In 19th-century Pennsylvania, future president James Buchanan is gearing up for a place in the Senate. But hundreds of miles away in Virginia, a dark family secret threatens to derail his career. As a solution, Buchanan frees his sister’s slaves – but does he really have their best interests at heart?
Out of all the times to embark on a political career in America, Buchanan chose one of the worst. Born on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, he grew up during a time when tensions across the country were fraught. And by the time that he became president, the United States was on the brink of civil war.
Today, Buchanan is remembered as a poor president, a man whose inability to make strong decisions contributed to the bloody conflict. But according to legend, he also had a softer side. In fact, it’s said by some that he made a habit of purchasing slaves – only to grant them their freedom at a later date.
However, the truth is a more complicated matter. In Pennsylvania, slavery had been on its way out since the Gradual Abolition Act was passed in 1780. But elsewhere in the United States, the practice continued openly. And for Buchanan, these differing attitudes caused a conflict that would dog his entire political career.
After training as a lawyer in Lancaster, PA, Buchanan joined the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1814. And by 1834, he found himself in the running for the Senate. But with the issue of slavery continuing to divide states across the Union, the ambitious politician wished to remain neutral.
However, Buchanan soon encountered a problem. Apparently, his sister Harriet was living in Virginia at the time with her husband, who worked as a minister. But unlike Pennsylvania, Virginia had yet to begin abolition, and Harriet and her family still owned two slaves – a mother and daughter named Daphne and Ann Cook.
For Buchanan, it was a difficult situation. If it became public knowledge that his family owned slaves, people might assume that he supported the practice. On the other hand, if he spoke out against slavery, his critics could – quite rightly – accuse him of hypocrisy. Eventually, however, he found a solution.
To avoid criticism from both sides, Buchanan decided to set Daphne and Ann free. However, it might not have been quite the altruistic gesture that it first appeared. Apparently, Buchanan was in need of some domestic servants at the time – and the former slaves provided a handy fix.
Unusually for the time, Buchanan was unmarried, without a woman to take care of things around the home. And even though he employed a local woman to act as his housekeeper, she was apparently in need of some extra help. So when he bought Daphne and Ann from his sister’s family, he turned them into his own servants instead.
Apparently, the very documents that gave the Cooks their freedom also bound them to Buchanan’s service for much of their lives. While the 22-year-old Daphne was obliged to work as the politician’s servant for the next seven years, Ann, just five at the time, was given a staggering 23-year term.
According to historians, this practice was a familiar one in 19th-century Pennsylvania. Although families were no longer allowed to keep slaves, individuals still found themselves bound to households through indentured servitude – a type of employment that forced workers to complete long contracts to earn their freedom.
But even though Buchanan was successful in his bid to become senator, the problem of slavery continued to cast a shadow over his political career. And over the years, he continued to cultivate a neutral opinion, hoping to keep both the abolitionists and their opponents on his side.
In 1836 Buchanan used his influence to oppose a gag order that the Senate wanted to impose on anti-slavery activists. However, ten years later, he spoke out against the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed piece of legislation that would have seen slavery outlawed across newly acquired territory after the Mexican-American War.
Eventually, in 1857 Buchanan became president of the United States. But even with this newfound power, he failed to come down decisively on either side of the debate. On the contrary, he attempted to convince the populace that the issue was of little importance – even as it threatened to tear the Union apart.
Just days after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court reached a decision in the case of Dred Scott – an African-American man who had been enslaved in Missouri, where the practice was still legal. After spending four years in the free state of Illinois, Scott had attempted to sue for his freedom in a court of law.
However, the judge ruled against Scott, and many suspected that Buchanan had played a part in the decision. Apparently, he believed in allowing individual states to decide their slavery laws. But in his attempts to please all parties, he ended up aggravating the divide – and, many believe, sowing the seeds for the Civil War.
Although he was a northerner, Buchanan was often dubbed a “Doughface” – a word used to describe someone sympathetic to the pro-slavery attitudes of the south. And when he was forced to address the issue of secession, he refused to take a strong stance against the practice.
Eventually, Buchanan retired, and two months later, the Civil War broke out. And as the abolitionist north fought against the pro-slavery south, many pointed to his lack of action as playing a significant role in igniting the conflict. In fact, some even called the struggle “Buchanan’s War.”
By January 1865 the Civil War was drawing to a close, and the U.S. Constitution was amended, banning slavery across the country. But although they were now technically free, many slaves still found themselves bound to lives of indentured servitude. So did Buchanan ever really grant any individuals their freedom?
Even today, rumors persist that Buchanan was responsible for buying, and freeing, slaves. However, there seems to be little evidence to support these claims – and the fate of Daphne and Ann Cook remains unknown. Certainly, it seems that the 15th president of the United States was not the unsung hero that he might first appear, but does he really deserve his reputation as one of the worst leaders that the United States has ever seen? The real truth may never be known.