“Old Mother Buchanan at Wheatland"

November 29, 1862

John McLenan

“Old Mother Buchanan at Wheatland"

Analogies, Shakespeare; Civil War, Prelude; Civil War, Remembrance; Presidential Administration, James Buchanan; Wars, American Civil War;

Buchanan, James;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

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With the onset of the Civil War in April 1861, popular sentiment in the North turned decidedly against James Buchanan, the former president who had served during the secession crisis of late 1860 and early 1861.  On July 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech, based largely on information from General Winfield Scott, condemning the previous Buchanan administration for leaving large amounts of federal armaments and money in the rebel states of the South.  After the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in late July, a Senate resolution of censure against Buchanan as an alleged Confederate sympathizer gained widespread publicity, but did not pass.  In addition, newspapers published General Scott’s critical and largely fanciful version of events during the final months of the Buchanan administration.  In October 1862, Buchanan defended his actions in an exchange of public letters with Scott.

Here, the cartoonist takes Buchanan’s verbal self-defense as a cowardly action comparable to Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III.  The lifelong bachelor is portrayed as “Old Mother Buchanan,” who is tormented at his Wheatland estate by the knowledge that Americans are experiencing wartime suffering and deprivations that he supposedly could have prevented.  The text compares him to a murderer, perjurer, villain, and coward, and his conscience appears as a frightened black cat.  Meanwhile, Buchanan stubbornly and desperately defends himself by blaming others, notably his secretary of war, John Floyd, who had supported secession and was serving in the Confederate Army.  On the floor (left) are three volumes of Buchanan’s biography, the first draft of which he had completed in October 1862.  The one-volume Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion was published in 1866, but is here labeled as a ten-volume work in order to emphasis the former president’s alleged tendency to defend himself at length.

James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  He attended school at a local academy, and then nearby Dickinson College, graduating in 1809.  He studied law in Lancaster and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1812.  He proved to be a successful lawyer and an astute investor, quickly accumulating substantial wealth.  Buchanan entered politics at an early age, serving in the Pennsylvania legislature (1814-1816) as a Federalist and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1821-1831).  He eventually became a Democrat and a supporter of President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him to be the U.S. minister to Russia (1832-1833).  

After he returned to America at the end of Jackson’s second term, the Pennsylvania legislature elected Buchanan to the U.S. Senate.  His closest friends were Southerners and he took a Pro-Southern position on most sectional issues, including slavery.  He believed that the institution of slavery was legally and constitutionally protected, and he endorsed the exclusion of abolitionist materials from the U.S. mails, the gag rule that tabled antislavery petitions to Congress, and the annexation of Texas as a slave state.

Buchanan was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844, but a deadlocked convention turned to dark horse candidate James K. Polk.  After Polk became president, he appointed Buchanan as his secretary of state, but, dismayed with the Pennsylvanian’s indecisiveness, Polk largely administered foreign policy himself.  In 1848 and 1852 Buchanan again unsuccessfully sought his party’s presidential nomination.  Although he hoped to serve as secretary of state once more under President Franklin Pierce, he was assigned to the post of minister to Great Britain.  Buchanan gained notoriety in his new position when he and the American ministers to Spain and France met in Ostend, Belgium, in 1854 to draft a policy recommendation for President Pierce.  They suggested that the United States try to buy Cuba and, if Spain was unwilling, to seize the island by force.  When the Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, it created a furor among Northerners who feared Cuba would become another slave state.

Buchanan resigned as minister to Great Britain in early 1856 and returned to the United States in order to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.  This time, he was successful.  He went on to win the presidency with a plurality of the vote against two other candidates, Republican John C. Fremont and American (Know Nothing) Millard Fillmore.  Some Southerners had threatened to secede if Fremont won the election, since the Republican opposed the expansion of slavery into Western territories.  Therefore, during his presidential term, Buchanan attempted to appease Southern concerns in order to preserve the union. 

Buchanan’s presidential policies, however, only contributed to more sectional animosity.  In the interim between his election and inauguration, Buchanan tried to exert undue influence on one of the Supreme Court justices who was deciding the Dred Scot case.  The decision, announced two days after his inauguration, affirmed in sweeping terms the Southern view that neither the federal nor territorial government could ban slavery in the territories.  Although the president thought the decision would settle the matter, it further exacerbated sectional tensions, including those within the Democratic Party, and strengthened the Republican Party. 

Buchanan’s handling of the slavery issue in the Kansas territory also widened the divide between northern and southern Democrats.  To the dismay of Stephen Douglas, leader of the Northern wing of the party, Buchanan endorsed the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution.  Submitted to Congress by a rump legislature, it would have allowed Kansas to enter the union as a slave state, against the wishes of the anti-slavery majority in the territory.  The Buchanan administration did everything it could to ensure passage, including a resort to bribery.  While the Senate approved the Lecompton Constitution, the House narrowly rejected it after a bitter fight.  The damage done to the Democratic Party and national unity was almost irreparable.

President Buchanan pursued an expansionist foreign policy, stoking Republican fears of a political conspiracy to expand slavery.  His administration failed in attempts to purchase Alaska and Cuba and to impose a protectorate on northern Mexico, but did secure trade treaties with China and Japan.  The Buchanan presidency was plagued by a series of scandals, making his administration one of the most corrupt in American history.  An economic depression also undermined the president’s popularity.     

Because Senator Douglas had broken publicly with Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution, President Buchanan worked behind the scenes to derail the senator’s reelection in 1858.  Douglas prevailed, but discord with the Democratic Party increased.  The final break came at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina.  Buchanan aides joined forces with Southern radicals to stop Douglas’s nomination for president.  After the convention failed to endorse a federal slave code for the territories, the Southern delegates walked out and reconvened in Richmond to nominate Vice President John Breckinridge for president.  The Northern Democrats met in Baltimore and nominated Douglas.  The split in the Democratic Party allowed the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to win the presidency.

When seven states of the Deep South left the union after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan condemned Northern antislavery agitators.  The lame-duck president denied both a constitutional right to secede and the constitutional authority of the president to intervene and stop the process.  Instead, he called for a constitutional convention to draft amendments protecting slavery in the South and in the territories.  Yet, Buchanan remained a unionist and would not recognize the Confederate seizure of federal property.  After the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship, was fired upon while attempting to resupply Fort Sumter, Buchanan took no further provocative action and handed the precarious situation over to the incoming president, Abraham Lincoln.

Buchanan retired to his Wheatland estate outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died on June 1, 1868. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“Old Mother Buchanan at Wheatland"
July 14, 2024

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