1857-1861Born: April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap near Mercersburg, Pennslyvania
June 1, 1868 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Never married, was Harriet Lane's
Tall, stately, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls,
James Buchanan was the only President who never married.
Presiding over a rapidly dividing Nation, Buchanan grasped inadequately
the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines
to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that
the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the
South. Nor could he realize how sectionalism had realigned political
parties: the Democrats split; the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to
Born into a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in 1791, Buchanan, a graduate
of Dickinson College, was gifted as a debater and learned in the law.
He was elected five times to the House of Representatives; then, after
an interlude as Minister to Russia, served for a decade in the Senate.
He became Polk's Secretary of State and Pierce's Minister to Great Britain.
Service abroad helped to bring him the Democratic nomination in 1856
because it had exempted him from involvement in bitter domestic controversies.
As President-elect, Buchanan thought the crisis would disappear if he
maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and could persuade
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 hinted to Buchanan what the decision
Thus, in his Inaugural the President referred to the territorial question
as "happily, a matter of but little practical importance" since
the Supreme Court was about to settle it "speedily and finally."
Two days later Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott
decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive
persons of their property rights in slaves in the territories. Southerners
were delighted, but the decision created a furor in the North.
Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission
of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential
authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated
members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.
When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant
bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential
veto. The Federal Government reached a stalemate.
Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party
split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate
for the Presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham
Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though
his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican
administration, the southern "fire-eaters" advocated secession.
President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of
states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not
prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not
Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members
resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to
carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was
Buchanan reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he
left office. In March 1861 he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland--where
he died seven years later--leaving his successor to resolve the frightful
issue facing the Nation.