Every once in a while, a historical rumor turns up that just might change how you see a figure from the past. Take James Buchanan. Though the 15th president is often blamed for inaction in the years leading up to the Civil War, some claim that he purchased, then freed slaves out of his personal hatred of the institution.

So is the story truth or myth? It turns out that Buchanan did buy, then free slaves—but not for the reason you might think.

In 1834, Buchanan was running for Senate—a politically dicey proposition in the decades before the war. At the time, the issue of whether states had the right to allow slavery—and whether the rapidly growing country’s newest states should be slave or free—was a hot political topic. Having passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, Pennsylvania wasn’t a slave state, but plenty of other states were, and Buchanan felt it was important to maintain a neutral image to assure political capital from both sides.

Portrait of James Buchanan. (Credit: The Library of Congress)
Portrait of James Buchanan. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

But when Buchanan went to visit his family before the election, he learned about a bombshell that could ruin his carefully cultivated neutral position. It turned out that his sister Harriet, who lived in Virginia with her husband, a minister, owned two slaves—a mother and daughter named Daphne and Ann Cook.

This had the potential to blow up in Buchanan’s face, and he knew it. As biographer Philip S. Klein notes, “this was political dynamite.” If word got out about the slaves, it might look like Buchanan supported slavery—or be proof of his hypocrisy if he made anti-slavery statements. So Buchanan came up with an ingenious solution—to rid himself of this potential issue by freeing the two slaves.

But political calculus wasn’t the only reason Buchanan purchased the slaves. His personal need for servants seems to have played into the decision, too. “Anyway, thought Buchanan,” wrote Klein, “this might help to solve his house-servant problem.”

At the time, women managed house servants and organized the administration of household tasks. Buchanan, who was single, had no wife to do so. At some point in 1834, he hired Esther Parker, the daughter of a local innkeeper, as his housekeeper. Known as “Miss Hetty,” she served him for 34 years and became a trusted friend and confidant.

But a housekeeper needed servants to manage, and Buchanan had none. So rather than freeing the slaves, he turned them into his servants. The sales documents included an agreement that Daphne, then 22, would be indentured to his service for seven years. Her 5-year-old daughter, Ann, was required to serve Buchanan for 23 years. The Cooks might technically be free, but in reality they were bound to him for years.

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His overseas duties enabled him to avoid becoming embroiled in the domestic conflict over slavery. That isolation, which ended when he was elected president in 1856, contributed to the failure of his administration.

Slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania, but the Cooks’ story is not unique. As historians Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund note, indentured servitude continued in Pennsylvania long after it had been abandoned in most states and was common for free blacks of the era—a sort of “twilight zone between slavery and freedom.”

The ambiguous transaction sums up the future president’s enigmatic attitudes toward the institution of slavery. As a candidate and, later, a senator, he was branded a “Doughface”—a derogatory term used to identify a Northerner who sympathized with Southerners when it came to slavery.

When the Senate tried to silence abolitionist petitions with a gag rule in 1836, Buchanan opposed it—but used a states’ rights argument that could be used to uphold slavery as he did. But he also refused to support the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed law that would have banned slavery in all of the territory the United States gained from Mexico (including Texas) at the end of the Mexican-American War. He also supported returning escaped slaves to their masters.

When Buchanan became president in 1857, he downplayed the issue of slavery and whether it should be legal in expanding U.S. territory that was on the verge of tearing the country apart. “This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance,” he declared in his inaugural address. Two days later, the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott’s right to freedom in what is now considered one of its most notorious decisions—a decision Buchanan is thought to have influenced as part of his desire to maintain peace among abolitionists and states’ rights advocates.

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Buchanan actively pressured the Supreme Court to rule in the 1857 Dred Scott case that Congress had no right to outlaw slavery.

By casting slavery as an issue only states could decide, Buchanan thought he was opening the door for a more peaceful union. Today, though, his inaction is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.

But Buchanan’s personal view of slavery was a bit more ambiguous than his public stance might suggest. In the words of his nephew and adopted son, James Buchanan Henry, the president “simply tolerated it as a legal fact…He had no admiration for it whatsoever.”

Henry goes on to say he knew about multiple instances in which the president bought freedom for slaves in Washington, then brought them to Pennsylvania, “leaving them to repay him if they could out of their wages.” Did Buchanan have other indentured servants—or just buy and free slaves under the radar? It’s unclear. When it comes to James Buchanan and slavery, it seems, things were never as simple as they might seem.