James Buchanan, Jr.
(April 23, 1791 – June 1,
1868) was the 15th President of the United
from 1857–1861 and the last to be born in the 18th century
. To date he is the only President from the
state of Pennsylvania and the only president to remain a lifelong
A popular and experienced politician prior to his presidency,
Buchanan represented Pennsylvania in the House of
and later the Senate
, and served as Secretary of State
President James K. Polk
. After turning down an offer for an
appointment to the Supreme Court, he served as Minister to the
United Kingdom under President Franklin Pierce, in which capacity he helped
draft the inflammatory Ostend
Manifesto, which suggested the U.S. should declare war if Spain
refused to sell Cuba.
Ostend Manifesto was never acted upon and greatly damaged the
Despite unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic presidential
nomination several times, Buchanan's nomination in the election of 1856
was a compromise between the two sides of the slavery issue
while he was away on business. His subsequent election was largely
due to the even more divided state of the opposition. As President
he was a "doughface
", a Northerner with
Southern sympathies who battled with Stephen A. Douglas
for the control of the Democratic
. Buchanan's efforts to maintain peace
North and the South alienated both sides, and as the Southern
states declared their secession
in the prologue to
the American Civil War
Buchanan's opinion was that secession was illegal, but that going
to war to stop it was also illegal; hence, he remained inactive. By
the time he left office, popular opinion had turned against him,
and the Democratic Party had split in two. His handling of the
crisis preceding the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by
historians as one of the worst
in American history.
Buchanan, Jr., was born in a log cabin at
Gap, near Mercersburg, in what is now James Buchanan
Birthplace State Park. Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr.
(1761-1833), and Elizabeth Speer (1767-1833).
He was the
second of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. Buchanan
had six sisters and four brothers.
- Mary Buchanan (b. 1789 - d. 1791)
- Elizabeth Jane Buchanan Lane (b. 1793 - d. 1839)
- Maria Buchanan Magaw Johnson Yates Fronk (b. December 17, 1795
- d. 1849)
- Sarah Buchanan Houston (b. November 4, 1797 - d. January 27,
- Elizabeth Buchanan (b. March 8, 1800 - d. August 28, 1801)
- Harriet Buchanan Henry (b. August 5, 1802 - d. January 23,
- John Buchanan (November 24 - December 5, 1804)
- William Speer Buchanan (b. October 2, 1805 - d. December 19,
- George Washington Buchanan (b. April 16, 1808 - d. September
26, - 1832)
- Edward Young Buchanan (b. May 30, 1811 - d. January 25,
He spent his childhood living in the James Buchanan Hotel
. The Buchanan
family claims descent from King James I of Scotland
.Buchanan attended the
village academy and later Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Expelled at one point for poor behavior,
after pleading for a second chance, he graduated with honors on
September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the
bar in 1812.
A dedicated Federalist
, he strongly opposed the
War of 1812
on the grounds that it was
an unnecessary conflict. Nevertheless, when the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit and
served in the defense of Baltimore.
Freemason during his lifetime, he was the
Master of Masonic Lodge #43 in Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of
Buchanan began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of
from 1814–1816, serving as a Federalist
. He was elected
to the 17th United States
and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4,
1821 – March 4, 1831), serving as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the
in the 21st
United States Congress
. In 1830, he was among the members
appointed by the House to conduct impeachment
proceedings against James H. Peck
judge of the United
States District Court for the District of Missouri
, who was
ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek reelection, and from
1832 to 1834 he served as ambassador to
With the Federalist Party long defunct, Buchanan was elected as a
the United States Senate
fill a vacancy and served from December 1834; he was reelected in
1837 and 1843, and resigned in 1845. He was chairman of the
on Foreign Relations
(24th through 26th Congresses).
After the death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin
in 1844, Buchanan was
nominated by President Polk
as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He declined that nomination, and
the seat was filled by Robert Cooper
Buchanan served as Secretary of State
James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849, despite objections from Buchanan's
rival, Vice President George Dallas
In this capacity, he helped negotiate the 1846 Oregon Treaty
establishing the 49th parallel
as the northern boundary
of the western U.S. No Secretary of State has become President
since James Buchanan, although William Howard Taft
, the 27th President
of the United States, often served as Acting Secretary of State
during the Theodore Roosevelt
Buchanan was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and
Marshall College in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and he
served in this capacity until 1866, despite a false report that he
as minister to the
Court of St. James's (Britain) from 1853 to 1856, during which
time he helped to draft the Ostend
Manifesto, which proposed the purchase of Cuba from
Spain in order to extend slavery.
