|15th President of the United States|
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
|Vice President||John C. Breckinridge|
|Preceded by||Franklin Pierce|
|Succeeded by||Abraham Lincoln|
|20th United States Minister to the United Kingdom|
August 23, 1853 – March 15, 1856
|Preceded by||Joseph Reed Ingersoll|
|Succeeded by||George M. Dallas|
|17th United States Secretary of State|
March 10, 1845 – March 7, 1849
|President||James K. Polk|
|Preceded by||John C. Calhoun|
|Succeeded by||John M. Clayton|
|United States Senator|
December 6, 1834 – March 5, 1845
|Preceded by||William Wilkins|
|Succeeded by||Simon Cameron|
|5th United States Minister to Russia|
June 11, 1832 – August 5, 1833
|Preceded by||John Randolph|
|Succeeded by||William Wilkins|
|Chairman of the |
House Judiciary Committee
March 5, 1829 – March 3, 1831
|Preceded by||Philip Pendleton Barbour|
|Succeeded by||Warren R. Davis|
|Member of the|
U.S. House of Representatives
March 4, 1821 – March 3, 1831
|Preceded by||Jacob Hibshman (3rd)|
James S. Mitchell (4th)
|Succeeded by||Daniel H. Miller (3rd)|
William Hiester (4th)
|Constituency||3rd district (1821–1823)|
4th district (1823–1831)
|Member of the |
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
from Lancaster County
|Preceded by||Emanuel Reigart, Joel Lightner, Jacob Grosh, John Graff, Henry Hambright, Robert Maxwell|
|Succeeded by||Joel Lightner, Hugh Martin, John Forrey, Henry Hambright, Jasper Slaymaker, Jacob Grosh|
|Born||April 23, 1791|
Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||June 1, 1868 (aged 77)|
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Resting place||Woodward Hill Cemetery|
|Children||Harriet Lane, adopted|
|Education||Dickinson College (BA)|
|Years of service||1814|
|Unit||Henry Shippen's Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division|
|Battles/wars||War of 1812|
• Defense of Baltimore
James Buchanan Jr. (//; April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861). He previously served as Secretary of State (1845–1849) and represented Pennsylvania in both houses of the U.S. Congress. He was a states' rights advocate during the nation's closing era of slavery. He is regularly ranked by historians as one of the least effective presidents in history, for his failure to mitigate the national disunity that led to the American Civil War.
Buchanan was a prominent lawyer in Pennsylvania and won election to the state’s House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and retained that post for 11 years, aligning with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. He served as Jackson's Minister to Russia (1832). He won election in 1834 as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and also held that position for 11 years. In 1845 he was appointed to serve as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State, and in 1853 he was named as President Franklin Pierce's Minister to the United Kingdom.
Beginning in 1844 Buchanan became a regular contender for the Democratic party's presidential nomination; he was finally nominated in 1856, defeating incumbent Franklin Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and running mate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing former president Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 presidential election.
Buchanan supported the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, which denied a slave's petition for freedom. He also joined with Southern leaders in attempting to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. He thereby angered not only the Republicans but also many Northern Democrats. Buchanan honored his pledge to serve only one term, and supported Breckinridge's unsuccessful candidacy in the 1860 presidential election, which was won by Republican Abraham Lincoln. Just weeks after Lincoln followed Buchanan in the presidency, Southern states began seceding from the U.S., and the American Civil War started. Historians fault Buchanan for not addressing the issue of slavery, and for not forestalling the secession of the Southern states.
James Buchanan was born April 23, 1791 in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer. His parents were both of Ulster Scot descent, his father having emigrated from Milford, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1783. Shortly after Buchanan's birth the family moved to a farm near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and in 1794 the family moved to town. His father became the wealthiest resident there, as a merchant, farmer, and real estate investor.
Buchanan attended the Old Stone Academy and then Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was nearly expelled for bad behavior, but pleaded for a second chance and ultimately graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year he moved to the state capital at Lancaster. James Hopkins, a leading lawyer there, accepted Buchanan as an apprentice, and in 1812 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. Many other lawyers moved to Harrisburg when it became the state capital in 1812, but Buchanan made Lancaster his lifelong home. His income rapidly rose after he established his practice, and by 1821 he was earning over $11,000 per year (equivalent to $210,000 in 2019). He handled various types of cases, including a much-publicized impeachment trial, where he successfully defended Pennsylvania Judge Walter Franklin.
Buchanan began his political career as a member of the Federalist Party, and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814–1816). The legislature met for only three months a year, but Buchanan's service helped him acquire more clients. Politically, he supported federally-funded internal improvements, a high tariff, and a national bank. He became a strong critic of Democratic-Republican President James Madison during the War of 1812.
