The fifth president in succession to be born in a log cabin, James Buchanan was the first and only from Pennsylvania. Far more cosmopolitan was the nation’s first capital of Philadelphia than the small village of Cove Gap in 1791, the place of Buchanan’s birth.
James Buchanan Sr., an Irish-born entrepreneurial farmer and businessman, in 1797 moved with his wife and 11 children to the nearby town of Mercersburg. There young James attended a village academy, afterward studying law and attaining the bar in Lancaster.
Raised under Scotch-Irish Presbyterian influences and attending but declining to join the local church, the young Buchanan believed in God but showed little to no inclination toward personal religious faith. His father, perhaps sensing his son’s religious ambivalence, in 1810 warned the young man that “without religion all other things are as trifles, and will soon pass away.”
Nine years later a young woman Buchanan loved, Ann Coleman, passed away. He wrote a note to Ann’s father, hoping that “Heaven would enable you to bear the shock with the fortitude of a Christian.” Destined to be the only president who never married, Buchanan prayed that God would not allow him to forget his memories of Ann.
Serving in the War of 1812 as a private, Buchanan in 1814 launched his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist, an advocate of a strong national government. Elected to the United States Congress in 1821, he served there for 10 years.
During this time the Federalist Party faded into obscurity, its former members becoming either Democrats or Whigs, Buchanan joining the former.
In 1832 President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, appointed Buchanan as minister to Russia. Shortly after his arrival on the field he lamented that “the higher classes among the Russians in St. Petersburg have, I fear, but little religion.”
He visited a number of Russian churches, marveling at their architecture. In one instance he noted that his “old Presbyterian notions” prevented him from attending “a theatrical entertainment.”
Two years later his fellow Pennsylvanians elected Buchanan to fill a United States Senate vacancy, a seat he held through the next two elections.
A close brush with death during his senatorial career led Buchanan to reflect upon religion. “I am a believer; but not with that degree of firmness of faith calculated to exercise a controlling influence over my conduct,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Edward.
Noting the pervasiveness of unbelief in his life, Buchanan voiced hope that “the Almighty Father, through the merits and atonement of his Son, will yet vouchsafe to me a clearer and stronger faith than I possess.”
A supporter of the First Amendment, Senator Buchanan affirmed “the right of every citizen to worship his God according to the dictates of his conscience.” In another instance he succinctly declared, “I have always opposed a union between church and state.”
In 1845 Buchanan resigned from the Senate to accept an appointment as secretary of state in the James K. Polk administration. In this capacity Buchanan played a lead role in negotiating the 1846 Oregon Treaty, establishing the 49th parallel as the United States’ northern boundary west of the Rocky Mountains.
Upon the completion of his cabinet position in 1849, four years passed until his next appointment, that of minister to the United Kingdom from 1853 to 1856 under President Franklin Pierce. During this time the sectional debate over the prospects of slavery in the western United States grew bitter and violent.
Although a northerner, Buchanan believed the Constitution protected slavery. He also defended slavery as biblical and “sanctioned by religion.” On the other hand, he affirmed the right of Quakers and others to petition Congress for the abolition of slavery.
Pierce failed to broker a middle ground on slavery, leading Democrats to turn to Buchanan as their 1856 presidential candidate. Defeating candidates from the briefly-lived American Party and newly-formed Republican Party, Buchanan, the 15th American president, declared “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.”
Like Pierce, Buchanan quickly learned that national harmony, or even the semblance thereof, was no longer possible.
Shortly after Buchanan took office, the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sandford invalidated the 1820 Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the Northwest, and declared that persons of African descent, whether free or slave, could not be citizens of the United States. The ruling outraged many Northerners and brought the nation closer to civil war.
In addition, Buchanan sided with pro-slavery forces in advocating for the admission of Kansas as a slave state. Combined with questionable tactics, the president’s position largely split the Democratic Party north and south. Buchanan lost the political battle over Kansas to a Democratic faction led by Illinois senator Stephen Douglas.
Concurrently, a financial panic in 1857 hurt Buchanan’s public image. The same year a long-running conflict with Utah’s Mormons over control of the territory spilled into open conflict between federal and Mormon military forces. Buchanan resolved the dispute in favor of the government, but the episode further damaged his reputation.
Yet worse, Democratic divisions opened the way for Republican gains in the 1858 elections. Afterward, an 1860 investigation into Buchanan’s activities in the Kansas conflict found the president guilty of attempted bribery and extortion in exchange for votes. The charges, however, proved insufficient for impeachment, and Buchanan declared himself victorious. Even so, his public image plummeted yet again.
Buchanan spoke little of religion during his tumultuous presidency, but declared to a visiting Presbyterian minister, “I hope I am a Christian.” When asked to join the Presbyterian church, he refused.
Having promised to serve only one term, Buchanan watched as the Democratic Party splintered haplessly in 1860 over the issue of slavery, paving the way for the election of anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln of the ascendant Republican Party.
Deep South states seceded from the Union, beginning with South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860 and collectively forming the Confederate States of America in February 1861 in order to preserve in perpetuity domestic, African slavery.
Upon Buchanan’s departure from the presidency in March 1861, the United States lay in ruins. The treasonous but jubilant southern Confederacy controlled most federal military arsenals and forts in their territory. Civil war loomed.
Upon the outbreak of war in April 1861, Buchanan from his home in Lancaster, Penn., wholeheartedly supported the Confederacy. Considered by many in the North as a traitor, he received a deluge of threatening letters from citizens outraged over “Buchanan’s War.”
In 1865 and nearing death, Buchanan finally joined the First Presbyterian Church of Lancaster. Controversial to the end, Buchanan passed away from complications of a cold in June 1868 at the age of 77.
His last words were, “O Lord, God Almighty, as Thou wilt.” In his will James Buchanan, long religiously ambivalent, left a bequest for his church. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley