(April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861), serving prior to the American Civil War. A member of the Democratic Party, he served as the United States Secretary of State and in both houses of Congress before becoming president.
Born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, Buchanan became a prominent lawyer and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, he won election to the United States House of Representatives, aligning with Andrew Jackson‘s Democratic Party. He served as Jackson’s Minister to Russia, then won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk‘s Secretary of State. He was a major contender for his party’s presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s and was finally nominated in 1856, defeating incumbent President 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 Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 election.
President Buchanan supported the Dred Scott decision and joined with Southern leaders in attempting to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the process, he angered Republicans and alienated many Northern Democrats. Buchanan held to his pledge to serve only one term and supported Breckinridge’s unsuccessful candidacy in the 1860 presidential election. Several Southern states seceded after Republican Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, and the American Civil War began just weeks after Buchanan left office. He died in 1868 at age 77, and is the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor. Historians fault him for his failure to address the issue of slavery and the secession of the Southern states and generally consider him to be one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.
James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania (now Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park), in Franklin County, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan Sr., a businessman, merchant, and farmer, and Elizabeth Speer, an educated woman. 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. Buchanan’s father became the wealthiest person in town, as a merchant, farmer, and real estate investor.
Buchanan attended the village’s Old Stone Academy and then Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Though he was nearly expelled at one point for poor behavior, he pleaded for a second chance and graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, 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 add clients to his 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 was not an officer.
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, Buchanan became a supporter of Andrew Jackson and an avid defender of states’ rights. After the 1824 presidential election, Buchanan helped organize Jackson’s followers into the Democratic Party, and he became a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat. In Washington, he became personally close with many southern Congressmen, including William R. King of Alabama. Buchanan tended to view many 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, leading impeachment proceedings of Judge James H. Peck of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri, arguing that Peck had abused his position. Peck was acquitted by the Senate. Buchanan declined re-nomination to a sixth term, briefly returning to private life.
After Jackson’s re-election in 1832, the president 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 lingua franca of diplomacy in the nineteenth century) and helped negotiate commercial and maritime treaties with the Russian Empire.
Buchanan returned to the United States and was elected to the United States Senate by the state legislature to succeed William Wilkins, who had himself replaced Buchanan as the ambassador to Russia. Buchanan won re-election in 1836 and 1842. The Jacksonian Buchanan 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, stating, “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
Polk shared many of Buchanan’s foreign policy views, and Buchanan was offered the position of Secretary of State in the Polk administration. Though he considered the alternative of serving on the Supreme Court, Buchanan accepted as Secretary of State throughout Polk’s lone term in office. During that time, Polk and Buchanan 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 advised a compromise, but later advocated for annexation of the entire territory. Eventually, Buchanan assented to a division at the 49th parallel. After the outbreak of the Mexican–American War, Buchanan 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, annoying Polk, who suspected that Buchanan was primarily concerned with eventually becoming president. Buchanan did quietly seek 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, entertained various visitors, and continued to follow 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, despite a false report that he was fired. He quietly campaigned for the 1852 Democratic presidential nomination, writing a public letter that deplored the Wilmot Proviso as divisive and fanatical. 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 continued to focus on the potential annexation of Cuba, which had long preoccupied him. At Pierce’s insistence, Buchanan, U.S. Ambassador to Spain Pierre Soulé, and U.S. Ambassador to France John Mason met in Ostend, Belgium, and drafted a memorandum that became known as the Ostend Manifesto. The document proposed the purchase from Spain of Cuba, then in the midst of revolution and near bankruptcy, declaring 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 conveniently placed him outside of the country while the debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act roiled the nation. While he did not overtly seek the presidency, he deliberately chose not to discourage the movement on his behalf, something that was well within his power on many occasions. The 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, writing a platform that largely reflected Buchanan’s views, including support for the Fugitive Slave Law, 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 who could appeal to the North and South. Buchanan 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, Buchanan 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, most importantly, won the electoral vote, taking 174 electoral votes compared to Frémont’s 114 electoral votes and Fillmore’s 8 electoral votes. Buchanan’s election made him the first and only president from Pennsylvania. He would also be the last person born in the 18th century to serve as president. In his victory speech, Buchanan denounced Republicans, calling them a “dangerous” and “geographical” party that had unfairly attacked the South. President-elect Buchanan 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 maintaining a sectional balance in his appointments and persuading the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories and two justices had hinted to Buchanan their findings.
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, though Pierce had made the same commitment. Buchanan also deplored the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories. Stating that Congress should play no role in determining the status of slavery in the states or territories, Buchanan argued for popular sovereignty. Furthermore, Buchanan argued that a federal slave code should protect the rights of slave-owners in any federal territory. He alluded to a pending Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he stated would permanently settle the issue of slavery. In fact, Buchanan already knew the outcome of the case, and had even played a part in its disposition.
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 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 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. 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, Buchanan 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 Buchanan administration.
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Buchanan appointed one Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States, Nathan Clifford. Buchanan appointed only seven other Article III federal judges, all to United States district courts. He also appointed two Article I judges to the United States Court of Claims.
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 collapse of 1,400 state banks and 5,000 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 eventually recovered, 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.
Utah territory had been settled by Mormons in the decades preceding Buchanan’s presidency, and under the leadership of Brigham Young the Mormons had grown increasingly hostile to federal intervention. Young harassed federal officers and discouraged outsiders from settling in the Salt Lake City area, and in September 1857 the Utah Territorial Militia perpetrated the Mountain Meadows massacre against Arkansans headed for California. Buchanan was also personally offended by the polygamous behavior of Young.
Accepting the wildest rumors and believing the Mormons to be in open rebellion against the United States, Buchanan sent the army in July 1857 to replace Young as governor with the non-Mormon Alfred Cumming. While the Mormons had frequently defied federal authority, some question whether Buchanan’s action was a justifiable or prudent response to uncorroborated reports. 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 was shortly placed in office, and the Utah War ended. The President granted amnesty to all inhabitants who would respect the authority of the government, and moved the federal troops to a nonthreatening distance for the balance of his administration. Though he continued to practice polygamy, Young largely accepted federal authority after the conclusion of the Utah War.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas Territory and allowed the settlers there to choose 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 organized a government in Topeka, while proslavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton, Kansas. 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. The situation in Kansas was watched 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 one 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 English Bill, which offered Kansans immediate statehood and vast public lands in exchange for accepting the Lecompton Constitution. In August 1858, a Kansas 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, DC 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. 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.
Buchanan was gifted a herd of elephants from 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 Democrat committee members, as well as Democrat 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 Democrat report pointed out that evidence was scarce, but did not refute the allegations; one of the Democrat 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, to deal with 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 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 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 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 United States Presidents 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:
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.
As of 2019, he is the most recent Democrat elected to succeed a Democratic president who did not die in office.