When the British invaded neighboring Maryland in 1814, he served in the defense of Baltimore as a private in Henry Shippen's Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division, Pennsylvania Militia, a unit of yagers. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who was not an officer. He is also the last president who served in the War of 1812.
Congressional service and Minister to Russia
By 1820, the Federalist Party had largely collapsed, and Buchanan ran for the United States House of Representatives as a "Republican-Federalist." During his tenure in Congress, he was a supporter of Andrew Jackson and an avid defender of states' rights. After the 1824 presidential election, he helped organize Jackson's followers into the Democratic Party, and he became a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat. In Washington, he was personally close with many southern Congressmen, including William R. King of Alabama. Buchanan viewed some New England Congressmen as dangerous radicals. He was appointed to the Committee of Agriculture in his first year, and he eventually became Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. He declined re-nomination to a sixth term, and briefly returned to private life.
After Jackson was re-elected in 1832, he offered Buchanan the position of United States Ambassador to Russia. Buchanan was reluctant to leave the country but ultimately agreed. He served as ambassador for 18 months, during which time he learned French, the trade language of diplomacy in the nineteenth century. He helped negotiate commercial and maritime treaties with the Russian Empire.
Buchanan returned home and was elected by the Pennsylvania state legislature to succeed William Wilkins in the U. S. Senate. Wilkins in turn replaced Buchanan as the ambassador to Russia. The Jacksonian Buchanan, who was re-elected in 1836 and 1842, opposed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States and sought to expunge a congressional censure of Jackson stemming from the Bank War. He also opposed the gag rule, adopted to suppress petitions regarding slavery. He said, "We have just as little right to interfere with slavery in the South, as we have to touch the right of petition." Buchanan thought that the issue of slavery was the domain of the states, and he faulted abolitionists for exciting passions over the issue. His support of states' rights was matched by his support for Manifest Destiny, and he opposed the Webster–Ashburton Treaty for its "surrender" of lands to the United Kingdom. Buchanan also argued for the annexation of both Texas and the Oregon Country. In the lead-up to the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Buchanan positioned himself as a potential alternative to former President Martin Van Buren, but the nomination instead went to James K. Polk.
Secretary of State
Buchanan was offered the position of Secretary of State in the Polk administration, as well as the alternative of serving on the Supreme Court. He accepted as Secretary of State and served for the duration of Polk's single term in office. He and Polk nearly doubled the territory of the United States through the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Buchanan at first favored a compromise, but later advocated for annexation of the entire territory. Eventually, he agreed to a division at the 49th parallel. After the outbreak of the Mexican–American War, he advised Polk against taking territory south of the Rio Grande River and New Mexico. However, as the war came to an end, Buchanan argued for the annexation of further territory, and Polk began to suspect that Buchanan was primarily angling to become president. Buchanan did quietly seek the nomination at the 1848 Democratic National Convention, as Polk had promised to serve only one term, but the nomination went to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan.
Ambassador to the United Kingdom
With the 1848 election of Whig Zachary Taylor, Buchanan returned to private life. He bought the house of Wheatland on the outskirts of Lancaster and entertained various visitors, while monitoring political events. In 1852, he was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, and he served in this capacity until 1866. He quietly campaigned for the 1852 Democratic presidential nomination, writing a public letter that deplored the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed to ban slavery in new territories. Buchanan became known as a "doughface" due to his sympathy towards the South. At the 1852 Democratic National Convention, Buchanan won the support of many southern delegates but failed to win the two-thirds support needed for the presidential nomination, which went to Franklin Pierce. Buchanan declined to serve as the vice presidential nominee, and the convention instead nominated Buchanan's close friend, William King. Pierce won the 1852 election, and Buchanan accepted the position of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Buchanan sailed for England in the summer of 1853, and he remained abroad for the next three years. In 1850, the United States and Great Britain had signed the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, which committed both countries to joint control of any future canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Central America. Buchanan met repeatedly with Lord Clarendon, the British foreign minister, in hopes of pressuring the British to withdraw from Central America. He also focussed on the potential annexation of Cuba, which had long interested him. At Pierce's prompting, Buchanan met in Ostend, Belgium with U.S. Ambassador to Spain Pierre Soulé and U.S. Ambassador to France John Mason. A memorandum draft resulted, called the Ostend Manifesto, which proposed the purchase of Cuba from Spain, then in the midst of revolution and near bankruptcy. The document declared the island "as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present ... family of states." Against Buchanan's recommendation, the final draft of the manifesto suggested that "wresting it from Spain", if Spain refused to sell, would be justified "by every law, human and Divine." The manifesto, generally considered a blunder, was never acted upon, but weakened the Pierce administration and support for Manifest Destiny.
