Profile - James Buchanan, Bachelor President
The only life-long bachelor to serve as president, James
Buchanan (1791-1868) was also the only president to have served in the armed
force without becoming an officer.
According to family tradition, Buchanan (pronounced
“Buck-anon”) was descended from the Lairds of Buchanan in Scotland. By this reckoning, the president’s ten-times
great-grandfather was Walter Buchanan, the 13th Laird. Sir Walter was the brother of Sir Alexander
Buchanan, who, in 1421, at the Battle of Beague, in France, slew Thomas, the Duke of
Clarence, the brother of King Henry V of England. Sir Alexander was later killed in action
against the English at Verneuil in 1424.
This rather shaky tradition aside, the president’s forbearers had
otherwise undistinguished military careers.
Some are believed to have served with the Scots Covenanters during the
mid-1600s, before settling in Ireland.
The president’s father, James Buchanan, Sr., emigrated to the United States
and settled in Pennsylvania.
As a young man, Buchanan had an excellent education. Graduating from college in 1809, he studied
law, and opened a practice in Lancaster,
Pennsylvania. In August of 1814, the British effected
landings in Maryland
and advanced on Washington. Feeling “a flame of patriotism,” Buchanan
responded to a call for militiamen from Pennsylvania’s
governor. Making his first public speech,
Buchanan helped recruit volunteers for a company of dragoons being raised by
Judge Henry Shippen at Lancaster,
in which he himself then enlisted.
Shippen’s dragoons were among the first reinforcements to reach Baltimore as the British
prepared to attack the city. Attached to
the U.S. 3rd Dragoons, the company was discharged after the British withdrew
in mid-September, after the failure of their bombardment of Fort McHenry, which inspired Scott Key to write “The
Star Spangled Banner.” During his month
of active service, although officially only a private, Buchanan was given some
duties appropriate to a senior NCO; he once commanded a reconnaissance and on
another occasion was responsible for securing horses and supplies.
Shortly after being mustered out of service, Buchanan was
elected to the Pennsylvania
state legislature. He subsequently
served in the House of Representatives, as Minister to Russia, in the
Senate, as Secretary of State, and as Minister to Great Britain before being elected
president in 1856.
Buchanan’s administration was riven by sectional tensions
sparked by the efforts of slaveholders to spread their “peculiar institution”
into the western territories, in which they were opposed not only by
abolitionists, but also by the mass of northern citizens, otherwise wholly
indifferent to slavery.
In contrast to the relative tranquility of the Pierce years,
during Buchanan’s administration the armed forces saw extensive service. During the mid-1850s the Westward Movement
grew, resulting in increased clashes between settlers and Indians, and
requiring military intervention. In
addition, the army was called upon to conduct two major “police” operations,
and the Navy undertook an impressive diplomatic mission.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 authorized the citizens of
each territory to decide for themselves whether slavery should exist in their
territory. As both territories were
settled largely by Northerners, pro-slavery extremists shipped men and arms
into the region and attempted to seize control of the apparatus of government, to
be countered by anti-slavery extremists, leading to large scale violence. Although Buchanan was sympathetic to the
pro-slavery elements, as the casualty count increased, with scores, if not
hundreds killed, in what came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas”, military forces
were dispatched in an effort to restore peace; they were only partially
successful in curbing the violence, which ultimately merged into the Civil War.
during the 1850s relations between mainstream Americans and the Later Day
Saints (Mormon) community in what is now Utah worsened, exacerbated by Mormon radicals
who caused a series of violent incidents, including the massacre of some settlers,
and who harassed federal officials in the territory. This resulted in fears that the Mormons were
seeking to establish an independent state.
In 1857 Buchanan sought to replace Mormon leader Brigham Young as
governor of the Utah
Territory with a
non-Mormon. Believing that this effort
would meet resistance, the president dispatched some 2,500 soldiers to the
territory to support the new governor.
The expedition initially met with considerable resistance, as Mormon
militiamen employed harassing tactics, such as lighting brush fires and driving
off livestock, to impede its movements.
Nevertheless, reinforced and with brevet Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney
Johnston in command, the expedition eventually established winter quarters near
Fort Bridger, which had been burned by Mormon
forces. An uneasy peace reigned. Then, mid-1858 negotiations resulted in the confirmation
of Young as governor of the Utah
Territory and the
establishment of a permanent garrison at what became Fort Crittenden,
some 40 miles southwest of Salt Lake
dubbed by some the “Mormon War,” the Utah
expedition was surprisingly bloodless, there being virtually no armed clashes.
The most impressive military operation during Buchanan’s
presidency was a major naval expedition to Paraguay. In 1855, Paraguayan artillery had fired on
the USS Water Witch, engaged in its
lawful occasions on the Paraguay River. The ship suffered some casualties, and the United States
demanded an apology and indemnity.
Desultory negotiations followed, with no result. Finally, in December of 1858, a force of
nineteen naval vessels was concentrated at Montevideo, Uruguay,
to seek redress. Commanded by Flag
Officer William B. Shubrick, who was accompanied by presidential representative
James B. Bowlin, the expedition steamed up the Rio de la Plata, into the Paraná,
and then into the Paraguay River. In
late January of 1859, the lead ships of the expedition reached Asunción. Two weeks of negotiations followed before Paraguay agreed
an apology and an indemnity for the families of the casualties, and granted a
new trade treaty. Although largely
forgotten today, this was the largest overseas naval expedition in American
history until the war with Spain
Not choosing to run for re-election in 1860, with the
election of Abraham Lincoln, Buchanan’s final months in office were marred by
the secession crisis that would bring about the Civil War. History’s judgment on Buchanan’s actions
during this period ranges from the hard – “He could and should have acted more
forcefully” to the sympathetic, “He tried to keep things calm, rather that take
any actions that might tie the incoming administration’s hands.” During the war, Buchanan supported the Lincoln administration’s struggle to preserve
Buchanan had no offspring.