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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Households of James Buchanan

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

James Buchanan is often regarded as one of the worst presidents in United States history.1 Many historians contend that Buchanan’s sympathy toward the South and reluctance to stop the first seven states from seceding led to the American Civil War, but less attention has been given to how his upbringing and earlier experiences shaped his views on slavery.2 Although Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which slowly eliminated chattel slavery has traditionally been viewed as progressive, the act also permitted slavery and different manifestations of enslavement to continue for decades. While historians must be cautious when drawing conclusions about a historical figure’s political motives from a few episodes in his or her personal life, it cannot be denied that Buchanan’s Pennsylvania environment, including his own interactions with Black indentured servants and enslaved workers, helped shape his perspective on the institution. From there, we can contextualize and better understand some of the political actions of a northerner sympathetic to the South.

Born in 1791, James Buchanan grew up in a log cabin in the Allegheny Mountains of southern Pennsylvania. His father, James Buchanan, Sr., immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1783 and became a successful merchant.3 James Buchanan, Sr. relied on the labor of Black indentured servants in his household.4 While we do not know how many individuals worked for him, as well as the kind of relationships the Buchanans had with these men and women, newspaper records indicate that Buchanan, Sr. purchased and sold indentured contracts.

In Pennsylvania, Black indentured servants often worked under different terms than white indentured servants. Much of the distinction in treatment can be traced back to the Gradual Abolition Act, passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1780. In theory, the Gradual Abolition Act slowly abolished chattel slavery in Pennsylvania without immediately making the practice illegal. So long as enslavers registered their enslaved workers annually, they were permitted to keep those held in bondage when the act went into effect. Children born to enslaved mothers were legally bound to serve their mother’s owner until they turned twenty-eight. In 1788, the general assembly amended the 1780 law to state that enslaved individuals whose owners sought to permanently reside in Pennsylvania should be declared immediately free.5

The Buchanan family placed two advertisements in a local newspaper in 1816 and 1822 announcing the sale of Black indentured servants. While both advertisements were placed after he left home, Buchanan, Jr. likely knew of his father’s use of indentured servants as well as the 1822 advertisement. Throughout his life, Buchanan regularly corresponded with his siblings, especially his brother Edward, about family business. The 1822 sale occurred after a carriage accident killed Buchanan, Sr. Since he did not have a will, Buchanan, Jr., as the eldest son, was required to sort out his father’s affairs. Even though the 1822 advertisement did not list Buchanan, Jr.’s name, it seems likely that he was aware of its occurrence, given the circumstances.6

Advertisement placed in the Franklin Repository by James Buchanan, Sr. in 1816 for the sale of an indentured “Negro Boy.”

Franklin Repository,

Like many advertisements seeking to sell enslaved people, these postings describe Black people like animals or inanimate objects, omitting their humanity. Neither advertisement lists the names of the individuals being sold. The 1816 advertisement, placed in the Franklin Repository by James Buchanan, Sr., simply refers to the servant as “a stout healthy Negro Boy.”7 1822 advertisement, placed in the Franklin Repository by three relatives after the death of James Buchanan, Sr., mentions the sale of “a small active coloured girl” between postings for kitchen furniture and farm animals.8

Since the experiences of many Black indentured servants in Pennsylvania closely resembled those of enslaved people, some scholars have chosen to refer to these people not as indentured servants but rather by terms that emphasize their lack of freedom. Historian Cory James Young often refers to the servitude of these individuals as “term slavery.”9 He also uses the term “unfree Black people serving indentures.”10 Other terms used by historians include “statutory slavery” and “slavery for a term.”11 At the same time, some recent works have continued to use the term “indentured servitude.”12 This article uses both “indentured servants” and “term slavery.” Indentured servants and servitude have been used at times to reference the way white employers or enslavers, as well as society in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often described and thought about their relationships with these workers. Term slavery has been used at times in this article to reference the Black workers’ experience under what society in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often referred to as indentured servitude.

Despite Buchanan’s support for slavery in the realm of politics, his nephew, James Buchanan Henry, portrayed the relationships his uncle had with enslaved people in his personal life as benevolent. He wrote in 1911:

I cannot close without a few words upon my uncle’s views upon slavery. He simply tolerated it as a legal fact under our Constitution. He had no admiration for it whatever. I know a number of instances in which he purchased the freedom of slaves in Washington, and brought them to Pennsylvania with him, leaving it to them to repay him if they could out of their wages.13

To this date, direct evidence of Buchanan purchasing and freeing enslaved people while living in Washington, D.C. has not been found. Some historians believe that Henry may have relocated the tale he heard about Buchanan’s purchase and manumission of Daphne and Ann Cook to the nation’s capital.14

Advertisement placed in the Franklin Repository by the Buchanan Family in 1822 for the sale of an indentured “small active coloured girl.”