Presidential election of 1856
Buchanan's service abroad allowed him to conveniently avoid the debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act then roiling the country in the slavery dispute . While he did not overtly seek the presidency, he assented to the movement on his behalf. The 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, producing a platform that reflected his views, including support for the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the return of escaped slaves. The platform also called for an end to anti-slavery agitation, and U.S. "ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico." President Pierce hoped for re-nomination, while Senator Stephen A. Douglas also loomed as a strong candidate. Buchanan led on the first ballot, boosted by the support of powerful Senators John Slidell, Jesse Bright, and Thomas F. Bayard, who presented Buchanan as an experienced leader appealing to the North and South. He won the nomination after seventeen ballots, and was joined on the ticket by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
Buchanan faced two candidates in the general election: former Whig President Millard Fillmore ran as the American Party (or "Know-Nothing") candidate, while John C. Frémont ran as the Republican nominee. Buchanan did not actively campaign, but he wrote letters and pledged to uphold the Democratic platform. In the election, he carried every slave state except for Maryland, as well as five free states, including his home state of Pennsylvania. He won 45 percent of the popular vote and decisively won the electoral vote, taking 174 of 296 votes. His election made him the only president from Pennsylvania. In a combative victory speech, Buchanan denounced Republicans, calling them a "dangerous" and "geographical" party that had unfairly attacked the South. He also declared, "the object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government." He set about this initially by feigning a sectional balance in his cabinet appointments.
Buchanan was inaugurated on March 4, 1857, taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. In his inaugural address, Buchanan committed himself to serving only one term, as his predecessor had done. He expressed an abhorrence for the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories, while saying that Congress should play no role in determining the status of slavery in the states or territories. He also declared his support for popular sovereignty. Buchanan recommended that a federal slave code be enacted to protect the rights of slave-owners in federal territories. He alluded to a then-pending Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he said would permanently settle the issue of slavery. Dred Scott was a slave whose owner, John San[d]ford, had temporarily taken him from a slave state to a free state. After his return to the slave state, Scott filed a petition for his freedom based on his time in the free state. The Dred Scott decision, rendered after Buchanan's speech, denied Scott's petition in favor of his owner. 
Cabinet and administration
|The Buchanan Cabinet|
|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 Francis Thomas||1860–1860|
|John Adams Dix||1860–1861|
|Secretary of War||John B. Floyd||1857–1860|
|Attorney General||Jeremiah S. Black||1857–1860|
|Edwin M. Stanton||1860–1861|
|Postmaster General||Aaron V. Brown||1857–1859|
|Secretary of the Navy||Isaac Toucey||1857–1861|
|Secretary of the Interior||Jacob Thompson||1857–1861|
As his inauguration approached, Buchanan sought to establish an obedient, harmonious cabinet, to avoid the in-fighting that had plagued Andrew Jackson's administration. He chose four Southerners and three Northerners, the latter of whom were all considered to be doughfaces (Southern sympathizers). His objective was to dominate the cabinet, and he chose men who would agree with his views. Concentrating on foreign policy, he appointed the aging Lewis Cass as Secretary of State. Buchanan's appointment of Southerners and Southern sympathizers alienated many in the North, and his failure to appoint any followers of Stephen Douglas divided the party. Outside of the cabinet, he left in place many of Pierce's appointments, but removed a disproportionate number of Northerners who had ties to Pierce or Douglas. He quickly alienated his vice president, Breckinridge, and the latter played little role in the his administration.
Buchanan appointed one Justice, Nathan Clifford, to the Supreme Court of the United States. He appointed seven other federal judges to United States district courts. He also appointed two judges to the United States Court of Claims.
Intervention in the Dred Scott case
Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, denying the enslaved petitioner's request for freedom. The ruling broadly asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Prior to his inauguration, Buchanan had written to Justice John Catron in January 1857, inquired about the outcome of the case, and suggested that a broader decision, beyond the specifics of the case, would be more prudent. Buchanan hoped that a broad decision protecting slavery in the territories could lay the issue to rest, allowing him to focus on other issues. Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10 that the Supreme Court's Southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority of the court. Buchanan then wrote to Grier and prevailed upon him, providing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision, sufficient to render the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. Buchanan's letters were not then public; he was, however, seen at his inauguration in whispered conversation with the Chief Justice. When the decision was issued, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Rather than destroying the Republican platform as Buchanan had hoped, the decision outraged Northerners who denounced it.
Panic of 1857
The Panic of 1857 began in the summer of that year, ushered in by the collapse of 1,400 state banks and 5,000 businesses. While the South escaped largely unscathed, numerous northern cities experienced drastic increases in unemployment. Buchanan agreed with the southerners who attributed the economic collapse to overspeculation.
