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

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill

Related Articles

Senate Assesses Aftermath of Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse

Jul 12, 2024 | Steven Parks
July 12, 2024 - On March 26, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spanned the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland,...

House Subcommittee Convenes Roundtable to Discuss Fleeting U.S. Maritime Competitiveness

Jul 12, 2024 | Kirbie Ferrell
July 9, 2024 - The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hosted a roundtable to hear from industry...

Senate Committee Discusses Trade and Customs Policy

May 24, 2024 | Kirbie Ferrell
May 21, 2024 - The Senate Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness held a hearing on Tuesday titled...

Maryland Bridge Replacement to Cost $1.7-$1.9B; Progressive Design-Build to Be Used

May 3, 2024 | Jeff Davis
May 2, 2024 - Maryland officials told the media yesterday that the replacement cost for the Francis Scott Key Bridge...

Biden Announces Plan to Assist U.S. Steel, Shipbuilding Industries

Apr 19, 2024 | Jeff Davis
April 19, 2024 - President Biden this week requested higher tariffs on Chinese-made steel and aluminum, and his trade rep...

Balancing Act: The Next Generation of Mariners in the Maritime Industry

Mar 28, 2024 | Rear Admiral Ann C. Phillips, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
March 28, 2024 - Throughout my years of service as a Naval Officer I was frequently reminded that experience matters....

Senate Begins WRDA Deliberations

Mar 1, 2024 | Garett Shrode
March 1, 2024 - The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing to discuss the projects, programs...

House Panel Looks at Impacts of Red Sea Shipping Disruptions

Feb 2, 2024 | Kirbie Ferrell
February 2, 2024 - A House subcommittee this week looked at the impacts of Houthi missile launches on maritime shipping...

Year-End Defense Bill Contains Maritime Reauthorization

Dec 8, 2023 | Jeff Davis
December 8, 2023 - Next week, the Senate will vote on a 2,305-page, $874 billion national defense authorization bill early...

House Subcommittee Meets to Discuss Autonomous Maritime Technology, Submarines

Sep 22, 2023 | Kirbie Ferrell
September 19, 2023 - The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation met to discuss the use of autonomous...

The History of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund

Aug 31, 2023 | Jeff Davis
August 31, 2023 - The story of the creation of, and changes to, the Inland Waterways Trust Fund

As Other Agencies Face Cutbacks, House Appropriators Give Corps Water Program 15% Increase

Jun 16, 2023 | Jeff Davis
June 16, 2023 - A draft bill approved in an House subcommittee yesterday would provide $9.6 billion in new funding...