The Manifesto was a major blunder
for the Pierce administration and greatly weakened support for
Election of 1856
An anti-Buchanan political cartoon
from the 1856 election depicts the sentiment of many
Democrats nominated Buchanan in 1856 largely because he was
in England during the Kansas-Nebraska debate and thus remained
untainted by either side of the issue.
Buchanan, lying beneath a slave owner ("Fire Eater") and
slave, is saying, "I am no longer James Buchanan but the Platform
of my party."
He was nominated on
the 17th ballot and accepted, although he did not want to
Former president Millard Fillmore
" candidacy helped
Buchanan defeat John C.
, the first Republican
candidate for president in
, and he served
from March 4, 1857, to March 4, 1861.
regard to the growing schism in the country, as President-elect, Buchanan intended to sit
out the crisis by maintaining a sectional balance in his
appointments and persuading the people to accept constitutional law
as the Supreme Court interpreted it.
The court was considering
the legality of restricting slavery in the territories, and two
justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.
The Dred Scott Case
In his inaugural
, besides promising not to run again, Buchanan referred
to the territorial question as "happily, a matter of but little
practical importance" since the Supreme Court was about to settle
it "speedily and finally." Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a
fellow alumnus of Dickinson College) delivered the Dred Scott Decision, asserting that
Congress had no constitutional
power to exclude slavery in the territories.
Much of Taney’s
written judgment is widely interpreted as obiter dictum
— statements made by a
judge that are unnecessary to the outcome of the case, but in this
instance they delighted Southerners while creating a furor in the
North. Buchanan was widely believed to have been personally
involved in the decision, with many Northerners recalling Taney
whispering to Buchanan during the inauguration. Buchanan wished to
see the territorial question resolved by the Supreme Court. To
further this, he personally lobbied
fellow Pennsylvanian Justice Robert
to vote with the majority to uphold the right of
owning slave property. Abraham
denounced him as an accomplice of the Slave Power
, which Lincoln saw as a conspiracy
of slave owners to seize
control of the federal government and nationalize
Buchanan, however, faced further trouble on the territorial
question. He threw the full prestige of his
administration behind congressional approval of the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, which would
have admitted Kansas as a slave state, going as far as offering
patronage appointments and even cash bribes in exchange for
The Lecompton government was unpopular among
Northerners because it was dominated by slaveholders who had
enacted laws curtailing the rights of non-slaveholders. Even though
the voters in Kansas had rejected the Lecompton Constitution,
Buchanan managed to pass his bill through the House, but it was
blocked in the Senate by Northerners led by Stephen A. Douglas
. Eventually, Congress voted to
call a new vote on the Lecompton Constitution, a move which
infuriated Southerners. Buchanan and Douglas engaged in an all-out
struggle for control of the party in 1859–60, with Buchanan using
his patronage powers and Douglas rallying the grass roots. Buchanan
lost control of the greatly weakened party.
Buchanan's personal views
Buchanan personally favored slaveowners' rights and he sympathized
with the slave-expansionists who coveted Cuba. Buchanan despised
and free-soil Republicans
, lumping the two
together. He fought the opponents of the Slave Power
. In his third annual message
Buchanan claimed that the slaves were "treated with kindness and
humanity.... Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the
master have combined to produce this humane result" . Historian
Kenneth Stampp wrote:
His inactivity was so great, he even vetoed a bill passed by
Congress to create more colleges, for he believed that "there were
already too many educated people."
Panic of 1857
Economic troubles also plagued Buchanan's administration with the
outbreak of the Panic of 1857. The government suddenly faced a
shortfall of revenue, partly because of the Democrats' successful
push to lower the tariff
. At the behest of
Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb
Buchanan's administration began issuing deficit financing for the
government, a move which flew in the face of two decades of
Democratic support for hard money
policies and allowed Republicans to attack Buchanan for financial
In March 1857, Buchanan received false reports that Governor
of the Mormon
was planning a revolt. In November of that year,
Buchanan sent the Army to replace Young as Governor with the
non-Mormon Alfred Cumming
before either confirming the reports or notifying Young that he was
about to be replaced. Years of anti-Mormon
rhetoric in Washington, combined
with denouncements and lurid descriptions of both the Mormon
practice of polygamy
and the intentions of
the President and the Army
eastern newspapers, led the Mormons to expect the worst. Young
called up a militia
of several thousand men
to defend the Territory and sent a small band to harass and delay
the Army from entering it. Providentially, the early onset of winter
forced the Army to camp in present-day Wyoming, allowing for negotiations between the Territory
and the federal government.