Reflecting his Jacksonian background, Buchanan's response was "reform not relief." While the government was "without the power to extend relief," it would continue to pay its debts in specie, and while it would not curtail public works, none would be added. He urged the states to restrict the banks to a credit level of $3 to $1 of specie and discouraged the use of federal or state bonds as security for bank note issues. The economy recovered in several years, though many Americans suffered as a result of the panic. Buchanan had hoped to reduce the deficit, but by the time he left office the federal deficit stood at $17 million.
The Utah territory, settled in preceding decades by the Latter-day Saints and their leader Brigham Young, had grown increasingly hostile to federal intervention. Young harassed federal officers and discouraged outsiders from settling in the Salt Lake City area. In September 1857, members of the Utah Territorial Militia perpetrated the Mountain Meadows massacre against Arkansans headed for California. Buchanan was offended by the militarism and polygamous behavior of Young.
Believing the Latter-day Saints to be in open rebellion against the United States, Buchanan in July 1857 sent Alfred Cumming, accompanied by the army, to replace Young as governor. While the Latter-day Saints had frequently defied federal authority, some historians consider Buchanan's action was not a proper response to reports which were in some respects uncorroborated. Complicating matters, Young's notice of his replacement was not delivered because the Pierce administration had annulled the Utah mail contract. After Young reacted to the military action by mustering a two-week expedition destroying wagon trains, oxen, and other Army property, Buchanan dispatched Thomas L. Kane as a private agent to negotiate peace. The mission succeeded, the new governor took office, and the Utah War ended. The President granted amnesty to inhabitants affirming loyalty to the government, and moved the federal troops to a nonthreatening distance for the balance of his administration.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas Territory and allowed the settlers there to decide whether to allow slavery. This resulted in violence between "Free-Soil" (antislavery) and proslavery settlers in what became known as the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis. The antislavery settlers, sometimes sponsored by Northern abolitionists, organized a government in Topeka. The more numerous proslavery settlers, including many who came from neighboring slave Missouri for the sole purpose of ensuring that Kansas would become a slave state, established a government in Lecompton, Kansas. Kansas Territory therefore had, for a few years, two different governments, in two different cities, with two different constitutions, each claiming to be the legitimate government of the entire Kansas Territory.
For Kansas to be admitted as a state, a constitution had to be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of residents. Under President Pierce, a series of violent confrontations known as "Bleeding Kansas" escalated as supporters of the two governments clashed over the question of who had the right to vote in Kansas. The situation was followed closely throughout the country, and some in Georgia and Mississippi advocated secession should Kansas be admitted as a free state. Buchanan himself did not particularly care whether or not Kansas entered as a slave state, and instead sought to admit Kansas as a state as soon as possible since it would likely tilt towards the Democratic Party. Rather than restarting the process and establishing a new territorial government, Buchanan chose to recognize the Lecompton government.
Upon taking office, Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker to replace John W. Geary as territorial governor, with the mission of reconciling the settler factions and approving a constitution. Walker, who was from Mississippi, was expected to assist the proslavery faction in gaining approval of a new constitution. However, after months in office, Walker came to believe that slavery was unsuited for the region and thought that Kansas would ultimately become a free state. In October 1857, the Lecompton government organized territorial elections that were so marked by fraud that Walker threw out the returns from several counties. Nonetheless, that same month, the Lecompton government framed the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution and, rather than risking a referendum, sent it directly to Buchanan. Though eager for Kansas statehood, even Buchanan was forced to reject the entrance of Kansas without a state constitutional referendum, and he dispatched federal agents to bring about a compromise. The Lecompton government agreed to a limited referendum in which Kansas would vote not on the constitution overall, but rather merely on whether or not Kansas would allow slavery after becoming a state. The Topeka government boycotted the December 1857 referendum, and slavery overwhelmingly won the approval of those who did vote. A month later, the Topeka government held its own referendum in which voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution.
Despite the protests of Walker and two former governors of Kansas, Buchanan decided to accept the Lecompton Constitution. In a December 1857 meeting with Stephen Douglas, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories and an important northern Democrat, Buchanan demanded that all Democrats support the administration's position of admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution. On February 2, Buchanan transmitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress. He also transmitted a message that attacked the "revolutionary government" in Topeka, conflating them with the Mormons in Utah. Buchanan made every effort to secure congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments, and even cash for votes. The Lecompton Constitution won the approval of the Senate in March, but a combination of Know-Nothings, Republicans, and northern Democrats defeated the bill in the House. Rather than accepting defeat, Buchanan backed the 1858 English Bill, which offered Kansans immediate statehood and vast public lands in exchange for accepting the Lecompton Constitution. In August 1858, Kansans by referendum strongly rejected the Lecompton Constitution.
