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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 from Ireland, 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.

Meanwhile, 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 City.  Although 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 the Union.

Buchanan had no offspring.

BookNote:  The most recent biography of Buchanan is Jean H. Baker’s aptly titled James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861 , a volume in “The American Presidents Series” under the overall editorial direction of the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 

 


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