Poor planning, the Army's
inadequate supplies, and the failure of the President to verify the
reports of rebellion and warning the territorial government of his
intentions led to widespread condemnation of Buchanan from Congress
and the press, who labeled the war "Buchanan's Blunder". When Young
agreed to be replaced by Cumming and to allow the Army to enter the
Utah Territory and establish a base, Buchanan attempted to save
face by issuing proclamations detailing his merciful pardoning of
the "rebels". These were poorly received by both Congress and the
inhabitants of Utah. The troops, in any case, would soon be
recalled to the East when the Civil War erupted.
When Republicans won a plurality
in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell
before Southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto
. The Federal Government reached a stalemate.
Bitter hostility between Republicans and Southern Democrats
prevailed on the floor of Congress.
To make matters worse, Buchanan was dogged by the partisan Covode committee
, which was
investigating the administration for evidence of impeachable
Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic
Party split. Buchanan played very little part as the
national convention, meeting in Charleston,
South Carolina, deadlocked.
The southern wing walked out of
the convention and nominated its own candidate for the presidency,
incumbent Vice President John
Buchanan refused to support. The remainder of the party finally
nominated Buchanan's archenemy, Douglas. Consequently, when the
Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion
that on November 6, 1860 he would be elected even though his name
appeared on the ballot only in the free states, Delaware, and a
handful of other border states.
In Buchanan's Message to Congress (December 3, 1860), he denied the
legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal
Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise,
but secessionist leaders did not want it. He then watched silently
as South Carolina seceded on December 20, followed by six other
February, they had formed the Confederate States of America
Eight slave states refused to join.
Beginning in late December, Buchanan reorganized his cabinet,
ousting Confederate sympathizers and replacing them with hard-line
nationalists Jeremiah S. Black
, Joseph Holt
. These conservative
Democrats strongly believed in
American nationalism and refused to countenance secession. At one
point, Treasury Secretary Dix ordered Treasury agents in New
Orleans, "If any man pulls down the American flag
, shoot him on the spot".
Buchanan left office, all arsenals and forts in the seceding states
were lost (except Fort
Sumter and three island outposts in Florida), and a fourth
of all federal soldiers surrendered to Texas
troops. The government retained control of Fort
Sumter, which was located in Charleston harbor, a visible spot in the Confederacy.
On January 5, Buchanan sent a civilian steamer Star of the West
reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861,
batteries opened fire on the Star of the West, which
returned to New
Paralyzed, Buchanan made no further moves
to prepare for war.
Buchanan's final day as president, March 4, 1861, he remarked to
the incoming Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man."
James Buchanan's presidential cabinet
appointed the following Justice to the Supreme Court
of the United States:
January 12, 1858||
July 25, 1881|
Buchanan appointed only seven other federal judges, all to United States district
States admitted to the Union
Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a
wealthy iron manufacturing businessman and
sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph
Hemphill, a colleague of Buchanan's from the House of
However, Buchanan spent little time
with her during the courtship. He was extremely busy with his law
firm and political projects at the time, taking him away from
Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded,
suggesting that he was marrying her for her money as his own family
was less affluent or that he was involved with other women.
Buchanan, for his part, never publicly spoke of his motives or
feelings, but letters from Ann revealed she was paying heed to the
rumors, and after Buchanan paid a visit to the wife of a friend,
she broke off the engagement. Ann died soon after. The records of a
Dr. Chapman, who looked after her in her final hours, and who said
just after her passing that this was "the first instance he ever
knew of hysteria
reveal that he theorized the woman's demise was caused by an
overdose of laudanum
.His fiancée's death
struck Buchanan. In a letter to her father which was returned to
him unopened — Buchanan said, "It is now no time for
explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that
she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors
of it.... I may sustain the shock
of her death, but I feel that
happiness has fled from me forever." The Coleman family became
bitter towards Buchanan and denied him a place at Ann's funeral.
Buchanan vowed he would never marry, though he continued to be
flirtatious, and some pressed him to seek a wife. In response he
said, "Marry he could not, for his affections were buried in the
grave." He preserved Ann Coleman's letters, keeping them with him
throughout his life, and requested that they be burned upon his
years in Washington,
D.C., prior to his presidency, Buchanan lived with his
close friend, Alabama Senator William Rufus
King became Vice
under Franklin Pierce
He took ill and died shortly after Pierce's inauguration, and four
years before Buchanan became President. Buchanan and King's close
relationship prompted Andrew Jackson
to refer to King as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy", while Aaron V. Brown
spoke of the two as "Buchanan and his wife". Further, some of the
contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan and King's
relationship. Buchanan and King's nieces destroyed their uncles'
correspondence, leaving some questions as to what relationship the
two men had, but the length and intimacy of surviving letters
illustrate "the affection of a special friendship" and Buchanan
wrote of his "communion" with his housemate. Such expression,
however, was not necessarily unusual among men at the time.