The battle over Kansas escalated into a battle for control of the Democratic Party. On one side were Buchanan, most Southern Democrats, and northern Democrats allied to the Southerners ("doughfaces"); on the other side were Douglas and most northern Democrats plus a few Southerners. Douglas's faction continued to support the doctrine of popular sovereignty, while Buchanan insisted that Democrats respect the Dred Scott decision and its repudiation of federal interference with slavery in the territories. The struggle lasted the remainder of Buchanan's presidency. Buchanan used his patronage powers to remove Douglas sympathizers in Illinois and Washington, D.C., and installed pro-administration Democrats, including postmasters.
1858 mid-term elections
Douglas's Senate term ended in 1859, so the Illinois legislature elected in 1858 would determine whether Douglas would win re-election. The Senate election was the primary issue of the legislative election, marked by the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Buchanan, working through federal patronage appointees in Illinois, ran candidates for the legislature in competition with both the Republicans and the Douglas Democrats. This could easily have thrown the election to the Republicans – which showed the depth of Buchanan's animosity toward Douglas. In the end, Douglas Democrats won the legislative election and Douglas was re-elected to the Senate. In that year's elections, Douglas forces took control throughout the North, except in Buchanan's home state of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was reduced to a narrow base of southern supporters.
The division between northern and southern Democrats allowed the Republicans to win a plurality in the House in the elections of 1858. Their control of the chamber allowed the Republicans to block most of Buchanan's agenda. Buchanan, in turn, vetoed six substantial pieces of Republican legislation, causing further hostility between Congress and the White House. Among the pieces of legislation that Buchanan vetoed were the Homestead Act, which would have given 160 acres of public land to settlers who remained on the land for five years, and the Morrill Act, which would have granted public lands to establish land-grant colleges. Buchanan argued that these acts were beyond the power of the federal government as established by the Constitution.
Buchanan took office with an ambitious foreign policy intended to establish U.S. hegemony over Central America at the expense of Great Britain. He hoped to re-negotiate the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which he viewed as a mistake that limited U.S. influence in the region. He also sought to establish American protectorates over the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, and, perhaps most importantly, he hoped to finally achieve his long-term goal of acquiring Cuba. After long negotiations with the British, he convinced them to agree to cede the Bay Islands to Honduras and the Mosquito Coast to Nicaragua. However, Buchanan's ambitions in Cuba and Mexico were largely blocked by the House of Representatives. Buchanan also considered buying Alaska from the Russian Empire, possibly as a colony for Mormon settlers, but Buchanan and the Russians were unable to agree upon a price. In China, despite not taking direct part in the Second Opium War, the Buchanan administration won trade concessions in the Treaty of Tientsin. In 1858, Buchanan ordered the Paraguay expedition to punish Paraguay for firing on the USS Water Witch, and the expedition resulted in a Paraguayan apology and the payment of an indemnity. The chiefs of Raiatea and Tahaa in the South Pacific, refusing to accept the rule of King Tamatoa V, unsuccessfully petitioned the United States to accept the islands under a protectorate in June 1858.
Buchanan was given a herd of elephants by the King of Siam. He kept one at the White House. He also had a pair of bald eagles and a Newfoundland dog.
In March 1860, the House created the Covode Committee to investigate the administration for alleged impeachable offenses, such as bribery and extortion of representatives. The committee, with three Republicans and two Democrats, was accused by Buchanan's supporters of being nakedly partisan; they charged its chairman, Republican Rep. John Covode, with acting on a personal grudge as to a disputed land grant designed to benefit Covode's railroad company. The Democratic committee members, as well as Democratic witnesses, were enthusiastic in their pursuit of Buchanan in their condemnations.
The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan; however, the majority report issued on June 17 alleged corruption and abuse of power among members of his cabinet, and accusations from the Republican members of the Committee, that Buchanan had attempted to bribe members of Congress in connection with the Lecompton constitution. The Democratic report pointed out that evidence was scarce, but did not refute the allegations; one of the Democratic members, Rep. James Robinson, stated that he agreed with the Republican report though he did not sign it.)
Buchanan claimed to have "passed triumphantly through this ordeal" with complete vindication. Republican operatives distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Committee report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year's presidential election.
Election of 1860
The 1860 Democratic National Convention convened in April 1860. Although Douglas led after every ballot, he was unable to win the two-thirds majority required. The convention adjourned after 53 ballots, and re-convened in Baltimore in June. After Douglas finally won the nomination, several southerners refused to accept the outcome, and nominated Vice President Breckinridge as their own candidate. Douglas and Breckinridge agreed on most issues except the protection of slavery. Failing to reconcile the party, and nursing a grudge against Douglas, Buchanan tepidly supported Breckinridge. With the splintering of the Democratic Party, Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln won a four-way election that also included John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln's support in the North was enough to give him an Electoral College majority. Buchanan was the last Democrat to win a presidential election until Grover Cleveland in 1884.