Franklin Repository,

In his 1962 biography, President James Buchanan: A Biography, Philip Klein briefly discusses Buchanan’s episode with the Cooks.15 According to this account, Buchanan visited his ill sister, Harriett, and brother-in-law, Reverend Robert Henry, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, during the summer of 1834. While there, Buchanan discovered that family of his brother-in-law in Shepherdstown, Virginia, owned two enslaved people, Daphne Cook and her daughter Ann Cook. With Buchanan’s Senate election on the horizon, Klein called the situation “political dynamite.” Buchanan quickly informed his brother-in-law that he wanted to purchase and free the Cooks. In March 1835, the deed of transfer was signed, and the Cooks came into Buchanan’s possession in Pennsylvania. According to the contract, Daphne, age twenty-two, would serve Buchanan for seven years while her daughter Ann Cook, age five, would serve for twenty-three years until she reached the age of twenty-eight. While Buchanan’s contract referred to the Cooks as indentured servants, the length of Ann’s servitude as well as the lack of other options the Cooks had following their manumission calls into question whether Daphne and Ann were really indentured servants or rather term slaves. Since the publication of Klein’s biography, historians have learned that Ann died about three months later and that Daphne ran away from Buchanan’s home about two weeks after the death of her daughter. The documented historical record tells us neither what happened to Daphne after she left Buchanan’s home nor whether Buchanan made any effort to capture her.16

Klein portrayed Buchanan’s purchase and manumission of the Cooks as a win-win for the future president. According to Klein, Buchanan’s possession of the Cooks would benefit his life inside and outside politics. The two women would solve his ongoing house servant problem.17 The timing in Klein’s version of events leaves unanswered questions. If his brother-in-law’s ownership of enslaved people was truly “political dynamite” for Buchanan, then why did the sale not take place until March 1835 – three months after his crucial Senate election which took place on December 6, 1834?18

While little has been written specifically about Buchanan’s episode with the Cooks since Klein published his biography sixty years ago (although the “discovery” of Ann’s death and Daphne running away occurred only a few years ago), a few scholars have recently published work focused on the continuation of slavery-like institutions in Pennsylvania after the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780.19 Cory James Young argues “that there is a history of chattel slavery in Pennsylvania that begins rather than ends with gradual abolition.”20 He explores how enslavers continued to sell Black people to neighbors and other enslavers for decades after Pennsylvania outlawed slavery on paper. Indentured servitude with special provisions for Black people was one way to keep the institution alive.

Ann Henry's agreement with Buchanan for the sale of Daphne and Ann Cook. In the center of the right page, Buchanan notes Ann’s death and Daphne’s running away.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Dan Guzy and Dr. Matthew Pinsker.

As a senator, Buchanan’s dislike for abolitionists grew. In his opinion, abolitionists were behind many of America’s sectional divisions.21 Buchanan saw it as his duty to protect the constitutional right to slavery.22 In fact, Buchanan believed that abolitionists delayed emancipation of enslaved people, as slavery would eventually run its course. Even worse, Buchanan remarked before Congress in 1836 when opposing legislation to ban slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, abolitionists made enslaved people “doubly miserable by compelling the master to be severe in order to prevent any attempts at insurrection.”23

After serving as President James K. Polk’s secretary of state, Buchanan returned home to Pennsylvania. Within a few months of his arrival, sectional division almost tore the United States apart as Americans debated whether slavery would be allowed into the new territories obtained as a result of Mexican-American War. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay negotiated five laws, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, to appease both sides and avoid a civil war. One of those laws was the Fugitive Slave Act.24 This legislation made it easier for slave owners to pursue and capture freedom seekers in the North. The Fugitive Slave Act prohibited fugitive slaves from testifying on their own behalf in court and from having trials by jury. Heavy penalties were given to federal marshals who refused to comply.

James Buchanan did not oppose the Fugitive Slave Act like many in the North. As historian James B. Ranck explained,

“Buchanan stood for a strict enforcement of the fugitive slave law, as it was passed ‘to carry into execution the plain, clear, and mandatory provision of the Constitution.’ He was ‘sorry, very sorry to state that Pennsylvania was among the number’ of States which sought to obstruct its enforcement.”25

For Buchanan, the law came before the freedom of Black people. He was bothered by the “very many in the northern states who place their consciences above the Constitution of their country by trying to rescue fugitive slaves, thinking, at the same time, they were doing God's service.”26 After Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, Buchanan even declared that “the honor of the South has been saved.”27

James Buchanan’s official portrait. Oil on canvas by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859. Now in the National Portrait Gallery.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Gallery of Art; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, 1942

While Buchanan hoped to run in the 1852 presidential election, interparty competition with Stephen Douglas led to Franklin Pierce from New Hampshire securing the Democratic nomination. Pierce then nominated Buchanan as U.S. minister to the United Kingdom. In this capacity, Buchanan once again advocated for territorial expansion. He pushed hard for U.S. control of Cuba, long sought after by American slave owners. Possession would strengthen the South’s position regarding northern abolitionists. Buchanan helped draft the Olmsted Manifesto, which gave rationale for the United States to consider purchasing the island.28

Although Franklin Pierce hoped to achieve a second term in office, his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act hurt his popularity within the Democratic Party and opened the door to Buchanan receiving the party’s nomination. James Buchanan won the election in 1856, defeating Republican Party nominee John C. Fremont and Know Nothing Party nominee and former President Millard Fillmore. While President Buchanan surrounded himself with cabinet members from around the country, three of his appointments as well as his vice-president, John C. Breckinridge, went on to hold important positions in the Confederate government.29 The voices in his cabinet influenced the decisions Buchanan made in office, including his attempts to ease tensions, his efforts to annex Cuba, and, of course, his response to South Carolina’s secession.