Circumstances surrounding Buchanan and King's close emotional ties
have led to speculation that Buchanan was gay
. In his book, Lies Across
, James W. Loewen
points out that in May 1844, during
one of the interruptions in Buchanan and King's relationship that
resulted from King's appointment as minister to France, Buchanan
wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt about his social life, "I am now
'solitary and alone', having no companion in the house with me. I
have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded
with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be
alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to
some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners
for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or
romantic affection." The only President never to marry, Buchanan
turned to Harriet Lane
, an orphaned
niece whom he had earlier adopted, to act as his First Lady
President James Buchanan
In 1866 Buchanan published Mr Buchanan's Administration on the
Eve of the Rebellion
, the first published presidential memoir,
in which he defended his actions; the day before his death he
predicted that "history will vindicate my memory". Buchanan died June 1,
1868, at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward
Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
Nevertheless, historians continue to criticize Buchanan for his
unwillingness or inability to act in the face of secession.
Historians in both 2006 and 2009 voted his failure to deal with
secession the worst presidential mistake ever made. Historical
rankings of United States Presidents
by scholars considering
presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures and
faults, consistently place Buchanan among the worst presidents in
and granite memorial residing near the Southeast corner of Washington,
D.C.'s Meridian Hill Park was designed by architect William Gorden Beecher
and sculpted by Maryland artist Hans
Buchanan memorial, Washington,
Commissioned in 1916 but not approved by the
until 1918, and not completed and
unveiled until June 26, 1930, the memorial features a statue of
Buchanan bookended by male and female classical figures
representing law and diplomacy, with the engraved text reading:
"The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain
ranges of the law", a quote from a member of Buchanan's cabinet,
Jeremiah S. Black
. The memorial in the nation's capital
complemented an earlier monument, constructed
in 1907–08 and dedicated in 1911, on the site of Buchanan's
birthplace in Stony Batter, Pennsylvania.
Part of an memorial site, the monument is a
250-ton pyramid structure designed to show the original weathered
surface of the native rubble and mortar.
counties are named in his honor: Buchanan County in Iowa, Missouri, and Virginia. Another in Texas was christened in 1858 but
County, after the newly elected Vice President of the
Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, in 1861.
- Klein , pp. 9-12.
- Baker , p. 18.
- Klein , p. 27.
- Curtis , p. 22.
- Curtis , pp.
- Seigenthaler , pp. 107-108.
- Klein , pp.
- Klein , p. 210.
- Klein , p. 415.
- Hakim, Joy. The New Nation: 1789-1850 A History of US Book
- Baker , p. 140.
- Recess appointment; formally nominated on
January 23, 1860, confirmed by the United States
Senate on January 30, 1860, and received commission on January
- University of Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs: James
Buchanan: Life Before the Presidency.
- Klein , p. 111.
- Baker , p. 75.
- Steve Tally discusses King and Buchanan's relationship in more
depth in his book Bland Ambition: From Adams to Quayle--The
Cranks, Criminals, Tax Cheats, and Golfers Who Made It to Vice
- James W.
Loewen. Lies Across America. Page 367. The New Press.
- Klein , p. 156.
- Curtis , pp. 188,
- Binder, Frederick Moore. "James Buchanan: Jacksonian
Expansionist" Historian 1992 55(1): 69–84. Issn: 0018-2370
Fulltext: in Ebsco
- Binder, Frederick Moore. James Buchanan and the American
Empire. Susquehanna U. Press, 1994. 318 pp.
- Birkner, Michael J., ed. James Buchanan and the Political
Crisis of the 1850s. Susquehanna U. Press, 1996. 215 pp.
- Meerse, David. "Buchanan, the Patronage, and the Lecompton
Constitution: a Case Study" Civil War History 1995 41(4):
291–312. Issn: 0009-8078
- Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of
Lincoln 2 vols. (1960) highly detailed narrative of his
- Nichols, Roy Franklin; The Democratic Machine,
1850–1854 (1923), detailed narrative; online
- Potter, David Morris. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861
(1976). ISBN 0-06-013403-8 Pulitzer prize.
- Rhodes, James Ford History of the United States from the
Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 vol
- Smith, Elbert B. The Presidency of James Buchanan
(1975). ISBN 0-7006-0132-5, standard history of his
- Updike, John Buchanan Dying
(1974). ISBN 0-8117-0238-3