15th President of the United States (March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861)
Age at inauguration: 65 years old
Vice President: John C. Breckinridge
- Old Public Functionary, used by Buchanan in his December 1859 State of the Union address and adopted by newspapers
- Old Buck, from a shortening of his last name, used later in life
- Bachelor President, per his unmarried status
- Ten-Cent Jimmy, derogatory, as a reaction to Buchanan's campaign statement that ten cents a day was decent pay for a worker
Born: James Buchanan, Jr. April 23, 1791 Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died: June 1, 1868 (aged 77) Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Cause of Death: Rheumatic Gout
Resting Place: Woodward Hill Cemetery Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Father: James Buchanan, Sr.
Mother: Elizabeth Buchanan (Speer)
Buchanan vowed to never marry, and he never did. When Buchanan eventually won the presidency, his niece Harriet Lane assumed the responsibilities of first lady. James Buchanan is the only bachelor president in U.S. history.
Education: Dickinson College (BA)
Occupation: Lawyer, Politician
Other Government Positions:
- 17th United States Secretary of State March 10, 1845 – March 7, 1849
- United States Senator from Pennsylvania December 6, 1834 – March 5, 1845
- U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania March 4, 1821 – March 3, 1831
- Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Lancaster County 1814–1816
Presidential Salary: $25,000/year
James Buchanan Jr. (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was an American politician who served as the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. A member of the Democratic Party, he was the 17th United States secretary of state and had served in the Senate and House of Representatives before becoming president.
Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to parents of Ulster Scots descent. He became a prominent lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, Buchanan won election to the United States House of Representatives, eventually becoming aligned with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. After serving as Jackson's Minister to Russia, Buchanan won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State. A major contender for his party's presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Buchanan finally won his party's nomination in 1856, defeating incumbent President Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and his running mate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 election.
Shortly after his election, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he fully endorsed as president. He allied with the South in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the process, he alienated both Republican abolitionists and Northern Democrats, most of whom supported the principle of popular sovereignty in determining a new state's slaveholding status. He was often called a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, and he fought with Douglas, the leader of the popular sovereignty faction, for control of the Democratic Party. In the midst of the growing sectional crisis, the Panic of 1857 struck the nation. Buchanan indicated in his 1857 inaugural address that he would not seek a second term, and he kept his word and did not run for re-election in the 1860 presidential election. Buchanan supported the North during the Civil War and publicly defended himself against charges that he was responsible for the war. He died in 1868 at age 77, and was also the last president to be born in the eighteenth century. He is the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor.
Buchanan aspired to be a president who would rank in history with George Washington, by using his tendencies toward neutrality and impartiality. Historians fault him, however, for his failure to address the issue of slavery and the secession of the southern states, bringing the nation to the brink of civil war. His inability to address the sharply divided pro-slavery and anti-slavery partisans with a unifying principle on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. Historians who participated in a 2006 survey voted his failure to deal with secession as the worst presidential mistake ever made.
Buchanan attended the village academy (Old Stone Academy) and, starting in 1807, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Though he was nearly expelled at one point for poor behavior, he pleaded for a second chance and subsequently graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, which, at the time, was the capital of Pennsylvania. James Hopkins, the most prominent lawyer in Lancaster, accepted Buchanan as a student, and in 1812 Buchanan was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar after an oral exam. Though many other lawyers moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania after it became the capital of Pennsylvania in 1812, Lancaster would remain Buchanan's home town for the rest of his life. Buchanan's income rapidly rose after he established his own practice and by 1821 he was earning over $11,000 per year (equivalent to $207,048 in 2018). Buchanan handled various types of cases, including a high-profile impeachment trial in which he successfully defended Pennsylvania Judge Walter Franklin.
Buchanan began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814–1816) as a member of the Federalist Party. The legislature met for only three months a year, and Buchanan's notoriety as a legislator helped him earn clients for his legal practice. Like his father, Buchanan believed in federally-funded internal improvements, a high tariff, and a national bank. He emerged as a strong critic of the leadership 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 after enlisting as a private in Henry Shippen's Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division, Pennsylvania Militia, a unit of yagers or light dragoons. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who did not, at some point, serve as an officer.