One of the most significant events of Buchanan’s term was the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. The case began in 1846 when Dred Scott, a Black man living in Missouri, sued for his freedom in a Missouri court. While an army doctor brought him to Missouri, Scott sued on the grounds that he previously lived on free soil and therefore could no longer be enslaved. The case eventually made it the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1857, the high court ruled against Scott with an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney that had enormous consequences for the United States and Black people seeking freedom. Not only did Taney’s opinion keep Scott in bondage but it also “upheld slavery in United States territories, denied the legality of black citizenship in America, and declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional.”30

1861 political cartoon of Buchanan surrendering to South Carolina’s Governor Pickens with Fort Sumter in the background.

Dickinson College

Before the court reached its decision, Buchanan said in his Inaugural Address that he would “cheerfully” submit to whatever it decided.31 This statement obscured the fact that President Buchanan meddled in the decision-making process. In February 1857, before taking office, President-elect Buchanan exchanged letters with Associate Justice John Catron. While Buchanan began by inquiring about the case’s status so that he could refer to it in his Inaugural Address, Justice Catron ended up advising Buchanan to reach out to his Pennsylvania friend, Associate Justice Robert Grier. Justice Catron wrote in a February 19, 1857, letter to Buchanan, “Will you drop Grier a line, saying how necessary it is - & how good the opportunity is, to settle the agitation by an affirmative decision of the Supreme Court, the one way or the other.”32 Buchanan followed Catron’s advice. As historian Jean H. Baker explains, “If a decision was reached, [Buchanan] wanted to use it as a launching point for a triumphant program of national harmony. Grier in turn promptly conferred with Chief Justice Roger Taney and Associate Justice James Wayne of Georgia.”33 In effect, although the Supreme Court would likely have ruled against Dred Scott’s freedom, Buchanan helped push the justices toward a bold decision that declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and denied the legality of Black citizenship in America.34 Although most Americans were unaware of his actions at the time, Buchanan influenced the Dred Scott decision through his correspondences with the justices.

Buchanan also failed to use his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to respond effectively to the secession crisis. After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, the lower South wasted no time in declaring secession. The election of a Republican to the White House changed the minds of many southerners formerly against secession. South Carolina seceded first on December 20. Six more states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—broke ties in January and February, prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration.

While slavery and race-related strife tore apart the country during Buchanan’s four years in office, within the White House it seems the president employed white workers instead of enslaved or free Black laborers. According to the 1860 census, Buchanan relied on white servants, mainly from the United Kingdom.35 Historian William Seale argued that Buchanan chose this arrangement for two reasons. First, after living in London during the Pierce administration, Buchanan had grown to appreciate British servants’ experience with large homes and their respect for the employer’s privacy. Second, with all the turmoil surrounding slavery as well as the status of free Black people after the Dred Scott decision, Buchanan may have found white servants to be a safer choice politically.

Oil-on-canvas portrait of James Buchanan by John Henry Brown, 1851.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Although the surviving documentation indicates that he only employed white servants in the White House, one letter reveals that Buchanan may have preferred Black servants, at least for certain roles at other points during his life. After learning that he would be traveling to England as America’s minister, Buchanan wrote to banker and philanthropist William W. Corcoran on July 14, 1853: “I spoke to you about employing William who lived with President Polk as my servant. I always liked him, & would greatly prefer a Black to a White for a body servant.”36 While it is not known whether or not Buchanan employed William as a body servant, we do know that Buchanan employed a mulatto servant named Jackson while abroad in the United Kingdom. Buchanan greatly admired Jackson. In a September 15, 1853, letter to Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane, Buchanan wrote, “I think I have a treasure in the servant (Jackson) I brought with me from New York. If he should only hold out, he is all I could desire.”37 Jackson held out until at least December 16, 1853. That month, in a letter to his housekeeper, Hetty Parker, Buchanan continued to speak fondly of Jackson:

The Man (Jackson) whom I hired accidently in New York has behaved himself very well. He is attentive & I think perfectly honest. He is a good looking mulatto, & I have been diverted to witness the attention he receives here where the same prejudices do not exist against color as in the United States. And yet he is homesick & thinks as I do, that there is no place in the world to be compared with our country.38

These pieces of correspondence leave unanswered questions. In what ways, if at all, was Buchanan affected by witnessing less discrimination toward his cherished servant while outside the United States? Would Jackson have spoken as positively about his employer as his employer spoke about him? Did Buchanan treat Jackson more like enslaved people or did he treat them the way he would treat a white servant? Publicly and politically, Buchanan was a fierce defender of the Constitution and slavery as a constitutional right. Privately, he seemed aware and comfortable with the idea of Black people working for him in ways that white people would not.

Thank you to Dr. Thomas J. Balcerski, Associate Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University, for reviewing this article.