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James Buchanan (1791-1868), Americas 15th
president, was in office from 1857 to 1861. During
his tenure, seven Southern states seceded from
the Union and the nation teetered on the brink of
civil war. A Pennsylvania native, Buchanan began
his political career in his home states legislature
and went on to serve in both houses of the U.S.
Congress; he later became a foreign diplomat and
U.S. secretary of state. Buchanan, a Democrat who
was morally opposed to slavery but believed it was
protected by the U.S. Constitution, was elected to
the White House in 1856. As president, he tried to
maintain peace between pro-slavery and anti-
slavery factions in the government, but tensions
only escalated. In 1860, after Abraham Lincoln
(1809-1865) was elected to succeed Buchanan,
South Carolina seceded and the Confederacy was
soon established. In April 1861, a month after
Buchanan left office, the American Civil War (1861-
America and the Civil War5min
TAGS CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA JAMES BUCHANAN SLAVERY
Home Topics U.S. Presidents James Buchanan
JAMES BUCHANANS EARLY YEARS AND PERSONAL LIFE
SENATOR AND DIPLOMAT
ELECTION OF 1856
JAMES BUCHANAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE
JAMES BUCHANANS LATER YEARS
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James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to James
Buchanan Sr. (1761-1833), a merchant who had emigrated from Ireland, and Elizabeth
Speer Buchanan (1767-1833). The younger Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College in
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and then studied law. After being admitted to the bar in 1812, he
opened a successful practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
A member of the Federalist Party, Buchanan began his political career by serving in the
Pennsylvania legislature from 1814 to 1816. In 1820, he was elected to the U.S. House of
Representatives, where he remained for the next decade. In Congress, Buchanan aligned
himself with the Democrats as the Federalist Party dissolved. After Democrat Andrew
Jackson (1767-1845) was elected president in 1828, he appointed Buchanan the U.S.
ambassador to Russia in 1831. The following year, Buchanan negotiated a trade and
maritime agreement with Russia.
Buchanan is the only U.S. president who never married. In 1819, he was engaged to Ann
Coleman (1796-1819), the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania manufacturer; however, the
wedding was called off that same year. When Coleman died unexpectedly soon afterward,
rumors circulated that her death had been a suicide. During Buchanans time in the White
House, his niece, Harriet Lane (1830-1903), assumed the social duties of first lady and
became a popular figure.
Did You Know?
James Buchanan was nicknamed "Old Buck" and "Ten-Cent Jimmy." Thelatter was given to him by the Republicans in the presidential campaignof 1856 after Buchanan said 10 cents was fair daily pay for manuallaborers.
In 1834, after returning from Europe the previous year, James Buchanan was elected to
represent his home state in the U.S. Senate. He resigned from the Senate in 1845, when
President James Polk (1795-1849) named him U.S. secretary of state. During Buchanans
tenure in this post, which lasted until 1849, the nations territory grew by more than one-
third and extended across the continent for the first time. The United States annexed
Texas, acquired California and much of the present-day Southwest during the Mexican-
American War and secured what would become the Oregon Territory after settling a
boundary dispute with Great Britain.
The question of whether to extend slavery to Americas newly acquired territories, as well
as the moral legitimacy of slavery as an institution, became increasingly divisive issues
across the United States. In 1846, Buchanan sided with Southerners who successfully
blocked the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed banning slavery in any territory acquired from
Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Buchanan later supported the Compromise of 1850,
a series of congressional acts that admitted California as a free state but let the new
western territories decide whether they would allow slavery before applying for statehood,
a concept that became known as popular sovereignty.
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Buchanan as minister to Great
Britain. In this role, Buchanan helped draft the 1854 Ostend Manifesto, a plan for America
to acquire Cuba from Spain. Although never acted upon, the proposal generated protests
from anti-slavery Northerners and others in the United States who feared Cuba would
become a slave state.
In 1854, President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created two new
territories and allowed settlers to determine whether they would enter the Union as free
states or slave states. Pierces support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act hurt him politically, and
in 1856 the Democrats opted not to re-nominate him. Instead, they chose James
Buchanan, who was living abroad at the time of the controversial bills signing and had
taken no position on it.
In the general election, Buchanan maintained that slavery was an issue to be decided by
individual states and territories, while his Republican challenger, John Fremont (1813-
1890), an explorer and U.S. senator from California, asserted that the federal government
should ban slavery in all U.S. territories. Buchanan received 174 electoral votes, while
Fremont, the first-ever Republican presidential candidate (the party was established in
1854), garnered 114 votes. Former president Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) of the American
Know-Nothing Party, who ran an anti-immigration campaign that did not focus on slavery,
earned eight votes. The popular vote was closer, with Buchanan capturing a little more
than 45 percent of the total ballots cast.
Buchanans vice president was John Breckinridge (1821-1875), a U.S. congressman from
Kentucky. Breckinridge was 35 when elected, making him the youngest vice president in
Once in office, James Buchanan appointed a cabinet composed of Northerners and
Southerners and hoped to keep peace between the countrys pro-slavery and anti-slavery
factions. Instead, the national debate over slavery only intensified, and the new president
was seen by many people as being more sympathetic to Southern interests. Two days after
he was sworn in, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision, which said
the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories and denied
African Americans the rights of U.S. citizens. Buchanan hoped the ruling would resolve
Americas slavery issue, and he reportedly pressured a Northern justice to vote with the
Southern majority in the case. Far from settling the issue, the Dred Scott decision, which
Southerners applauded and Northerners protested, led to increased divisiveness.
Buchanan further rankled Northerners by supporting the Lecompton Constitution, which
would have allowed Kansas to become a slave state. (It was later voted down, and Kansas
joined the Union as a free state in 1861.) In 1858, relations between Congress and the
president were further strained when the Republicans won a plurality in Congress and
blocked much of Buchanans agenda. He, in turn, vetoed Republican legislation.
In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) tried unsuccessfully to stage a
massive slave uprising by raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West
Virginia). After Brown was convicted of treason and hanged, hostilities between the North
and South continued to escalate.
Upholding a promise he had made in his inaugural address, James Buchanan did not seek
reelection in 1860. At their national convention, the Democrats were split over their choice
for a nominee, with Northern Democrats selecting Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) of Illinois
and Southern Democrats picking Vice President Breckinridge. The Republicans chose
Abraham Lincoln, and the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell (1796-1869).
Lincoln won 180 electoral votes (and a little less than 40 percent of the popular vote), while
his challengers garnered a combined electoral 123 votes. On December 20, 1860, in
response to Lincolns victory, South Carolina seceded from the Union. By the time of his
inauguration on March 4, 1861, six mo