An active Freemason, he was the Master of Masonic Lodge No. 43 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Presidential election of 1856
As his inauguration approached, Buchanan sought to establish a harmonious cabinet, as he hoped to avoid the in-fighting that had plagued Andrew Jackson's top officials. Buchanan chose four southerners and three northerners, the latter of whom were all considered to be doughfaces. Buchanan sought to be the clear leader of the cabinet, and chose men who would agree with his views. Anticipating that his administration would concentrate on foreign policy and that Buchanan himself would largely direct 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, Buchanan left in place many of Pierce's appointments, but removed a disproportionate number of northerners who had ties to Pierce or Douglas. Buchanan quickly alienated his vice president, Breckinridge, and the latter played little role in the Buchanan administration.
Dred Scott case
Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, asserting 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, inquiring about the outcome of the case and suggesting that a broader decision would be more prudent. 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 if there was no support from the Court's northern justices—unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority. Buchanan hoped that a broad Supreme Court decision protecting slavery in the territories could lay the issue to rest once and for all, allowing the country to focus on other issues, including the possible annexation of Cuba and the acquisition of more Mexican territory. So Buchanan wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him, allowing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott's case to declare the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. The correspondence was not public at the time; however, at his inauguration, Buchanan was seen in whispered conversation with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. When the decision was issued two days later, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Buchanan had hoped that the Dred Scott decision would destroy the Republican platform, but outraged northerners denounced the decision.
Panic of 1857
The Panic of 1857 began in the summer of that year, ushered in by the sequential collapse of fourteen hundred state banks and five thousand businesses. While the South escaped largely unscathed, 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 did eventually recover, though many Americans suffered as a result of the panic. Though Buchanan had hoped to reduce the deficit, by the time he left office the federal deficit stood at $17 million.
Election of 1860
As early as October, the army's Commanding General, Winfield Scott, 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 both men's calls for a stronger militia and had allowed the army to fall into deplorable condition). Buchanan distrusted Scott (the two had long been political adversaries) 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. 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 held that 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" reaffirming 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, feeling that his views and the President's had become irreconcilable.
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 efforts to compromise were also made by a group of governors meeting in New York. Buchanan employed a last-minute tactic, in secret, to bring a solution. He attempted in vain to procure President-elect Lincoln's call for a constitutional convention or national referendum to resolve the issue of slavery. Lincoln declined.
Despite the efforts of Buchanan and others, six more slave states had 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 changed his position. On January 5, Buchanan finally decided to reinforce Fort Sumter, sending the Star of the West with 250 men and supplies. However, Buchanan 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. On March 3, a message from Anderson reached Buchanan stating that Anderson's supplies were running low. But on March 4, Buchanan was succeeded by Lincoln, who was left to deal with the emerging sectional crisis that eventually became the American Civil War.
- March 2, 1861: Congress approved an amendment to the United States Constitution that would shield "domestic institutions" of the states (which in 1861 included slavery) from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress, and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification. (Note: This amendment, commonly known as the Corwin Amendment, has not been ratified by the requisite number of states to become part of the Constitution, and is still pending before the states.)
States admitted to the Union
Three new states were admitted to the Union while Buchanan was in office:
- Minnesota – May 11, 1858
- Oregon – February 14, 1859
- Kansas – January 29, 1861
Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War, which was even referred to by some as "Buchanan's War". He began receiving angry and threatening letters daily, and stores displayed 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.
Initially so disturbed by the attacks that he fell ill and depressed, Buchanan finally began defending himself in October 1862, in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott that was published in the National Intelligencernewspaper. 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, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
Buchanan considered the essence of good self-government to be founded on restraint. The constitution he considered to be "... 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 condemned both free trade and prohibitive tariffs, since either would benefit one section of the country to the detriment of the other. As the 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, like many of his time, was 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".
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 knew 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, nor seemed to show any emotional or physical interest. 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 for many years, from 1834 until King's departure for France in 1844. King 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." Jean Baker's biography of Buchanan notes that his and King's nieces may have destroyed some correspondence between Buchanan and King. 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 only "the affection of a special friendship."
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:
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.