In 1971, Congress authorized Presidents’ Day to remember all who served as the Constitution’s Article II executive Power (Section. 1) and Commander in Chief (Section. 2).
What an ideal day for a presidential quiz. Which U.S. president was born in a log cabin, raised in the backwoods, became a lawyer, served in his state legislature and Congress, foiled Southern led gutting of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, opposed slavery, and was an ardent Unionist?
No, it was not 16th President Abraham Lincoln, but rather his predecessor James Buchanan, our only bachelor president. Of all 46 presidents, Democrat Buchanan arguably had the most extensive public service resume before his election as the nation’s leader.
Buchanan was born in 1791 in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, which was a small outpost in the western frontier. A superior student, he attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and served his law preceptorship in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He quickly became known for his intelligence, work ethic, and expertise in constitutional law. Buchanan built a successful law practice. He was named the first District Attorney in neighboring Lebanon County.
After serving one term in the state legislature, Buchanan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served five terms (1821-1831). He was named Chair, Judiciary Committee. When the South tried to remove the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to decide cases between states and had the state rights votes to prevail, Buchanan successfully rallied the opposition. Had he not succeeded, the Supreme Court would have had no authority to decide many of its most important decisions that underpin federalism.
Opposed to slavery, when he learned that a sister, who had married into a Virginia family-owned two enslaved, he purchased their freedom.
In 1832, President Andrew Jackson named Buchanan the Minister to Russia. Within one year, he negotiated with Emperor Nicholas I the first major trade agreement between the nations. It was a time when that agreement was significant for the new nation’s economy.
From late 1834 to 1845, Buchanan served as the respected United States Senator. In 1845, Buchanan was named by President James Polk and re-nominated by Zachary Taylor as the Secretary of State. Buchanan helped negotiate the annexation of Texas from Mexico; the Oregon Treaty with the British, which avoided war and set the boundary at the 49th parallel; and the purchase of New Mexico and California from Mexico. Under his leadership, Buchanan concluded a treaty that granted the United States a right of transit across the Isthmus of Panama that enabled the building of the Panama Railroad and later the construction of the Canal. In response to the European revolutions, he initiated new relations. Despite considerable opposition, Buchanan established a diplomatic mission to the Vatican with Pope Pius IX.
In 1849, Buchanan returned to private practice. He supported merging Franklin College in Lancaster with Marshall College in Mercersburg into Franklin and Marshall College (F&M). He championed the purchase of a large parcel for its campus in Lancaster and served as the first president of its Board of Trustees. He generously supported the college. Today, F&M is recognized among the nation’s best small private colleges.
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce nominated Buchanan as the United States Minister to the United Kingdom. Nearly 80 years after the American Revolution, the relationship remained very frayed. A superior diplomat, Buchanan helped heal that relationship during his three-year tenure.
At 66 years old, Buchanan was the Democratic presidential candidate for the 1856 election. He successfully ran against the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate John Fremont and Know Nothing’s and former U.S. President Millard Fillmore. Buchanan convincingly won the popular and electoral vote and carried 19 of the 31 states to become the 15th president.
Buchanan is remembered as among the worst of our 46 presidents. That misguided and elucidating appraisal is an examination for another Presidents’ Day.
Malcolm Lazin is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney. He is the recipient of the U.S. Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award, the Department of Justice’s highest honor. He served as the Chair, Pennsylvania Crime Commission and was the Republican candidate for District Attorney of Philadelphia.