James Buchanan (1857 to 1861): Telegraphing a Judge in Sacramento and a Queen in England

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

Although historians have not been kind to James Buchanan, the nation’s 15th president was known for embracing new technologies from refrigerators to railways. His inauguration, as shown below, was the first to be photographed.  

During Buchanan’s term, an information revolution was brewing. Telegraphs were beginning to sever the link between communication and transportation, eliminating the need to physically transport information. A New York professor, Samuel Morse, had refined the technology to send electric signals across wires, and he built a 40-mile telegraph line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. In 1844, sitting in the U.S. Capitol Building, Morse tapped out each letter’s code for its first message: “What hath God wrought?”  

Before the telegraph — words, warnings, ideas, news articles, and all sorts of messages could only travel by boats, feet, horses, and trains. After Morse’s successful 1844 demonstration, telegraph lines were built west to St. Louis and then south to New Orleans. The ability to instantly communicate over vast distances would have a profound effect on every industry, as much as the invention of the printing press 400 years earlier. 

Railroad companies would be warned of inclement weather conditions, manufacturers could compare the price of raw goods across the country, and investors would obtain more precise and timely information about companies. At the White House, presidents could share top-secret information with their diplomats and military leaders in the fraction of the time it had previously taken.  

In 1860, President Buchanan signed the Pacific Telegraph Act to fund the construction of a telegraph line connecting cities on the East Coast with California. Within 18 months, the Western Union Company built a new telegraph line across the western plains, over mountains, and through deserts. The first message would be sent from Sacramento to Buchanan’s successor in the White House. 

A transcontinental project could certainly not be built, today, in only a year-and-a-half. Project sponsors would probably need that long just to begin, let alone complete, the environmental impact statement for such an ambitious undertaking. 

During President Buchanan’s term, another extraordinary telegraph line was constructed. The U.S. government helped fund and provide naval support for the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay an undersea cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. President Buchanan and England’s Queen Victoria sent each other telegraph messages in 1858 to launch the transatlantic service. 

The construction of transcontinental telegraph line. Illustration source: Library of Congress.  

When technologies are first introduced — whether it’s telegraphs, satellites, or artificial intelligence – they are often used for both peaceful and military purposes. Morse understood that reality. In an 1838 letter, he wrote “This mode of instantaneous communication must inevitably become an instrument of immense power, to be wielded for good or for evil, as it shall be properly or improperly directed.”  

However, some segments of the population will always be overly optimistic. The authors of the 1858 book, The Story of the Telegraph, wrote, “Of all the marvelous achievements of modern science the electric telegraph is transcendentally the greatest and most serviceable to mankind … It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.”   

Obviously, violence and prejudice have endured. Within a few years of the book’s release, the authors would be living in a nation engulfed in a civil war fought over the issue of enslaving Black people. Slavery and the war would be Buchanan’s legacy — he would not end the former nor prevent the latter. 

Although Buchanan was from the northern state of Pennsylvania, he supported admitting the Kansas Territory into the U.S. as a slave state. In 1857, before the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the Dred Scott case, Buchanan knew its contents and lent it his support. The Court stated, “Negroes, whether slaves or free, that is, men of the African race, are not citizens of the United States by the Constitution.” Not only did the ruling state that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a federal territory, it also declared that the principle that “all men are created equal” did not apply to Black Americans.  

The ruling inflamed tensions between abolitionists in the north and slave holders in the south, and split members of Buchanan’s Democratic Party. After the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, Buchanan faced an unprecedented crisis. 

South Carolina voted to secede followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. President Buchanan said that secession was illegal, but the federal government did not have the right to prevent the states from seceding. President Buchanan said about the states’ actions: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.” His successor had a very different perspective. 

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

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