The Buchanan Administration’s Last Days

March 2, 1861 – With his term in office expiring, President James Buchanan approved several last-minute bills including creating new western territories, granting a loan to the Federal government, and increasing tariffs on foreign imports.

15th U.S. President James Buchanan | Image Credit:
15th U.S. President James Buchanan | Image Credit:

Buchanan signed a bill into law creating the Dakota and Nevada territories. The Dakota Territory consisted of present-day North and South Dakota, and major portions of Montana and Wyoming. Daniel M. Frost and John B.S. Todd of the Frost-Todd Company had lobbied for this region to become a territory; their firm traded with settlers and helped establish towns.

A special 1860 census had counted no more than 900 white settlers in the Dakota Territory. Todd’s hometown of Yankton, with just 300 residents, became the territorial capital. Upon taking office, President Abraham Lincoln appointed his hometown family physician, Dr. William Jayne, as the first territorial governor.

The Nevada Territory consisted of a portion of the western Utah Territory called Washoe. Republicans in Congress had sought to separate Nevada, a predominantly pro-Republican region, from the Utah Territory, which consisted mostly of Mormons whom Republicans opposed because many practiced polygamy. Lincoln appointed an avid supporter, James W. Nye, as territorial governor.

The laws granting territorial status to Dakota and Nevada had no provisions regarding slavery. Northern Democrats, led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, accused Republicans of hypocrisy by not demanding that slavery be excluded in these territories in accordance with their political platform. Douglas triumphantly proclaimed that “the whole doctrine for which the Republican Party contended as to the Territories is abandoned, surrendered, given up; non-interference is substituted in its place.”

Republican Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont | Image Credit:
Republican Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont | Image Credit:

Buchanan also approved two financial measures on March 2nd. One authorized a loan of $10 million to the Federal government. The other doubled the average tax rate on foreign imports and raised taxes on some imports as high as 250 percent. The Morrill Tariff Act, sponsored by Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont, sought to protect northern manufacturing from foreign competition.

The tariff had long been an issue that bitterly divided North and South. Raising tariff rates prompted foreign trading partners to raise the price of their goods to make up the difference, and since the South relied mostly on imports, the tariff disproportionately raised southern costs. By the late 1850s, southern states provided nearly three-fourths of all U.S. exports and paid nearly 90 percent of U.S. import taxes.

Under the prior tariff law enacted in 1857, the highest tariff on imports was just 24 percent. However, Republicans traditionally supported higher tariffs, and as their political influence grew, they pushed for greater rates. Many Republicans sought even higher rates than the Morrill Tariff, but Buchanan, a Democrat, would have vetoed such legislation. He only approved this measure in the hope that it would help manufacturing interests in his home state of Pennsylvania. Because Lincoln was an avid high tariff supporter, congressional Republicans expected to raise rates even higher during his presidency.

Stephen A. Douglas led most northern Democrats in opposition to the Morrill Tariff. He warned that raising rates this high would encourage foreign powers such as Great Britain and France to support the Confederacy, which tended toward free trade because of its reliance on imports. Douglas also stated, “Every tariff involves the principles of protection and oppression, the principles of benefits and of burdens.”

The Morrill Tariff Act passed with support from 87 percent of congressional Republicans, but just 12.5 percent from southern Democrats. Several Republicans noted that the Confederacy’s free trade policies could prove disastrous to U.S. financial interests because foreign trading partners would be willing to avoid the high taxes in the North and instead trade with the South.

Buchanan also acted militarily to discuss the secession crisis. On March 1, Secretary of War Joseph Holt ordered the dismissal of Brigadier General David E. Twiggs from the Federal army “for his treachery to the flag of his country” by surrendering Federal military forts and other property in Texas to state officials. The next day, Buchanan submitted a message to Congress explaining that Federal troops had been ordered to assemble in Washington to preserve peace and order.

Buchanan held his last cabinet meeting on the morning of the 4th to consider bills from the outgoing Congress. Holt reported that Major Robert Anderson, commanding the isolated Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, informed him that the fort could not be held much longer without at least 20,000 reinforcements. Holt said he would relay this news to incoming President Lincoln. In addition, the Navy Department recalled all but three of its 42 warships from foreign ports to provide aid in this crisis.



  • DiLorenzo, Thomas J., How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, from the Pilgrims to the Present (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), p. 78
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 16-17
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 43-47
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 55
  • Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 523-24
  • Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Nevada Territory


Leave a Reply