive their chief importance from the apprehension that they are but symptoms of an incurable disease in the public mind, which may break out in still more dangerous outrages and terminate at last in an open war by the North to abolish slavery in the South."

1860 State of the Union Address

The 1860 State of the Union Address was written by James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States. It was read on Monday, December 3, 1860, to both houses of the 36th United States Congress, by a clerk. He stated, "Why is it, then, that discontent now so extensively prevails, and the Union of the States, which is the source of all these blessings, is threatened with destruction?" He spoke on the eve of the American Civil War.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court held that the U.S. Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for black people, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and therefore the rights and privileges it confers upon American citizens could never apply to them. The plaintiff in the case was Dred Scott, an enslaved black man whose owners had taken him from Missouri, which was a slave-holding state, into the Missouri Territory, most of which had been designated "free" territory by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. When his owners later brought him back to Missouri, Scott sued in court for his freedom, claiming that because he had been taken into "free" U.S. territory, he had automatically been freed, and was legally no longer a slave. Scott sued first in Missouri state court, which ruled that he was still a slave under its law. He then sued in U.S. federal court, which ruled against him by deciding that it had to apply Missouri law to the case. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March 1857, the Supreme Court issued a 7–2 decision against Dred Scott. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the Court ruled that black people "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States." Taney supported his ruling with an extended survey of American state and local laws from the time of the Constitution's drafting in 1787 purporting to show that a "perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery." Because the Court ruled that Scott was not an American citizen, any federal lawsuit he filed automatically failed because he could never establish the "diversity of citizenship" that Article III of the U.S. Constitution requires for an American federal court to be able to exercise jurisdiction over a case. After ruling on these issues surrounding Scott, Taney continued further and struck down the entire Missouri Compromise as a limitation on slavery that exceeded the U.S. Congress's powers under the Constitution. Two justices—John McLean and Benjamin Robbins Curtis—dissented from the Court's opinion, writing that the majority's historical survey was inaccurate and that legal precedent showed that some black people actually had been citizens at the time of the Constitution's creation, and also that the majority's opinion went too far in striking down the Missouri Compromise.

Although Chief Justice Taney and several of the other justices hoped that the ruling would settle the slavery controversy—which was increasingly dividing the American public—its effect was almost the complete opposite. Taney's majority opinion "was greeted with unmitigated wrath from every segment of the United States except the slave holding states." Rather than settling the controversy, the decision actually proved to be a contributing factor in the outbreak of the American Civil War four years later in 1861. After the Union's victory in 1865, the Court's rulings in Dred Scott were superseded by direct amendments to the U.S. Constitution, particularly by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and by the first clause of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

The Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford is largely denounced by modern scholars. Many contemporary lawyers, and most modern legal scholars, consider the ruling regarding slavery in the territories to be obiter dictum and not a binding precedent. Bernard Schwartz says it "stands first in any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions—Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes called it the Court's greatest self-inflicted wound." Junius P. Rodriguez says it is "universally condemned as the U.S. Supreme Court's worst decision." Historian David Thomas Konig says it was "unquestionably, our court's worst decision ever."

Edward V. Whiton

Edward Vernon Whiton (June 2, 1805 – April 12, 1859) was an American lawyer and jurist, and was the first Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Elbert B. Smith

E. B. Smith (1921–2013) was an American historian and author, noted for his works on the history of Antebellum American politics.

Guano Islands Act

The Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119, enacted August 18, 1856, codified at 48 U.S.C. ch. 8 §§ 1411-1419) is a United States federal law passed by the U.S. Congress that enables citizens of the United States to take possession, in the name of the United States, of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits. The islands can be located anywhere, so long as they are not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of another government. It also empowers the President of the United States to use the military to protect such interests and establishes the criminal jurisdiction of the United States in these territories.

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

The Act continues to be part of the law of the United States. The most recent Guano Islands Act claim was made to Navassa Island. However, the claim was discarded because an American court ruled the island was already under American jurisdiction (a claim Haiti disputes).

History of the United States (1849–1865)

Industrialization went forward in the Northwest. A rail network and a telegraph network linked the nation economically, opening up new markets. Immigration brought millions of European workers and farmers to the North. In the South, planters shifted operations (and slaves) from the poor soils of the Southeast to the rich cotton lands of the Southwest.

Issues of slavery in the new territories acquired in the War with Mexico (which ended in 1848) were temporarily resolved by the Compromise of 1850. One provision, the Fugitive Slave Law, sparked intense controversy, as revealed in the enormous interest in the plight of the escaped slave in Uncle Tom's Cabin, an anti-slavery novel and play.