As early as October, the army's Commanding General, Winfield Scott, who was adversarial to the President, warned Buchanan that Lincoln's election would likely cause at least seven states to secede. He also recommended to Buchanan that massive amounts of federal troops and artillery be deployed to those states to protect federal property, although he also warned that few reinforcements were available. Congress had since 1857 failed to heed calls for a stronger militia and had allowed the army to fall into deplorable condition. Buchanan distrusted Scott and ignored his recommendations. After Lincoln's election, Buchanan directed War Secretary Floyd to reinforce southern forts with such provisions, arms and men as were available; however, Floyd convinced him to revoke the order.
With Lincoln's victory, talk of secession and disunion reached a boiling point, and Buchanan was forced to address it in his final message to Congress. Both factions awaited news of how Buchanan would deal with the question. In his message, Buchanan denied the legal right of states to secede but thought the federal government legally could not prevent them. He placed the blame for the crisis solely on "intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States," and suggested that if they did not "repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments ... the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union." Buchanan's only suggestion to solve the crisis was "an explanatory amendment" affirming the constitutionality of slavery in the states, the fugitive slave laws, and popular sovereignty in the territories. His address was sharply criticized both by the north, for its refusal to stop secession, and the south, for denying its right to secede. Five days after the address was delivered, Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb resigned, as his views had become irreconcilable with the President's.
South Carolina, long the most radical southern state, seceded from the union on December 20, 1860. However, unionist sentiment remained strong among many in the South, and Buchanan sought to appeal to the southern moderates who might prevent secession in other states. He proposed passage of constitutional amendments protecting slavery in the states and territories. He also met with South Carolinian commissioners in an attempt to resolve the situation at Fort Sumter, which federal forces remained in control of despite its location in Charleston, South Carolina. He refused to dismiss Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson after the latter was chosen as Mississippi's agent to discuss secession, and he refused to fire Secretary of War John B. Floyd despite an embezzlement scandal, though the latter did eventually resign. Before resigning, Floyd sent numerous firearms to southern states, where they would eventually fall into the hands of the Confederacy. Despite Floyd's resignation, Buchanan continued to meet to receive advice from counselors from the Deep South, including Jefferson Davis and William Henry Trescot, who informed the South Carolina government about the content of his conversations with Buchanan. Other southern sympathizers also leaked the administration's plans.
Efforts were made by statesmen such as Sen. John J. Crittenden, Rep. Thomas Corwin, and former president John Tyler to negotiate a compromise to stop secession, with Buchanan's support; all failed. Failed attempts were also made by a group of governors meeting in New York. Buchanan secretly employed a last-minute tactic to bring a solution, attempting in vain to procure President-elect Lincoln's call for a constitutional convention or national referendum to resolve the issue of slavery.
Despite the efforts of Buchanan and others, six more slave states seceded by the end of January 1861. Buchanan replaced the departed southern cabinet members with John Adams Dix, Edwin M. Stanton, and Joseph Holt, all of whom were committed to preserving the union. When Buchanan considered surrendering Fort Sumter, the new cabinet members threatened to resign, and Buchanan relented. On January 5, Buchanan finally decided to reinforce Fort Sumter, sending the Star of the West with 250 men and supplies. However, he failed to ask Major Robert Anderson to provide covering fire for the ship, and it was forced to return North without delivering troops or supplies. Buchanan chose not to respond to this act of war, and instead sought to find a compromise to avoid secession. Though a March 3 message from Anderson reached Buchanan, that Anderson's supplies were running low, Lincoln succeeded as president the following day, inheriting the emerging sectional crisis.
Proposed constitutional amendment
- March 2, 1861: Congress approved an amendment to the United States Constitution that would shield "domestic institutions" of the states, including slavery, from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress, and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification. Commonly known as the Corwin Amendment, it was never ratified by the requisite number of states.
States admitted to the Union
Three new states were admitted to the Union while Buchanan was in office:
The Civil War erupted within two months of Buchanan's retirement. He supported the Union, writing to former colleagues that "the assault upon Sumter was the commencement of war by the Confederate states, and no alternative was left but to prosecute it with vigor on our part." He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to "join the many thousands of brave & patriotic volunteers who are already in the field."
Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending his actions leading up to the Civil War, which was even referred to by some as "Buchanan's War." He received angry and threatening letters daily, and stores were displaying Buchanan's likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word "TRAITOR" written across his forehead. The Senate proposed a resolution of condemnation which ultimately failed, and newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy. His former cabinet members, five of whom had been given jobs in the Lincoln administration, refused to defend Buchanan publicly.
