Authors: Bruce Chadwick
The year 1858 could not have started in a grander fashion than it did on January 1 in Washington, DC. The New Year arrived on a cold but sunny day. It was welcomed with parties and receptions all over the nation’s capital. The Republicans and Democrats who had fought so bitterly throughout 1857 over the slavery issue put aside their differences and mingled with each other at the homes of the country’s political leaders. One of the most well-attended receptions took place at the home of Vice President John Breckinridge, a thirty-seven-year-old former Kentucky slaveholder and rising political star. Another party was hosted by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, James Orr. Several cabinet members flung open the doors of their homes for guests invited to similar receptions. Senators and congressmen, such as Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, John Slidell of Louisiana, William Bigler of Pennsylvania, and George Pugh of Ohio, held lavish soirées. The most important public figures in public life attended these parties, wearing their best suits and hats. They were accompanied by their wives, dressed in fashionable gowns and adorned in expensive jewelry.
Continuing a tradition, President James Buchanan, in office just under a year, hosted a three-hour reception at the White House for members of the diplomatic corps, Democratic members of the Senate and House, and political friends on the morning of New Year’s Day. Guests arrived at the White House just before eleven o’clock in the morning and remained until the middle of the afternoon. There were several hundred of them and they The White House New Year’s Day 1858 came in a continuous parade of elegant carriages. At noon, the front doors of the White House were opened to the public to meet the president. Thousands of ordinary people walked into the executive mansion, many for the very first time, all impressed with its size. After a lengthy wait in a receiving line, they met President Buchanan, who wished them all a Happy New Year.
The atmosphere at the president’s New Year’s reception was jovial and most of the conversation between the fifteenth president and his guests did not involve the issue of slavery that seemed about to overwhelm America. Everyone was grateful for that. The year 1857 had been difficult. A recession that sent financial markets reeling in the past year still crippled the dollar, weakened the banks, and hurt the import/export trade. Unemployment was up, factories shut their doors, the federal government ran a deficit, the public staged runs on banks, and financially pressed banks could not meet their specie payments.
Hinton Helper’s book,
The Impending Crisis of the South
, highly critical of Southerners and slavery that was published during the previous year, was still the central topic of many conversations. At the end of the year, politicians in the Kansas Territory, eager to bring it into the Union as a state, had sent Congress not one, but two state constitutions, one recognizing slavery and one not, for a decision. Three congressmen were forced to resign during the year following a corruption scandal connected to the 1856 campaign.
In addition, Buchanan sent an army of twenty-five hundred men on an ill-advised expedition to Utah to put down what he described as an uprising of Mormons; the result was a debacle that included an attack by Indians on the troopers, the burning of army supply wagon trains, destruction of crops and homes to deny the army food, and lengthy journeys through snowbound mountain passes by the army across what one trooper described as “the most desolate country I have ever beheld.”
The expedition was a humiliation of the army and the administration.
An illegal slave ship jammed with six hundred captives, possibly headed for America, was intercepted off the coast of Africa in a well-publicized seizure at the end of November, and its capture was followed by reports of other slave vessels that had secretly made it to the United States.
An American adventurer, William Walker, led a coup against the government of Nicaragua and seized control of the country, only to be deposed by the forces of neighboring nations.
And all across the nation, controversy still raged over the Supreme Court’s
decision, handed down in March of 1857, in which the high court upheld the Fugitive Slave Act, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1850, decided that Congress could not declare any territory free, and ruled that slaves were not people, but property. And, on top of all that, the population of America continued to explode, increasing by nearly 25 percent over the last decade.
No one was happier to move forward and put 1857 behind him than President James Buchanan. The president was an odd-looking man. He was tall and heavy-set, with a mop of curly white hair. He had had throat and nasal growths surgically removed, but the operations, primitive in the era, left large and ugly scars on his neck. He also suffered from myopic vision that forced him to bend his head severely to the left and forward in order to read, further exposing the huge scars he tried to hide with very high shirt collars. His vision caused him to squint severely whenever he read something or tried to look out over a crowded room, further adding to his unusual appearance. One of his eyes was brown and the other hazel. His forward-leaning head also misled many into thinking he agreed with what they said. He was a big man, but oddly had tiny feet that he bragged about to everyone he met.
Buchanan had arrived in Washington as the victor in a close presidential race in 1856 in which he was the nominee of a disorganized and overly confident Democratic Party that found itself fighting for its life at the polls against the fiery new Republicans, who had replaced the defunct Whigs, and the zealots of the American Party, who mounted a strong third-party challenge. Buchanan had carried nineteen of the thirty-one states and won the election with 59 percent of the electoral vote, but the Republicans surprised everyone. Their presidential nominee, explorer John C. Fremont, won eleven states. Fremont had earned the nickname “the Pathfinder” following his five well-publicized expeditions through the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains over the previous decade. A third-party candidate, former president Millard Fillmore, a sectional candidate running on the ticket of the American Party (an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group formerly called the “Know-Nothings”), captured one state.
