To the Senate of the United States:
The Senate will learn from the thirty-five naval nominations herewith submitted the result of my investigations under the resolutions of Congress of March 10 and May 11, 1858. In compliance with these resolutions, I have carefully examined the records of the courts of inquiry in fifty-eight cases, and have arrived at the conclusion that twenty-three of the officers ought to remain in the positions where they have been fixed by the courts of inquiry.
The records are very voluminous and the labor of examination, in which I have been materially assisted by the Secretary of the Navy, the Attorney-General, and the Commissioner of Patents, has consumed much time.
Under the act of January 17, 1857, the courts of inquiry were directed to investigate "the physical, mental, professional, and moral fitness" of each officer who applied to them for relief. These investigations it was my duty to review. They have been very extensive and searching, as the Senate will perceive from an examination of the records, embracing in many instances almost the entire professional life of the individual from his first entrance into the service.
In the performance of my duty I found the greatest difficulty in deciding what should be considered as "moral fitness" for the Navy. Physical, mental, and professional fitness may be decided with a considerable degree of accuracy by a naval court of inquiry, but the question of moral fitness is of a very different character. There has been but one perfect standard of morality on earth, and how far a departure from His precepts and example must proceed in order to disqualify an officer for the naval service is a question on which a great difference of honest opinion must always exist. On this question I have differed in several instances from the courts of inquiry.
There is one nomination which I regret that I have not the power to present to the Senate, and this is in the case of Commodore Stewart. His name stood on the Register at the head of the list of captains in the Navy until it was removed from this well-earned position by the retiring board and placed on the list of retired officers. The deeply wounded feelings of this veteran officer, who had contributed so much to the efficiency and glory of the Navy from its infancy, prevented him from applying for restoration to his rank and submitting to a court of inquiry composed of his junior officers the question of his "physical, mental, professional, and moral fitness" for the naval service. I would ere this have recommended to Congress the passage of a joint resolution to restore him to his former rank had I not believed this would more appropriately emanate from the legislative branch of Government.
I transmit herewith to the Senate the original records in the fifty-eight cases to which I have referred. After they shall have been examined by the Senate I would respectfully request that they might be returned to the Navy Department.
James Buchanan, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/202854