In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act reversed long-standing compromises by providing that each new state of the Union would decide its posture on slavery. The newly formed Republican Party stood against the expansion of slavery and won control of most northern states (with enough electoral votes to win the presidency in 1860). The invasion of Bloody Kansas by pro- and anti-slavery factions intent on voting slavery up or down, with resulting bloodshed, angered both North and South. The Supreme Court tried to resolve the issue of slavery in the territories with a pro-slavery ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford that angered the North.

After the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, seven Southern states declared their secession from the United States between late 1860 and 1861, establishing a rebel government, the Confederate States of America on February 9, 1861. The Civil War began when Confederate General Pierre Beauregard opened fire upon Union troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Four more states seceded as Lincoln called for troops to fight an insurrection.

The next four years were the darkest in American history as the nation tore at itself using the latest military technology and highly motivated soldiers. The urban, industrialized Northern states (the Union) eventually defeated the mainly rural, agricultural Southern states (the Confederacy), but between 600,000 and 700,000 American soldiers (on both sides combined) were killed, and much of the infrastructure of the South was devastated. About 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and an extraordinary 18% in the South. In the end, slavery was abolished, and the Union was restored, richer and more powerful than ever, while the South was embittered and impoverished.

Inauguration of James Buchanan

The inauguration of James Buchanan as the 15th President of the United States was held on Wednesday, March 4, 1857. The inauguration marked the commencement of the four-year term of James Buchanan as President and John C. Breckinridge as Vice President. Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the Oath of office. This was the first inauguration ceremony known to be photographed.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan (; April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. A member of the Democratic Party, he was the 17th United States Secretary of State and had served in the Senate and House of Representatives before becoming president.

Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to parents of Ulster Scots descent. He became a prominent lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, Buchanan won election to the United States House of Representatives, eventually becoming aligned with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. After serving as Jackson's Minister to Russia, Buchanan won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State. A major contender for his party's presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Buchanan finally won his party's nomination in 1856, defeating incumbent President Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and his running mate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 election.

Shortly after his election, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he fully endorsed as president. He allied with the South in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the process, he alienated both Republican abolitionists and Northern Democrats, most of whom supported the principle of popular sovereignty in determining a new state's slaveholding status. He was often called a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, and he fought with Douglas, the leader of the popular sovereignty faction, for control of the Democratic Party. In the midst of the growing sectional crisis, the Panic of 1857 struck the nation. Buchanan indicated in his 1857 inaugural address that he would not seek a second term, and he kept his word and did not run for re-election in the 1860 presidential election. Buchanan supported the North during the Civil War and publicly defended himself against charges that he was responsible for the war. He died in 1868 at age 77, and was also the last president to be born in the eighteenth century. He is the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor.

Buchanan wished and aspired to be a president who would rank in history with George Washington, by using his tendencies toward neutrality and impartiality. Historians fault him, however, for his failure to address the issue of slavery and the secession of the southern states, bringing the nation to the brink of civil war. His inability to address the sharply divided pro-slavery and anti-slavery partisans with a unifying principle on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. Historians who participated in a 2006 survey voted his failure to deal with secession as the worst presidential mistake ever made.

John C. Breckinridge

John Cabell Breckinridge (January 16, 1821 – May 17, 1875) was an American lawyer, politician, and soldier. He represented Kentucky in both houses of Congress and became the 14th and youngest-ever vice president of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861. He was a member of the Democratic party. He served in the U.S. Senate during the outbreak of the American Civil War, but was expelled after joining the Confederate Army. He was appointed Confederate secretary of war in 1865.

Breckinridge was born near Lexington, Kentucky to a prominent local family. After non-combat service during the Mexican–American War, he was elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849, where he took a states' rights position against interference with slavery. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1850, he allied with Stephen A. Douglas in support of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. After reapportionment in 1854 made his re-election unlikely, he declined to run for another term. He was nominated for vice-president at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to balance a ticket headed by James Buchanan. The Democrats won the election, but Breckinridge had little influence with Buchanan and, as presiding officer of the Senate, could not express his opinions in debates. He joined Buchanan in supporting the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which led to a split in the Democratic Party. In 1859, he was elected to succeed Senator John J. Crittenden at the end of Crittenden's term in 1861.

After Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention, the party's northern and southern factions held rival conventions in Baltimore that nominated Douglas and Breckinridge, respectively, for president. A third party, the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell. These three men split the Southern vote, while more anti-slavery Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won all but three electoral votes in the North, allowing him to win the election. Breckinridge carried most of the Southern states. Taking his seat in the Senate, Breckinridge urged compromise to preserve the Union. Unionists were in control of the state legislature, and gained more support when Confederate forces moved into Kentucky.