Buchanan became distraught by the vitriolic attacks levied towards him, and fell sick and depressed. In October 1862, Buchanan defended himself in an exchange of letters with Winfield Scott, published in the National Intelligencer. He soon began writing his fullest public defense, in the form of his memoir Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, which was published in 1866.
Buchanan caught a cold in May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1, 1868, of respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
In the northern anti-slavery idiom of his day, Buchanan was often considered a "doughface", a northern man with pro-southern principles. Historian Kenneth Stampp wrote: "Shortly after his election, he assured a southern Senator that the 'great object' of his administration would be 'to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question in the North and to destroy sectional parties.'" Buchanan was irked that the abolitionists, in his view, were preventing the solution to the slavery problem. He stated, "Before [the abolitionists] commenced this agitation, a very large and growing party existed in several of the slave states in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery; and now not a voice is heard there in support of such a measure. The abolitionists have postponed the emancipation of the slaves in three or four states for at least half a century." In deference to the intentions of the typical slaveholder, he was quick to provide the benefit of much doubt. 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."
Buchanan considered the essence of good self-government was restraint. He considered the constitution comprised "... restraints, imposed not by arbitrary authority, but by the people upon themselves and their representatives. ... In an enlarged view, the people's interests may seem identical, but "to the eye of local and sectional prejudice, they always appear to be conflicting ... and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution." Regarding slavery and the Constitution, he stated: "Although in Pennsylvania we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, we can never violate the constitutional compact we have with our sister states. Their rights will be held sacred by us. Under the constitution it is their own question; and there let it remain."
One of the greatest issues of the day was tariffs. Buchanan was conflicted by free trade as well as prohibitive tariffs, since either would benefit one section of the country to the detriment of the other. As a senator from Pennsylvania, he said: "I am viewed as the strongest advocate of protection in other states, whilst I am denounced as its enemy in Pennsylvania."
Buchanan was also torn between his desire to expand the country for the benefit of all and his insistence on guaranteeing to the people settling the expanded areas their rights, including slavery. On territorial expansion, he said, "What, sir? Prevent the people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might just as well command the Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny." On the resulting spread of slavery, through unconditional expansion, he stated: "I feel a strong repugnance by any act of mine to extend the present limits of the Union over a new slave-holding territory." For instance, he hoped the acquisition of Texas would "be the means of limiting, not enlarging, the dominion of slavery."
Buchanan's personal life has attracted historical interest, as he was the only president to remain a bachelor. Several writers have speculated he was homosexual, including sociologist James W. Loewen, and authors Robert P. Watson and Shelley Ross. One of his biographers, Jean Baker, argues that Buchanan was asexual or, at the least, celibate.
In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball at Lancaster's White Swan Inn, and the two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturer (and protective father) Robert Coleman and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan's colleagues from the House of Representatives. By 1819, the two were engaged, but could spend little time together; Buchanan was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects during the Panic of 1819, which took him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded. Some suggested that he was marrying for her money, because his own family was less affluent, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, but letters from Anne revealed she was aware of several rumors. Coleman broke off the engagement, and soon afterward, on December 9, 1819, died suddenly. Buchanan wrote her father for permission to attend the funeral, claiming "I feel happiness has fled from me forever;" however, Robert Coleman refused permission.
After Coleman's death, Buchanan never courted another woman, though an unfounded rumor circulated of an affair with President Polk's widow, Sarah Childress Polk. Some believe that Anne's death served to deflect awkward questions about Buchanan's sexuality and bachelorhood. During Buchanan's presidency, his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane, whom he had adopted, served as official White House hostess.
Buchanan had a close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King, an Alabama politician who briefly served as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Buchanan and King lived together in a Washington boardinghouse, from 1834 until King's departure for France in 1844. Though such a practice was then common, King also referred to the relationship as a "communion," and the two attended social functions together. Contemporaries also noted the closeness. Andrew Jackson called King "Miss Nancy" and prominent Democrat Aaron V. Brown referred to King as Buchanan's "better half," "wife" and "Aunt Fancy" (the last being a 19th-century euphemism for an effeminate man). Sociologist Loewen noted that "wags" described Buchanan and King as "Siamese twins," that Buchanan late in life wrote a letter acknowledging that he might marry a woman who could accept his "lack of ardent or romantic affection," and also that Buchanan was expelled from his Lancaster church, reportedly for pro-slavery views acquired during the King relationship. Catherine Thompson, the wife of cabinet member Jacob Thompson, later noted that "there was something unhealthy in the president's attitude." King became ill in 1853 and died of tuberculosis shortly after Pierce's inauguration, four years before Buchanan became president. Buchanan described him as "among the best, the purest and most consistent public men I have known." Baker's biography notes that his and King's nieces may have destroyed correspondence between the two men. She opines that the length and intimacy of their surviving letters (one written by King upon his ambassadorial departure being specifically cited by Loewen) illustrate in her view only "the affection of a special friendship."