Buchanan earned 45 percent of the popular vote, giving up 30 percent to Fremont and 25 percent to Fillmore. If Fillmore had carried several Southern states and denied Buchanan the election, or forced it into the House of Representatives, Fremont would have come close to winning the election outright. Buchanan won his home state, Pennsylvania, by just 577 votes out of nearly 500,000 cast, and Indiana by less than 2,000 out of 235,000. He only earned 105,528 votes in Illinois, 44.1 percent, against 130,306 cast against him, but was awarded the state’s eleven electoral votes because his two opponents split that larger ballot. Even Buchanan was forced to admit that the loss of just two states would have given Fremont the White House.
Buchanan, sixty-five, appeared to be one of the most qualified men to ever take the oath of office. He had served two terms in the Pennsylvania state legislature, five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, two years as minister to Russia, two terms in the U.S. Senate, four years as President James Polk’s secretary of state, and was the minister to Great Britain under President Pierce—more than four decades in public service.
Looking back, he may have been one of the most ill-prepared men ever elected president. While applauded for a long life in public service, he was denounced by others, who jokingly called him the “Old Public Functionary.” He had been in politics a long time but did not seem to understand that his own party had changed dramatically during his lifetime. A Jacksonian Democrat, the president-elect was hopelessly stuck in the past and unaware of the deep divisions the slavery issue had created in the party that he now led. At a time when the national political stage was crowded with colorful, vivid personalities—Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Senator William Seward of New York, up-and-coming state legislator Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and Governor Salmon Chase of Ohio—the president was a reserved man who had little personal warmth. Henry Foote, a Mississippi senator who knew Buchanan for years, told friends that he had never once heard him tell a joke.
Even those who gave Buchanan important jobs later lamented their decision to do so. President Andrew Jackson, when asked why he selected Buchanan as his minister to Russia, scoffed that, “It was as far as I could send him out of my sight; and where he could do the least harm. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there.”
Buchanan was not an aggressive man and throughout his career friends had complained that he never fought for his principles. He was always detached from whatever political crisis was at hand, standing back as a cold and disinterested observer to watch others argue issues with great passion. He was so detached from life, some asserted, that he even wrote his memoirs in the third person.
The Pennsylvanian had always wanted to become president in what seemed a fitting final chapter to his long years of service to the country, yet he could never bring himself to actively seek the office. In 1841, Pennsylvania political leaders told him that he could win the Democratic presidential nomination over Martin Van Buren. He might have, too, but he would not fight for it. Buchanan would not fight for anything. He haughtily dismissed the invitation and said he would only do so if he had assurances that every single one of Pennsylvania’s delegates would support him. “If the Democrats of [Pennsylvania] would sustain me with an unbroken front I think my chances are fully equal if not superior to his [Van Buren]…should there be even the appearance of a serious division in [Pennsylvania], I shall make my bow and retire.”
He was a leader without defined goals, a serious flaw in a president, and now, in 1858, his tentative leadership would make him partially responsible for the continued deterioration of the unity of the United States.
The president became an immediate target for not only the Republicans, but the Southern Democrats, who feared that the Northern wing of their party, led by Buchanan, would abandon them. The Southerners insisted that Buchanan pledge that he would not support any legislation that weakened slavery or their regional power. Robert Rhett, the editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper
, even demanded that Buchanan form a group to rewrite the Constitution of the United States with strong proslavery language in it.
At the same time, the Northern Democrats told the president that he could not let these Southern radicals hold him a political prisoner. Buchanan, never an adept political infighter, stumbled toward a compromise between the warring wings of his party and pleased neither. He also paid little attention to the consequences of any of his actions. In an outrageous incident of tampering, Buchanan wrote to a Pennsylvanian on the U.S. Supreme Court and tried to convince him to vote against Dred Scott in the 1857 case so that the final
decision looked more national in scope than Southern (most of the other anti–
votes were from Southern justices). Never for a moment did Buchanan think that interference and his subsequent support of the ruling would anger Northerners. That casual attitude would pervade his administration.
One Southerner, Edmund Ruffin, wrote prophetically in his diary of the new president that he had “very little of the respect or the confidence of the men from the South by whose support alone he was sustained and elected. I anticipate for him a reign that will bring him but little of either pleasure or honor.”