Breckinridge fled behind Confederate lines. He was commissioned a brigadier general and then expelled from the Senate. Following the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, he was promoted to major general, and in October he was assigned to the Army of Mississippi under Braxton Bragg. After Bragg charged that Breckinridge's drunkenness had contributed to defeats at Stone River and Missionary Ridge, and after Breckinridge joined many other high-ranking officers in criticizing Bragg, he was transferred to the Trans-Allegheny Department, where he won his most significant victory in the 1864 Battle of New Market. After participating in Jubal Early's campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, Breckinridge was charged with defending supplies in Tennessee and Virginia. In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him Secretary of War. Concluding that the war was hopeless, he urged Davis to arrange a national surrender. After the fall of Richmond, Breckinridge ensured the preservation of Confederate records. He then escaped the country and lived abroad for more than three years. When President Andrew Johnson extended amnesty to all former Confederates in 1868, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, but resisted all encouragement to resume his political career. War injuries sapped his health, and he died in 1875. Breckinridge is regarded as an effective military commander. Though well-liked in Kentucky, he was reviled by many in the North as a traitor.

Lecompton Constitution

The Lecompton Constitution (1857) was one of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. It was drafted by pro-slavery advocates and included provisions to protect slaveholding in the state and to exclude free blacks from its bill of rights. It was overwhelmingly defeated on January 4, 1858 by a majority of voters in the Kansas Territory. The rejection of the Lecompton Constitution, and the subsequent admittance of Kansas to the Union as a free state, highlighted the irregular and fraudulent voting practices that had marked earlier efforts by bushwhackers and border ruffians to create a state constitution in Kansas that allowed slavery.

The Lecompton Constitution was preceded by the Topeka Constitution and was followed by the Leavenworth and Wyandotte Constitutions, the Wyandotte becoming the Kansas state constitution. The document was written in response to the anti-slavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution of James H. Lane and other free-state advocates. The territorial legislature, consisting mostly of slave owners, met at the designated capital of Lecompton in September 1857 to produce a rival document. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. President James Buchanan's appointee as territorial governor of Kansas, Robert J. Walker, although a strong defender of slavery, opposed the blatant injustice of the Constitution and resigned rather than implement it. This new constitution enshrined slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders. In addition, the constitution provided for a referendum that allowed voters the choice of allowing more slaves to enter the territory.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton constitutions were placed before the people of the Kansas Territory for a vote, and both votes were boycotted by supporters of the opposing faction. In the case of Lecompton, however, the vote was boiled down to a single issue, expressed on the ballot as "Constitution with Slavery" v. "Constitution with no Slavery." But the "Constitution with no Slavery" clause would have not made Kansas a free state; it merely would have banned future importation of slaves into Kansas (something deemed by many as unenforceable). Boycotted by free-soilers, the referendum suffered from serious voting irregularities, with over half the 6,000 votes deemed fraudulent. Nevertheless, both it and the Topeka Constitution were sent to Washington for approval by Congress.

A vocal supporter of slaveholder rights, President James Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution before Congress. While the president received the support of the Southern Democrats, many Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, sided with the Republicans in opposition to the constitution. Douglas was helped considerably by the work of Thomas Ewing Jr., a noted Kansas Free State politician and lawyer, who led a legislative investigation in Kansas to uncover the fraudulent voting ballots. A new referendum over the fate of the Lecompton Constitution was proposed, even though this would delay Kansas's admission to the Union. Furthermore, a new constitution, the anti-slavery Leavenworth Constitution, was already being drafted. On 4 January 1858, Kansas voters, having the opportunity to reject the constitution altogether in the referendum, overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton proposal by a vote of 10,226 to 138. And in Washington, the Lecompton constitution was defeated by the federal House of Representatives in 1858. Though soundly defeated, debate over the proposed constitution had ripped apart the Democratic party. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861.

List of unsuccessful major party candidates for President of the United States

The United States has had a two-party system for much of its history, and the major parties of the two-party system have dominated presidential elections for most of U.S. history. Since the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788, there have been 51 unsuccessful major party candidates for President of the United States. Since 1796, eight third party or independent candidates have won at least ten percent of the popular or electoral vote, but all failed to win the presidency.

Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, the winner of any given presidential election is the candidate that receives the majority of the electoral vote. If no individual wins a majority of the electoral vote, then the United States House of Representatives holds a contingent election to determine the election winner; contingent elections have decided the winners of two presidential elections. Since 1824, the national popular vote has been recorded, but the national popular vote does not determine the winner of the presidential election. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner did not win a majority or a plurality of the popular vote.

The two current major parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. At various points prior to the American Civil War, the Federalist Party, the Democratic-Republican Party, the National Republican Party, and the Whig Party were major parties. These six parties have nominated candidates in the vast majority of presidential elections, but six presidential elections deviate from the normal pattern of two major party candidates. There were no major party candidates for president in the presidential election of 1789 and the presidential election of 1792, both of which were won by George Washington. In the 1812 presidential election, DeWitt Clinton served as the de facto Federalist nominee even though he was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party; Clinton was defeated by Democratic-Republican President James Madison. In the presidential election of 1820, incumbent President James Monroe of the Democratic-Republican Party effectively ran unopposed. In the 1824 presidential election, four Democratic-Republicans competed in multiple states in the general election as the party was unable to agree on a single nominee. Similarly, in the presidential election of 1836, the Whig Party did not unify around a single candidate and two different Whig candidates competed in multiple states in the general election.Several former, incumbent, or future presidents have unsuccessfully sought the presidency. Several individuals have unsuccessfully sought the presidency as the candidate of a major party multiple times; only Henry Clay and William Jennings Bryan have done so thrice. Seven different third parties have nominated a candidate who won at least ten percent of the electoral vote or at least ten percent of the popular vote in a single election, and who was not nominated by a major party in that election. Two of those candidates, Theodore Roosevelt and John C. Breckinridge, finished with the second-highest share of the electoral vote. Since 1796, just one independent candidate, Ross Perot, has accrued more than ten percent of the popular or electoral vote. One third party candidate, Horace Greeley of the Liberal Republican Party, was nominated by a major party only after being nominated by a third party.

List of unsuccessful major party candidates for Vice President of the United States

The United States has had a two-party system for much of its history, and the two major parties have nominated vice presidential candidates in most presidential elections. Since the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, there have been 58 unsuccessful major party candidates for Vice President of the United States. Eight other individuals have served as the main running mate to a third party or independent presidential candidate who won at least ten percent of the popular or electoral vote.

Prior to the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, each member of the Electoral College cast two votes for president; whichever individual who won the most electoral votes would become president, while the individual with the second-most electoral votes would become vice president. In the elections of 1792, 1796, and 1800, at least one of the major parties ran a candidate whom they intended to elect vice president. The Twelfth Amendment changed the presidential election process, requiring members of the Electoral College to cast separate votes for president and vice president. Since then, the two major parties have almost always nominated a ticket consisting of a single presidential candidate and a single vice presidential candidate. Before the election of 1832, both major parties used a congressional nominating caucus, or nominations by state legislatures, to determine presidential and vice presidential candidates. Since 1840, each major party has consistently nominated a single ticket at their respective presidential nominating conventions.

The two current major parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. At various points prior to the American Civil War, the Federalist Party, the Democratic-Republican Party, the National Republican Party, and the Whig Party were major parties. In the 1872 presidential election, the Liberal Republican Party put forward an unsuccessful major party vice presidential nominee, Benjamin Gratz Brown. Brown and his running mate, Horace Greeley, were also nominated by the Democratic Party.

Panic of 1857

The Panic of 1857 was a financial panic in the United States caused by the declining international economy and over-expansion of the domestic economy. Because of the interconnectedness of the world economy by the 1850s, the financial crisis that began in late 1857 was the first worldwide economic crisis. In Britain, the Palmerston government circumvented the requirements of the Bank Charter Act 1844, which required gold and silver reserves to back up the amount of money in circulation. Surfacing news of this circumvention set off the Panic in Britain.Beginning in September 1857, the financial downturn did not last long; however, a proper recovery was not seen until the American Civil War, in 1861. The sinking of SS Central America contributed to the panic of 1857, as New York banks were awaiting a much-needed shipment of gold. American banks did not recover until after the civil war. After the failure of Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, the financial panic quickly spread as businesses began to fail, the railroad industry experienced financial declines, and hundreds of workers were laid off.Since the years immediately preceding the Panic of 1857 were prosperous, many banks, merchants, and farmers had seized the opportunity to take risks with their investments and as soon as market prices began to fall, they quickly began to experience the effects of financial panic.

Raynolds Expedition

The Raynolds Expedition was a United States Army exploring and mapping expedition intended to map the unexplored territory between Fort Pierre, Dakota Territory and the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. The expedition was led by topographical engineer Captain William F. Raynolds.

Timeline of United States history (1820–1859)

This section of the Timeline of United States history concerns events from 1820 to 1859.

Timeline of United States history (1860–1899)

This section of the Timeline of United States history concerns events from 1860 to 1899.

United States House Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Corruptions in Government

The Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Corruptions in Government was as select committee of the United States House of Representatives which operated during the spring and summer of 1860 during the 36th Congress. The committee was charged with a broad investigation of the administration of President James Buchanan, including possible impeachment. It was also referred to as the Covode Committee after its chairman, John Covode of Pennsylvania.

Presidency timelines

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