Buchanan, James

Born: 1791-04-23 Franklin County, Pennsylvania

Died: 1868-06-01 Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

James Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College in 1809, studied law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was admitted to the bar in 1812. Although a Federalist, he fought in the War of 1812. Buchanan became involved in politics early in his career and was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1814 where he served until 1816. In 1821, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he allied himself with Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. In 1832, Jackson appointed Buchanan minister to Russia. When Buchanan returned in 1833, he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he occupied from 1834 to 1845. Buchanan sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844 but lost to James K. Polk. However, Polk appointed Buchanan secretary of state and Buchanan remained in that position throughout Polk’s administration. Buchanan sought presidential nominations in 1848 and 1852 but failed both times. In 1852, he lost to Franklin Pierce, who subsequently appointed Buchanan minister to Great Britain. Buchanan resigned in 1856 and again pursued the Democratic presidential nomination - this time securing it due to the relative unpopularity of his opponents, Pierce and Stephen A. Douglas, due to the fallout from the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Buchanan won the presidency but did not secure a majority of northern votes, which went to the newly formed Republican Party, led by John C. Fremont.

Although he feared increasing sectional animosity, Buchanan pursued a largely pro-southern agenda as president. He adopted Douglas and the Democrats’ popular sovereignty position regarding the western territories, but members of his party differed on what precisely that policy entailed. Buchanan hoped the Dred Scott Decision would diffuse the situation by stipulating when a territory could declare itself slave or free but instead it only escalated matters by barring Congress from outlawing slavery in any territory. Buchanan further exacerbated the sectional crisis by endorsing the unpopular Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, which declared slavery legal in the territory and failed to gain congressional approval. An economic depression in 1857 further weakened his position and diminished his popularity.

As northern and southern Democrats increasingly grew to distrust each other and Buchanan refused to end a public feud with Douglas, the party moved toward its 1860 national convention. Buchanan’s obvious unpopularity motivated him not to run that year but tensions within the party split the Democrat ballot between Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, allowing the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to win the presidency. Buchanan blamed the ensuing secession crisis on abolitionists and called for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of slaveholders. However, he refused to recognize the right of secession nor the nascent Southern Confederacy and refused to abandon federal military installations - Fort Sumter, most significantly - to the Confederates. Buchanan ended his presidency without overtly instigating war with the Confederacy and retired to his home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he continued to support the Union war effort - although, he opposed emancipation.

David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962); William E. Gienapp, “Buchanan, James,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3:835-39.