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James Buchanan Event Timeline

March 04, 1857

James Buchanan (15) Events Timeline



Buchanan selected as presidential nominee by the Democratic Party, in place of incumbent president Franklin Pierce (who was a candidate).


Election Day. Buchanan wins 58.8% of the Electoral College and 45.3% of the popular vote.




Inaugural Address. “ it [slavery in the territories] is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit . . . “ Buchanan knew about the substance of the forthcoming Court decision and had worked to shape it, mistakenly believing it could reduce national division over the issue of slavery. Buchanan pledges that he will not become a candidate for reelection.


Supreme Court decides Dred Scott v. Sanford, in which the Supreme Court determined that “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” As non-citizens, they have no right to sue in Federal Court. The right of citizens to their private property, including slaves, is established in the US Constitution, and Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories as it had done in the Missouri Compromise.


Appoints Robert J. Walker as territorial governor of Kansas. Walker quickly resigns after announcing his opposition to the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution (which was supported by Buchanan).


The Panic of 1857 begins when multiple banks fail due to a lack of international trade. The financial crisis lasts for 18 months.


Citizens of Kansas elect free state legislative body.


First Annual State of the Union Message.


Signs Act authorizing Issue of Treasury Notes to encourage economic activity during the Panic of 1857.




Message to Congress submitting the Lecompton Constitution, proposing that Kansas be admitted into the union as a slave state.


Issues proclamation ordering military intervention to address rebellion of Mormon militia resisting the replacement of Brigham Young as governor of the Territory of Utah.


Signs English Act, allowing government of Kansas to be admitted into the Union. The act proposes a popular vote on whether or not to put in effect the Lecompton Constitution.


Signs Act admitting Minnesota into the Union as a state.


Announces treaty with the Sioux Indians and transmits to Congress.


Lecompton Constitution is defeated in Kansas, failing to win approval for the second time by overwhelming vote.


Second Annual State of the Union Message.




Vetoes Overland Mails Bill, which would have increased speed of cross-country postal service. This was a pocket veto at the end of the prior session of Congress.


Signs Act admitting Oregon into the Union as a state.


Vetoes land grants for agricultural colleges. The veto is sustained in the House on 02/26/1859,


Southern slave owners advocate for the reopening of the African slave trade at the Southern Commercial Convention.


Kansas’ anti-slavery Wyandotte Constitution is ratified with a huge popular vote margin.

10/16/1859 – 10/18/1859

Abolitionist John Brown raids an armory and arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), hoping to trigger a slave uprising. Brown’s raid was decisively ended by troops led by Col. Robert E. Lee, and Brown captured. The incident was hugely controversial and stoked fears in slave states. This domestic use of military forces was not preceded by posting a drafted presidential proclamation.


Abolitionist John Brown executed, but comes to be viewed by abolitionists as a martyr.


Third Annual State of the Union Message. Expresses his belief that any legal means should be utilized to eliminate illegal slave trading. “I shall not refer in detail to the recent sad and bloody occurrences at Harpers Ferry. Still, it is proper to observe that these events, however bad and cruel in themselves, derive their chief importance from the apprehension that they are but symptoms of an incurable disease in the public mind, which may break out in still more dangerous outrages and terminate at last in an open war by the North to abolish slavery in the South.”




Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech in which he expresses his views against slavery and its expansion. Discusses Dred Scott decision and Harper’s Ferry.


House adopts resolution forming committee to investigate the President’s conduct regarding corruption claims. The committee investigation concludes in June with no charges.

04/23/1860 – 05/03/1860

Democratic Party convention meets in Charleston, SC, but cannot agree on slavery plank, and after 57 ballots, no candidate wins the required 2/3 vote.  The Convention adjourned until June 18 in Baltimore. As previously promised, Buchanan does not seek renomination.  [Link to proceedings.]


Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln is nominated for President at the Republican National Convention.

06/18/1860 – 06/23/1860

Second Democratic Party convention, this in Baltimore, with several southern states not represented.  Stephen Douglas declared the winner with 2/3 of the votes of delegates present.


Vetoes Homestead Bill, which would have allowed citizens to purchase land for 25 cents per acre. Buchanan believes that the sale of land for 25 cents per acre is too low of a price, and that it is unfair to settlers who had originally paid a higher price for the land. The Veto is sustained by the Senate on 06/23/1860.


Democrats “reassemble” in Baltimore, primarily delegates from Southern states and nominate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.


Supreme Court Justice Peter Vivian Daniel dies.


Election Day. Abraham Lincoln wins 59.4% of the Electoral College and 39.9% of the popular vote.


Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black advises Buchanan that “war cannot be declared, nor a system of general hostilities carried on by the Central Government against a State.” In the event a State declares independence, “Congress or the other States in convention assembled must take such measures as may be necessary and proper.”


Fourth Annual State of the Union Message, in which Buchanan argues that the South has no legal right to secede, yet the government has no legal power to prevent the secession. Calls for an "explanatory amendment" to the Constitution recognizing the "right of property in slaves" and the validity of the fugitive slave act.


Electoral College votes are cast.


Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury, resigns because “the honor and safety of my State [of Georgia] are involved” and differs with some views Buchanan expressed in his State of the Union Message.


In a letter of this date (apparently not actually sent until 12/14/1860), Secretary of State Lewis Cass resigns, pointing to disagreements with Buchanan over deploying troops to defend the forts in Charleston harbor.


South Carolina becomes the first state to secede from the Union.


Buchanan refuses to meet with South Carolina “commissioners” who sought possession of US government property.




Special Message to Congress discussing “the calamity” confronting the nation. Writes that Congress is “the only human tribunal under Providence possessing the power to meet the existing emergency.” Urges the discovery of “common ground on which conciliation and harmony can be produced.” Moreover in response to seizures of Federal arsenals and property, “it was my determined purpose not to commence it [armed conflict] nor even to furnish an excuse for it by any act of this Government.”

Notes that "the right and duty to use military force defensively against those who resist the Federal officers in the execution of their legal functions. . . is clear and undeniable."


Mississippi secedes followed by Alabama (1/11), Georgia (1/19), Louisiana (1/26), Texas 2/1).


By Special Message, informs Congress of a communication from the State of Virginia requesting agreement by the President and seceding states “to agree to abstain. . . from any and all acts calculated to produce a collision of arms. . . “ Buchanan states that only Congress has power to enter such an agreement, and that his duty is to defend and protect public property “so far as this may be practicable.”


Signs Act admitting Kansas into the Union as a state. Kansas prohibits slavery after being admitted under the Wyandotte Constitution.


Nominates Secretary of State Jeremiah Black as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; Black is rejected by the Senate on 02/21/1861.

02/04/1861 – 03/16/1861

First session of Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America at Montgomery, Alabama.  Adopts constitution on 02/09/1861.


Jefferson Davis is selected President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States.


Electoral votes are tabulated by Congress, officially establishing Abraham Lincoln as President-elect.


By Special Message, responds to inquiry from House of Representatives whether he has information about a conspiracy to prevent the inauguration of the president-elect. He observes that stationing troops in Washington D.C. had contributed to a “feeling of comparative peace and security.”


Signs Morrill Tariff, establishing extensive protective tariff system that forms the basis for American international trade policy for 50 years.


Signs Act authorizing the organization of the territory of Nevada. Also signs an act the same day authorizing the formation of the temporary government of Dakota.


Congress proposes the Corwin Amendment on Slavery, which would have introduced an amendment protecting slavery from federal intervention or abolition.

Last edited 07/22/2023.

James Buchanan, James Buchanan Event Timeline Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347326

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