Visit HarpWeek.com

  See a full text list of Biographies
   
  Name:  James Buchanan
  Born:  April 23, 1791
  Died:  June 1, 1868
 

 
  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Buchanan, James (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) 

James Buchanan was a Democratic politician and diplomat whose single term as U.S. president (1857–1861) ended with the secession of seven Southern slave states from the union.  He is often considered to have been among the worst presidents in American history. 

James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, to Elizabeth Speer Buchanan and James Buchanan, a storekeeper.  He attended school at a local academy then nearby Dickinson College, graduating in 1809.  He studied law in Lancaster and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1812.  He proved to be a successful lawyer and an astute investor, quickly accumulating substantial wealth. 

Buchanan entered politics at an early age, serving in the Pennsylvania legislature (1814–1816) as a Federalist and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1821–1831).  He eventually became a Democrat and a supporter of Andrew Jackson, who as president appointed him to be the U.S. minister to Russia (1832–1833).  After he returned to America at the end of Jackson’s second term, the Pennsylvania legislature elected Buchanan to the U.S. Senate.  His closest friends were Southerners and he took a pro–Southern position on most sectional issues, including slavery.  He believed that the institution of slavery was legally and constitutionally protected, and he endorsed the exclusion of abolitionist materials from the U.S. mails, the gag rule that tabled antislavery petitions to Congress, and the annexation of Texas as a slave state. 

In 1844, Buchanan was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, but a deadlocked convention turned to dark horse candidate James K. Polk.  After Polk became president, he appointed Buchanan as his secretary of state, but, dismayed with the Pennsylvanian’s indecisiveness, the president largely administered foreign policy himself.  In 1848 and 1852 Buchanan again unsuccessfully sought his party’s presidential nomination.  Although he hoped to serve as secretary of state once more under President Franklin Pierce, he was assigned to be minister to Great Britain. 

Buchanan gained notoriety in his new position when he and the American ministers to Spain and France met in Ostend, Belgium, in 1854 to draft a policy recommendation for President Pierce.  They suggested that the United States try to buy Cuba and, if Spain was unwilling, to seize the island by force.  When the Ostend Manifesto, as it was dubbed, was leaked to the press it created a sensation, with supporters and detractors dividing primarily along sectional lines. 

In early 1856, Buchanan resigned and returned to America in order to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.  This time, he was successful.  He went on to win the presidency with a plurality of the vote against two other candidates.  Some southerners had threatened to secede if the Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, won the election.  During his presidential term, therefore, Buchanan attempted to appease southern concerns in order to preserve the union.  His policies, however, only contributed to more sectional animosity. 

In the interim between election and inauguration, Buchanan tried to exert undue influence on one of the Supreme Court justices who was deciding the Dred Scot case.  The decision, announced two days after his inauguration, affirmed in sweeping terms the southern view that neither the federal nor territorial government could ban slavery in the territories.  Although the president thought the decision would settle the matter, it further exacerbated sectional tensions, including within the Democratic party, and strengthened the Republican party.   

Buchanan’s handling of the slavery issue in the Kansas territory also widened the divide between northern and southern Democrats.  To the dismay of Stephen Douglas, leader of the northern wing of the party, Buchanan endorsed the pro–slavery Lecompton Constitution.  Submitted to Congress by a rump legislature, it would have allowed Kansas to enter the union as a slave state, against the wishes of the anti–slavery majority in the territory.  The Buchanan administration did everything it could to ensure passage, including a resort to bribery.  While the Senate approved the Lecompton Constitution, it was narrowly rejected by the House after a bitter fight.  The damage done to the Democratic Party and national unity was almost irreparable.  

President Buchanan pursued an expansionist foreign policy, stoking Republican fears of a political conspiracy to expand slavery.  His administration failed in attempts to purchase Alaska and Cuba and to impose a protectorate on northern Mexico, but did secure trade treaties with China and Japan.  The Buchanan presidency was plagued by a series of scandals, making his administration one of the most corrupt in American history.  An economic depression also undermined the president’s popularity.   

Douglas had broken publicly with Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution, so the president worked behind the scenes to derail the senator’s reelection in 1858.  Douglas prevailed, but discord with the Democratic Party increased.  The final break came at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina.  Buchanan aides joined forces with southern radicals to stop Douglas’s nomination for president.  After the convention failed to endorse a federal slave code for the territories, the southern delegates walked out and reconvened in Richmond to nominated Vice President John Breckinridge for president.  The northern Democrats met in Baltimore and nominated Douglas.  The split in the Democratic Party allowed the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to win the presidency. 

When seven states of the Deep South left the union after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan condemned northern antislavery agitators.  The lame–duck president denied both a constitutional right to secede and the constitutional authority of the president to intervene and stop the process.  Instead, he called for a constitutional convention to draft amendments protecting slavery in the South and in the territories.  Yet, Buchanan remained a unionist and would not recognize the Confederate seizure of federal property.  After the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship, was fired upon while attempting to resupply Fort Sumter, Buchanan took no further provocative action and handed the precarious situation over to the incoming president, Abraham Lincoln.  

Buchanan retired to his “Wheatland” estate outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Reviled by critics, the former president published his memoirs in 1866 in which he defended his public actions as constitutional and proper.  He died on June 1, 1868. 

Source consulted:  William E. Gienapp, “Buchanan, James,” American National Biography (online).

 
 

Website design © 1998-2006 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2006 HarpWeek, LLC
Do not use any materials on this website without express written permission from HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to webmaster@harpweek.com