James Buchanan

James Buchanan

15th President, 1857-1861

Early Life and Pre-presidency

James Buchanan Portrait by George Healy, 1859

James Buchanan Portrait by George Healy, 1859

  • Born on April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: James Buchanan, Sr. and Elizabeth Speer. Siblings: Mary, Jane Ann, Maria, Sarah, Elizabeth, Harriet, John, William, George Washington, and Edward Young.
  • Attended Old Stone Academy when the family moved to Mercersberg, Pennsylvania. At 16 years old, he enrolled at Disckinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he graduated with honors in 1809.
  • Moved to Lancaster to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1813. He began his law practice in Lancaster.
  • Served in the War of 1812 as a member of a volunteer dragoon unit. They were sent to defend Baltimore but the unit saw no action. He returned to Lancaster to continued his law practice.
  • Elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party and served from 1814 to 1819.
  • Engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman in 1819, but her family disapproved of him. When rumor spread that he was seeing another women, Coleman broke off the engagement and died a few days later. Buchanan vowed never to marry.
  • Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1821 to 1831.
  • Served as Minister to Russia from 1832 to 1833 under President Andrew Jackson.
  • Elected to the U.S. Senate as a member of the Democratic Party and served from 1834 to 1845.
  • Appointed Secretary of State by then President James K. Polk and served from 1845 to 1849. He helped to negotiate the Oregon Treaty in 1846.
  • Named President of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster in 1852 and served until 1866.
  • Appointed Minister to the Court of St. James by then President Franklin Pierce. He served from 1853 to 1856. He helped to draft the Ostend Manifesto with the Minister to France and the Minister to Spain.
  • As a Senator, he was personally against slavery but opposed the abolitionists’ efforts as a threat to the Union. He believed that the Consitution gave southerners the right to own slaves and that it was the government’s duty to protect slavery in the South.
  • Was chosen by the Democrats as their nominee for President in the 1856 election.

Presidency

James Buchanan (center) and his cabinet, ca. 1859

James Buchanan (center) and his cabinet, ca. 1859

  • Took his oath of office on March 4, 1857 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol
  • Soon after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Dred Scott Case. Scott was a slave who was now residing in a free state with his master. He felt he was entitled to freedom because of his location. The Court disagreed because, as a slave, the Consitution did not recognize him as a citizen, excluding him from any rights.
  • The Court also declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional; therefore, slavery could not be banned in the new territories.
  • Worked to influence the outcome of the Dred Scott case by convincing a northerner judge to vote with the southerners. His actions resulted in further divisions in the country.
  • The Dredd Scott decision divided the country into Republicans, who were northerners and anti-slavery, and Democrats, who were pro-slavery southerners and northerners who sided with Democrats for the sake of national unity.
  • In Kansas, Buchanan supported the state’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, even though it was passed by a small minority of white men in late 1857. He urged Congress to accept Kansas as a slave state. After a prolonged debate in the House, it was agreed that the Constitution would be returned to Kansas for another vote. The new Kansas consitutional convention rejected slavery in 1858. Kansas would be admitted as a free state in 1861.
  • The Panic of 1857 was a major depression that resulted from the declining world economy coupled with over-expansion and risk-taking in the United States. The economy would not recover until 1859.
  • Buchanan was largely unsuccessful in calming down the pro- and anti-slavery factions. Buchanan’s desire to appeal to the southern vote only served to embolden the southern states to push for their right to slavery. When they were opposed, they threatened secession.
  • Buchanan had previously stated that he would serve only one term. He did not run for re-election in 1860.
  • Sectional strife worsened during Buchanan’s term, causing a split within his Democratic Party between anti-slavery northern Democrats and pro-slavery southern Democrats. The Republican Party began to gain strength in popularity and took control of both houses of Congress in the 1858 election.
  • The Democratic Party split and nominated two sets of candidates for the 1860 presidential election: Stephen Douglas and Herschel Johnson nominated by Northern Democrats and John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane nominated by Southern Democrats. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. Several southern states openly declared that they would secede if Lincoln won.
  • When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, the Crittenden Compromise was proposed to dissuade southern states from seceding by extending the Missouri Compromise across the country. Newly-elected President Lincoln opposed the plan.
  • Buchanan’s relationship with the Republican-dominated Congress became more strained. He replaced his pro-slavery Cabinet with nationalists who opposed secession.
  • On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. By February 1861, five more states had followed and formed the Confederate States of America.
  • On February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America. Texas seceded from the Union, making it 7 states in the Confederacy. The Confederacy declared that any U.S. laws that were not in conformity with its constitution would have no authority in their states. Buchanan did nothing to prevent the Confederacy from forming.

Post-presidency

James Buchanan Daguerrotype by Matthew Brady, ca. 1850-1868

James Buchanan Daguerrotype by Matthew Brady, ca. 1850-1868

  • Retired to his home, Wheatfield in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • The Civil War erupts two month after Buchanan’s retirement. He expresses support for the war, urging Democrats in his state to volunteer.
  • He spent the last years of his life defending his actions. Many people blamed him for the Civil War. He received many angry letters calling him a traitor or Judas.
  • His portrait in the U.S. Capitol had to be removed to prevent angry people from vandalizing it.
  • Wrote a memoir to defend himself to the public. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellionwas published in 1866, after the War, but was largely ignored.
  • Died on June 1, 1868 of respiratory failure.
  • He is interred at Woodland Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
  • His birthplace (Cove Gap, Pennsylvania) was renamed the Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park in 1911. A stone pyramid sits at the site of the log cabin where Buchanan was born.
  • Their home in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania was converted into the Buchanan Hotel, with a third story added in the late 1800s.
  • A memorial to Buchanan was erected in Meridian Hill Park in Washinton, D.C. unveiled on June 26, 1930.