Though Buchanan predicted that "history would vindicate my memory," historians have criticized Buchanan for his unwillingness or inability to act in the face of secession. Historical rankings of presidents of the United States consistently place Buchanan among the least successful presidents. When scholars are surveyed, he ranks at or near the bottom in terms of vision / agenda-setting, domestic leadership, foreign policy leadership, moral authority, and positive historical significance of their legacy. In several of these polls (taken prior to 2014), Buchanan is ranked as the worst president in U.S. history.
Buchanan biographer Philip Klein explains the challenges Buchanan faced:
Buchanan assumed leadership ... when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement. His weaknesses in the stormy years of his presidency were magnified by enraged partisans of the North and South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents, were quickly overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of civil war and by the towering Abraham Lincoln.
Biographer Jean Baker is less charitable to Buchanan, saying in 2004:
Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive ... In fact Buchanan's failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.
A bronze 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 Schuler. Commissioned in 1916 but not approved by the U.S. Congress 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 the original 18.5-acre (75,000 m2) memorial site is a 250-ton pyramid structure that stands on the site of the original cabin where Buchanan was born. The monument was designed to show the original weathered surface of the native rubble and mortar.
Three counties are named in his honor: Buchanan County, Iowa, Buchanan County, Missouri, and Buchanan County, Virginia. Another in Texas was christened in 1858 but renamed Stephens County, after the newly elected Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, in 1861. The city of Buchanan, Michigan, was also named after him. Several other communities are named after him: the unincorporated community of Buchanan, Indiana, the city of Buchanan, Georgia, the town of Buchanan, Wisconsin, and the townships of Buchanan Township, Michigan, and Buchanan, Missouri.
Popular culture depictions
- Historical rankings of United States Presidents
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Only one President (James Buchanan) served as an enlisted person in the military and did not go on to become an officer.
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- Nevins, Allan (1950). The Emergence of Lincoln: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859. Scribner. ISBN 9780684104157.
- Potter, David Morris (1976). The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. Harper & Row. ISBN 9780060905248.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) Pulitzer prize.
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- Smith, Elbert (1975). The Presidency of James Buchanan. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0132-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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- Strauss, Robert (2016). Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781493024841.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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- Binder, Frederick Moore (1992). "James Buchanan: Jacksonian Expansionist". Historian. 55 (1): 69–84. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1992.tb00886.x. ISSN 0018-2370.
- Binder, Frederick Moore (1994). James Buchanan and the American Empire. Susquehanna University Press. ISBN 9780945636649.
- Birkner, Michael J., ed. (1996). James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s. Susquehanna University Press. ISBN 9780945636892.
- Meerse, David (1995). "Buchanan, the Patronage, and the Lecompton Constitution: a Case Study". Civil War History. 41 (4): 291–312. doi:10.1353/cwh.1995.0017. ISSN 0009-8078.
- Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln 2 vols. (1960) highly detailed narrative of his presidency
- Nichols, Roy Franklin; The Democratic Machine, 1850–1854 (1923), detailed narrative; online
- Quist, John W.; Birkner, Michael J., eds. (2013). James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. University Press of Florida. ISBN 9780813044262.
- Rhodes, James Ford (1906). History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Roosevelt Administration. 2. Macmillan.
- Silbey, Joel H. (2014). A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents 1837–1861. Wiley. pp. 397–464. ISBN 9781118609293.
- Updike, John (2013) . Buchanan Dying: A Play. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9780812984910.
- Buchanan, James. Fourth Annual Message to Congress. (1860, December 3).
- Buchanan, James. Mr Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866)
- National Intelligencer (1859)
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- White House biography
- United States Congress. "James Buchanan (id: B001005)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- James Buchanan: A Resource Guide from the Library of Congress
- The James Buchanan papers, spanning the entirety of his legal, political and diplomatic career, are available for research use at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- University of Virginia article: Buchanan biography
- James Buchanan at Tulane University
- Essay on James Buchanan and shorter essays on each member of his cabinet and First Lady from the Miller Center of Public Affairs
- Buchanan's Birthplace State Park, Franklin County, Pennsylvania
- "Life Portrait of James Buchanan", from C-SPAN's American Presidents: Life Portraits, June 21, 1999
- Works by James Buchanan at Project Gutenberg
- Works by James Buchanan at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Works by or about James Buchanan at Internet Archive
- James Buchanan Ill with Dysentery Before Inauguration: Original Letters Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Mr. Buchanans Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. President Buchanans memoirs.
- Inaugural Address
- Fourth Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1860