James Buchanan

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For the economist of this name, see James M. Buchanan.
James Buchanan
James Buchanan
Term of office March 4, 1857 – March 3, 1861
Preceded by Franklin Pierce
Succeeded by Abraham Lincoln
Date of birth April 23, 1791
Place of birth Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
Spouse Harriet Lane (niece, never married)
Political party Democrat

James Buchanan (April 23, 1791June 1, 1868) was the 15th President of the United States (1857-1861). He was the only bachelor President, and the only resident of Pennsylvania to hold that office. He has been criticized for failing to prevent the country from sliding into schism and the American Civil War and generally lacking good judgment and moral courage. As a result, he is considered, together with his predecessor President Franklin Pierce, to be one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.



Buchanan was a Representative and a Senator from Pennsylvania. He was born in a log cabin at Cove Gap, near Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791 to James Buchanan and Elizabeth Spear. He moved to Mercersburg with his parents in 1799, was privately tutored and then attended the village academy and was graduated from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1809 he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The same year he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1812 and practiced in Lancaster. He was one of the first volunteers in the War of 1812 and served in the defense of Baltimore, Maryland. He was a member of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives from 1814 to 1815. He was elected to the Seventeenth and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1821 - March 3, 1831). He was chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary (Twenty-first Congress). He was not a candidate for renomination in 1830. Buchanan served as one of the managers appointed by the House of Representatives in 1830 to conduct the impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Buchanan served as Minister to Russia from 1832 to 1834.

Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of William Wilkins. He served from December 6, 1834; was reelected in 1837 and 1843, and resigned on March 5, 1845, to accept a Cabinet portfolio. He was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Twenty-fourth through Twenty-sixth Congresses).

Buchanan served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849, during which he negotiated the 1846 Oregon Treaty establishing the 49th parallel as the northern boundary in the western U.S. No Secretary of State has become President since James Buchanan.

In 1853, Buchanan was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in his hometown of Lancaster. He served in this capacity until 1865.

He served as Minister to the United Kingdom from 1853 to 1856, during which time he helped to draft the Ostend Manifesto which proposed the purchase of Cuba under the threat of force.

Questions About Buchanan's Sexual Orientation

In 1819 Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of wealthy iron manufacturer. However she abruptly broke off their engagement and died of mysterious causes several days later. After his fiancee's death Buchanan vowed he would never marry. He would live with Alabama senator William Rufus King for sixteen years in Washington, D.C., but King died four years before Buchanan became president. Rumors and speculation circulated that the two had a homosexual relationship, with references to Buchanan's "wife" and "better half", and former President Andrew Jackson referred to King as "Miss Nancy". On occasion, Buchanan even refered to King as "Aunt Nancy". The difficulty in determining if someone was a homosexual, especially in the mid-1800s, means Buchanan's sexual orientation remains uncertain.


The 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. Millard Fillmore's "Know-Nothing" candidacy helped Buchanan defeat John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856 and he served from March 4, 1857 to March 3, 1861.

In regard to the growing schism in the country, as President-elect he 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.

In his inaugural address, 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 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 dicta — statements made by a judge that are unnecessary to the outcome of the case, which in this case, while they delighted Southerners, created a furor in the North. Buchanan was widely believed to have been personally involved in the outcome of the case, with many Northerners recalling Taney whispering to Buchanan during Buchanan's inauguration. Buchanan wished to see the territorial question resolved by the Supreme Court. To further this, Buchanan personally lobbied his fellow Pennsylvanian Justice Robert Cooper Grier to vote with the majority in that case to uphold the right of slave property.

Buchanan, however, faced further hardship on the territorial question. Buchanan 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 so far as to offer patronage appointments and even cash bribes in exchange for votes. The Lecompton government was wildly unpopular to Northerners, as 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 ram 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, meanwhile, was by now tremendously unpopular in the North.

Economic troubles also plagued Buchanan's administration with the outbreak of the Panic of 1857. The government suddenly faced a shortfall of revenue, due in part to the Democrats' successful push to lower the tariff. Buchanan's administration, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, 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 mismanagement.

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 Northern and Southern members prevailed on the floor of Congress, where memories of the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856 by a Southern Democrat still burned.

Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party split. The southern wing walked out of the convention and nominated its own candidate for the presidency, incumbent vice-president John C. Breckinridge, whom Buchanan refused to support. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern "Fire-Eaters" advocated secession.

President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, 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.

Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members resigned, he appointed Northerners, and chartered the civilian steamer Star of the West to secretly carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. However, the attempt to maintain secrecy failed. Newspapers published stories that the ship was headed for Charleston, and South Carolina officials received confirmation from Louis T. Wigfall, still a United States senator from Texas, as well as from Buchanan's Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi. In the early morning of January 9, 1861, South Carolina's batteries opened on the Star of the West. The unarmed ship was caught in a crossfire. Receiving no assistance from Fort Sumter, it turned back to New York after suffering minor damage. As a result of the operation, Thompson resigned from the cabinet.

As such, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired during the Buchanan Administration. Before he left office, seven slave states seceded, several seizing other federal forts and property within their boundaries.

Buchanan retired to his home "Wheatland," near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died June 1, 1868, at the age of 77. He was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery, in Lancaster. On the day before his death, he predicted that "history will vindicate my memory," but historians continue mainly to denigrate him.

N.B. "Wheatland" should not be confused with the Wheatland musical organization.


President James Buchanan 1857–1861
Vice President John C. Breckinridge 1857–1861
Secretary of State Lewis Cass 1857–1860
  Jeremiah S. Black 1860–1861
Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb 1857–1860
  Philip Thomas 1860–1861
  John A. Dix 1861
Secretary of War John B. Floyd 1857–1861
  Joseph Holt 1861
Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black 1857–1860
  Edwin M. Stanton 1860–1861
Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown 1857–1859
  Joseph Holt 1859–1861
  Horatio King 1861
Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey 1857–1861
Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson 1857–1861

Supreme Court appointments

Buchanan appointed the following Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States:

States admitted to the Union

Related articles

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Preceded by:
Jacob Hibshman
U.S. Congressman for the 3rd District of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by:
John Phillips
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James S. Mitchell
U.S. Congressman for the 4th District of Pennsylvania
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William Hiester
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Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary
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John Randolph
U.S. Minister to Russia
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William Wilkins
U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania
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John C. Calhoun
United States Secretary of State
March 10, 1845March 7, 1849
Succeeded by:
John M. Clayton
Preceded by:
Joseph R. Ingersoll
U.S. Minister to Britain
Succeeded by:
George M. Dallas
Preceded by:
Franklin Pierce
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1856 (won)
Succeeded by:
Stephen A. Douglas (northern candidate)
John C. Breckinridge (southern candidate)
Preceded by:
Franklin Pierce
President of the United States
March 4, 1857March 3, 1861
Succeeded by:
Abraham Lincoln

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