In 1856 diplomat and statesman James Buchanan was elected the 15th President of the United States at the age of 65. He inherited an expanding nation that had grown intolerant of one another, divided over the question of slavery and states rights.
In 1831, President Jackson appointed Buchanan as his Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. After returning from Russia, he served as a U.S. Senator for three terms. Buchanan served as Secretary of State under President Polk in 1844. In 1853 he was appointed as Minister to Great Britain under President Pierce.
Upon retiring from the State Department, James Buchanan felt the need for a large house in his home city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to provide room for his "little family" and to serve as a suitable space for entertaining visitors, including his extended family, business acquaintances, and political friends.
In December 1848, Mr. Buchanan purchased Wheatland, a stately estate outside of the City of Lancaster with spacious rooms, broad lawns, and peaceful resting spots throughout the 22 acres of grounds. He moved there with his "little family": his two wards, 19-year-old niece Harriet Lane and 16-year-old nephew James Buchanan Henry, and the family’s housekeeper, Esther Parker.
By 1854 the country was in a state of crisis over the issue of slavery. To fulfill its "Manifest Destiny," the United States had pursued rapid westward expansion. With the acquisition of new territories, the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30′ was null and void. In Kansas, where settlers flocked in record numbers, disagreements over slavery had turned violent, resulting in "Bleeding Kansas."
Upon his return to America after his final diplomatic mission in London, James Buchanan’s bid for the presidential nomination was finally successful. At the Cincinnati National Democratic Convention of 1856, James Buchanan was unanimously nominated on the 17th ballot, with John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as his running mate.
For the first time in American history, a man who had been elected president–Franklin Pierce–was denied re-nomination by his own party after seeking it. Although Buchanan was an experienced statesman and was highly qualified to be president, he was viewed as a "compromise candidate" for the Democratic Party. Unlike his Democratic opponents, President Pierce and Stephen A. Douglas, Buchanan was not at the center of any major political controversies. As the Democratic candidate, Buchanan promised to not add nor detract from the official platform, which emphasized non-intervention on slavery in the territories.
Buchanan made no speeches during his presidential campaign. Rather, he remained at Wheatland, which became his campaign headquarters.
Hundreds of visitors passed through the doors of Wheatland in a day’s time. During this period, the west parlor of Wheatland housed political meetings and campaign activities.
In late January 1857, James Buchanan went to Washington, D.C. to make final preparations for his upcoming time in office. While in Washington, Buchanan stayed at the National Hotel, a fashionable and distinguished establishment frequented by men on political business.
Beginning in January and continuing through the first three months of 1857, many guests of the National Hotel fell dangerously ill with an intestinal malady, perhaps dysentery or typhoid fever.
Mr. Buchanan was one of the dozens of hotel guests who became ill with the malady, dubbed "National Hotel disease." While convalescing at his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the weeks leading up to his inauguration, Mr. Buchanan was forced to minimize his interaction with political visitors and remain in partial seclusion while under a doctor’s care.
The timing of Buchanan’s brief stay at the National Hotel and the onset of the disease led to rampant speculation that radical abolitionists poisoned the water source at the hotel in an assassination attempt on the president-elect, but this has never been proven. Although arsenic was found in the hotel’s internal water supply, having been used to address a rat problem, the National’s drinking water came from an outside source.
The 1856 presidential campaign was the first time that the new Republican Party put forth a candidate, nominating John C. Frémont. The American, or "Know-Nothing," Party candidate was the former president Millard Fillmore.
Slavery was the omnipresent issue during the 1856 campaign. Despite Buchanan’s personal distaste for the existence of slavery, his political opinion was that it should be left untouched and that it would naturally resolve itself. Conversely, Frémont condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act and decried the expansion of slavery. The Know-Nothings, represented by Fillmore, ignored slavery and focused on nativist issues such as anti-immigration and anti-Catholic policies.
While Frémont and the Republicans ran on the slogan, "Free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory," the Democrats represented by Buchanan warned that Republican extremism on the issue of slavery was dangerous and would lead to civil war. The Democratic platform supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act and popular sovereignty.
