This American President’s Amazing Actions Regarding Slavery Will Surprise You

This American President’s Amazing Actions Regarding Slavery Will Surprise You

Patrick Lynch - May 18, 2017

Whenever historians discuss James Buchanan, they tend to classify his term as President of the United States as a failure. He was the 15th President and served from 1857 to 1861. When running for president, he promised not to seek a second term and was true to his word because he did not run for office in 1861.

His efforts to maintain peace between North and South were all for naught as the nation descended into Civil War soon after his term in office ended. There is one interesting fact about Buchanan that is not common knowledge; on at least two occasions he purchased slaves for the sole purpose of freeing them.

This American President’s Amazing Actions Regarding Slavery Will Surprise You
Civil War Soldiers. The Federalist Papers

The Peculiar Institution & Presidents

It is not known exactly how many times Buchanan freed slaves or the number he set free, but we do know of one incident in 1832. In that year, his sister, Harriet, was set to marry a Virginian named Robert Henry. When Buchanan found out that the Henry family owned slaves, he purchased two female slaves with his own money to ensure his sister had no association with the peculiar institution. He brought them to Pennsylvania and freed them as soon as possible.

Details of his other emancipation efforts are less clear although there is a suggestion that he bought and freed slaves while in the White House. His son, James Henry Buchanan, said that his father purchased slaves in Washington D.C. during his term of office and always brought them to Pennsylvania where they were freed. However, Philip Shriver Klein, Buchanan’s biographer, said the future president did not fully free the slaves he purchased in 1832. Instead, they became his indentured servants.

As there is no definitive record of Buchanan owning slaves outside of the brief period in 1832, he is not included in the list of 12 presidents who owned slaves at some point in their life. Of them, 8 owned slaves while in office. George Washington owned the most slaves of any president with over 300. In his will, the First President wrote that the slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha. She ultimately freed all of them within a year of his death.

Thomas Jefferson owned over 200 slaves while James Madison owned around 100. Although Jefferson was opposed to slavery on moral grounds, his vast personal debt meant that only a handful of his slaves were freed upon his death. There is some dispute over the number of slaves owned by Andrew Jackson although the figure could be close to 200. He was criticized for being a slave trader during his run for office and faced a variety of controversies relating to slavery while in office from 1829 to 1837.

Buchanan was like many of the presidents that owned slaves insofar as he disagreed with slavery in principle but did nothing to try and abolish it as we’ll see when we look at his career.

This American President’s Amazing Actions Regarding Slavery Will Surprise You
A cartoon making fun of Buchanan’s compromises to the South on slavery.

Buchanan in Politics

James Buchanan was born in Pennsylvania in 1791 and began his political career in 1814 when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party. His party has essentially collapsed by 1820, so the following year; he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican-Federalist and served five consecutive terms until 1831.

He became the United States Minister to Russia in January 1832 and served in that role until August 1833. Buchanan moved up the ladder in 1834 when he became a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania in 1834; a role he maintained until 1845. He resigned to become President James K. Polk’s Secretary of State and was minister to England in 1853. Buchanan ran for the Presidency and defeated John C. Fremont to become the 15th President of the U.S. in 1857.

Buchanan & Slavery

Although he was apparently morally opposed to slavery, Buchanan was also an avid believer in state’s rights. So when it came to the issue of slavery, he believed that each state should decide whether to allow it or not. In March 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court found that no black man or woman, regardless of whether they were free or a slave, was allowed claim U.S. Citizenship in the infamous Dred Scott case. As a result, no black man or woman could petition the court for their freedom.

Abolitionists were outraged by the decision which only served to heighten tensions between North and South. While Buchanan apparently freed slaves on a regular basis, he influenced the Supreme Court’s decision. The president only served to exacerbate tensions by accepting the Lecompton Constitution. In fact, Buchanan supported the document which would have enabled Kansas to continue allowing slavery. However, the Senate blocked the move which meant that Kansas joined the Union as a free state.

Buchanan’s inability to handle the tensions between North and South mark him down as one of the worst presidents of all time. Although he believed that states didn’t have the right to secede, he effectively washed his hands of the affair by claiming the Federal Government could do nothing about it.

Intriguingly, Buchanan joined the ranks of the ex-presidents who tried to undermine Abraham Lincoln when he became President. Along with Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren and James Tyler, Buchanan was a proponent of keeping the Union together at all costs, and they saw Lincoln’s presidency as a threat to that state of affairs. They urged Lincoln to accept a compromise on slavery; the most common one was to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean.

During the 1864 presidential campaign, Buchanan, Fillmore, and Pierce supported George McClellan against Lincoln. Buchanan spent the rest of his life trying to defend himself from blame for the brutal Civil War. Some people even called it Buchanan’s War. The ex-president received death threats on a regular basis and from October 1862 onward; he tried to defend himself by writing letters in newspapers and also his memoir which was published in 1866. On June 1, 1868, he died from respiratory failure. He was the only President never to marry and carried much of the blame for the Civil War. While he should be applauded for freeing slaves, his presidency is looked upon as a disaster.