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James Buchanan: Passive

2017-05-29

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[00:05.87]
  • VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.
  • [00:12.61]
  • Today we are talking about James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States.
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  • He was the third in a series of unsuccessful presidents.
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  • Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce had failed to resolve the country’s increasing division over slavery.
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  • Democratic Party officials hoped Buchanan could do better.
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  • After all, he was a gifted lawyer and had been a member of the U.S. Congress, a secretary of state, and a diplomat.
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  • But Buchanan was not so sure he could resolve the country’s problems.
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  • He was right.
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  • He was the last president before the American Civil War.
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  • James Buchanan was born in the northern state of Pennsylvania.
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  • His father was a businessman, and his family was financially successful.
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  • Buchanan – the oldest son in a family with 11 children – received a good education.
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  • He attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and soon began working as a lawyer.
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  • His abilities earned him a good deal of money and a place in the state’s legislature.
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  • But they were not able to win him a wife.
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  • As a young man, Buchanan fell in love with and proposed marriage to a young woman from a wealthy family.
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  • She accepted. But her father opposed the union.
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  • One day, his fiancée wrote Buchanan a letter saying she had reconsidered and decided not to marry him after all.
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  • Three days later, she unexpectedly died.
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  • Buchanan was heartbroken.
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  • He promised never to marry anyone else.
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  • And he did not.
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  • To date, James Buchanan is the only U.S. president who never married.
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  • When he entered the White House, his niece served as his first lady.
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  • Even with problems in his personal life, Buchanan went on to have a strong career as a national politician.
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  • He hoped his party would nominate him as its candidate for president.
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  • But in the 1840s and early 1850s, the Democrats nominated other candidates.
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  • Finally, in 1856, the party chose Buchanan.
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  • But by then, he was no longer sure he wanted to be president.
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  • He believed the country would soon be at war.
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  • Violence had already broken out in the western territory of Kansas.
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  • White settlers there had clashed over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave or free state.
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  • In one dramatic event, an anti-slavery activist named John Brown had murdered several pro-slavery settlers.
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  • President Buchanan had clear ideas about slavery.
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  • He said in his inaugural speech that voters in the territories – a group made up of white men – should be able to decide the issue for themselves.
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  • In the same speech, Buchanan urged Americans to support an important Supreme Court ruling that became known as the Dred Scott decision.
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  • Two days later, the court’s justices announced the majority opinion in that case.
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  • The opinion said the federal government did not have the power to control slavery in the territories.
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  • In addition, the court declared that enslaved people were not U.S. citizens.
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  • They were property, it said.
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  • Enslaved people did not have any more rights than a horse or a chair.
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  • Buchanan hoped the decision would stop the country’s debate over slavery.
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  • Instead, it made the debate more intense.
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  • During his presidency, Buchanan took two other actions that increased tensions and damaged his public image.
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  • First, he tried to persuade Congress to accept a state constitution for Kansas.
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  • The constitution permitted slavery, although a majority of Kansas voters had not agreed to it.
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  • The U.S. House of Representatives decided not to follow President Buchanan’s wishes.
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  • They permitted Kansans to vote again on the constitution.
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  • This time, Kansas voters rejected it.
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  • A majority agreed instead to seek admission into the Union as a free state.
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  • Buchanan’s image also suffered because of an event known as the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
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  • The raid was led by John Brown, the anti-slavery activist who had murdered pro-slavery settlers in Kansas.
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  • This time, Brown hoped to create an armed rebellion of anti-slavery activists and freed slaves.
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  • To get weapons, Brown and his men attacked a federal arsenal about 110 kilometers northwest of Washington, D.C.
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  • The armory was in the town of Harper’s Ferry, in today’s state of West Virginia.
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  • President Buchanan answered the raid by permitting federal troops to use force.
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  • The U.S. Marines surrounded Brown and his forces. They killed some and captured others, including Brown.
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  • A few weeks later, Brown was brought to trial, found guilty, and hanged.
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  • The event further divided Americans. Anti-slavery Northerners believed Brown was a hero.
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  • Pro-slavery Southerners believed he was a traitor.
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  • In general, Buchanan agreed with the Southerners.
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  • He said in a speech that Northerners should not tell Southerners what they could do in their states.
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  • But his words did not satisfy either side.
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  • For one thing, a main issue was whether slavery should be permitted in any new states.
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  • Buchanan did not comment on that point.
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  • At the end of his single term, Buchanan kept an earlier promise not to seek re-election.
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  • His party did not urge him to.
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  • Instead, Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats split.
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  • They nominated two different candidates.
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  • The Democrats’ lack of unity provided an opening for a candidate from a new party.
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  • The Republican Party was comprised of northerners who were against slavery.
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  • Their candidate was a lawyer without much experience in government.
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  • His name was Abraham Lincoln.
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  • Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860.
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  • In answer, the Southern state of South Carolina withdrew from the Union.
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  • Buchanan – who was in the last weeks of his presidency – did not support the move.
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  • But he did not act to stop South Carolina, either.
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  • He said the Constitution did not give him the power to force a state to stay in the Union.
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  • Following Buchanan’s inaction, six other slave-holding Southern states also seceded.
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  • Today many historians agree James Buchanan was one of the worst American presidents.
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  • Buchanan had many good personal qualities, and he did not want to harm the country.
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  • Instead, a common belief is that he did not have the right skills to unite a divided nation.
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  • His behavior appeared to be guided by conflicting ideas.
  • [10:08.21]
  • Buchanan said he opposed slavery and supported the Union.
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  • But he often took actions to protect slavery and help the South.
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  • Buchanan largely blamed anti-slavery activists and opposition politicians for the problems during his administration.
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  • But the public did not accept Buchanan’s position.
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  • He was not respected after he left office, and he did not appear in public very often.
  • [10:39.09]
  • Instead, the former president withdrew to his home in Pennsylvania until his death in 1868.
  • [10:52.69]
  • I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
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