On March 2, 1857 Buchanan began his journey to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. It was a cold morning when people gathered in the city, marching over to Buchanan's beloved home, Wheatland, to parade the President and his family to the rail station. Buchanan, his niece and First Lady Harriet Lane, nephew and private secretary James Buchanan Henry, and housekeeper Miss Hetty Parker boarded the carriage.
For the trip from Lancaster to Washington, D.C., Superintendent of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, Joseph B. Baker, had prepared four rail cars decorated with patriotic scenes. One decorative touch included the use of window screens that were painted with images of Wheatland.
It is rumored that Buchanan loved Wheatland so much that he requested the window screens be removed from the cars and framed so that he could keep them in Washington, D.C. to remind him of his home in Lancaster.
On March 4, 1857, a float drawn by 6 white horses, followed by 3 groups of parade marshals, more than 30 fire companies, militia battalions, bands, floats, and groups of artisans, led a four-horse barouche containing the president and president-elect in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands looked on with excitement as James Buchanan and John Breckinridge made their way to the east portico of the Capitol for the inauguration.
In his inaugural speech, Buchanan viewed to "arrest, if possible the agitation over the slavery question at the North, and to destroy sectional parties." He also broke two important pieces of news – that he would not seek a second term as president, and that the Supreme Court would soon settle the issue of slavery in the territories once and for all.
Since the Dred Scott case was not decided by the Supreme Court until two days after the inauguration, much has been made of Buchanan’s seemingly advanced knowledge of their decision to affirm the right of slave owners to take their slaves into the western territories.
All of Washington scrambled to pay the $5 entrance fee to attend the grand party. The feast provided at Buchanan’s inaugural ball is recounted in this 1997 New York Times article: the menu included $3,000 worth of wine, 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 500 quarts of jellies, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton and 4 of venison.
During Miss Lane’s four years as White House hostess, journalists frequently described her in articles as the "Fair First Lady of the Land." Although not an official title at the time, Harriet is now considered the first to bear the title of "First Lady." As First Lady, Harriet was a popular and dynamic young hostess. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper referred to her as, "Our Democratic Queen." Harriet, with her education, social experience, and sharp intelligence, was able to balance political and social duties with grace and ease.
Harriet was interested in fashion and became a style trendsetter during her time in the White House, taking fashion risks that were ahead of her time such as famously lowering the neckline on her inaugural dress by 2.5 inches, a style eagerly copied by American women. But Harriet was more than a fashion plate and a lady of society. Her uncle raised her with a deep understanding of history and contemporary politics, and Harriet Lane was well-versed in the issues of the day. She used her position in the White House to advocate for a variety of important social issues, including improved living conditions for Native Americans on reservations.
Two days after Buchanan was inaugurated, the Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 decision in the Dred Scott V. Sandford case. Hoping to settle the slavery question in the territories, the Court held that Congress could not ban slavery in the territories, rendering the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. Opponents of slavery fiercely attacked the Dred Scott decision.
Vicious rumors blaming Buchanan for exerting political influence over Supreme Court justices during the Dred Scott case swirled through Washington. When the Court tipped him off that they intended to decide the case in favor of the South, Buchanan may have urged a northern justice, Robert Greer of Pennsylvania, to join the southern justices.
True to his word to the Democratic platform, Buchanan’s non-interventionist stance on slavery during his term as President brought an intense amount of criticism and accusations of Buchanan being a Southern sympathizer. Rather, Buchanan thought of his position on this and many other political issues as a defense of States rights and Democratic principles. He often cast his decisions as simply an enforcement of the laws as defined in the U.S. Constitution.
The election of Lincoln in November 1860 became the trigger that launched the secession of seven Southern States beginning in December 1860. Additionally, from December 1860 to January 1861, many members of Buchanan’s cabinet resigned to join their States as they attempted to form the Confederate States of America.
At the time of Lincoln’s presidential inauguration on March 4, 1861, Buchanan is noted to have uttered a version of this sentiment: "If you are as happy on entering the White House as I am upon leaving, you are a very happy man indeed."
One month later, on April 12, 1861, the attack on Fort Sumter marked the commencement of the Civil War.