15th US President James Buchanan: Life, Presidency & Challenges

James Buchanan

Since his passing in 1868, James Buchanan has often topped the unenviable list of worst presidents in the history of the United States. This is primarily because it was during his tenure that the Dred Scott verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court was passed.

Unable to fully grasp the extent of the issues of the country at the time, President Buchanan remained very ineffective and docile while seven Southern states seceded from the Union. Although a Northerner himself, Buchanan often times swayed in favor of the South on so many issues. It is for these reasons President James Buchanan is often ranked as one of America’s worst presidents ever.

Profile of James Buchanan

Birth: April 23, 1791 at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Death: June 1, 1868, Lancaster, Pennsylvania,

Parents: James Buchanan and Elizabeth Speer

Education: Dickinson College

Political Party: Federalist (1814-1816); Democrat (1816-1868)

Appointments: Ambassador to Russia (1831-1833); Secretary of State (1845-1849); and Minister to Britain (1853)

Elected offices: Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814 – 1816); U.S. Senator (1834-1845); House of Representative (1821-1831); and 15th President of the United States (1857-1861)

Known For: Failing to handle the final fall out between the North and the South, thereby resulting in the American Civil War (1861-1865)

Nickname: Old Buck, 10-Cent Jimmy

Early Life and Entry into Politics

Born on April 23, 1791 in Pennsylvania, James Buchanan grew up in a very wealthy family of Irish descent. When Buchanan was around the age of 16, he got admitted into Dickinson College. A couple of years later, “Old Buck” (as he came to be popularly called) graduated from college. Filled with life and dreams for the future, Buchanan went on to study law. Around the age of 19, he got admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.

At the breakout of the War of 1812, James Buchanan was a reserve in the US Army. He saw no combat action though. Starting around his early 20s, he took a fascination in politics in his home state, Pennsylvania. Aside from his adequate grasp of the law, he was also a very good orator. In 1814, he won a seat in Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This marked the beginning of James Buchanan’s political career.

Did you know: 15th US President James Buchanan was related to Thomas Buchanan, a senior official of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the first official governor of Liberia?

Democratic Party

James Buchanan started his political career with the Federalists. However, he switched to the Democrat-Republican Party as the Federalist Party began to fade into obscurity during the 1820s. Buchanan’s political switch occurred around 1816. He was a big admirer of Andrew Jackson, 7th US president. Buchanan was also very active in his home state, promoting Democratic Party activities.

U.S. House of Representatives

After a couple of years in the Pennsylvania Assembly, James Buchanan contested and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1821. He was in the House for about a decade, receiving good acclaim from his colleagues while on the House Judiciary Committee.

Minister to Russia

Owing to allegations of his participation in the “corrupt bargain”, James Buchanan briefly fell out of favor with President Andrew Jackson. However, the two later reconciled their differences and worked together. Buchanan played a vital role in rallying up support for the Andrew Jackson’s presidential election win in 1828 and 1832.

During President Andrew Jackson’s tenure in the White House, James Buchanan was appointed the ambassador to Russia in 1832.

Read More: 32 Interesting Facts about President Andrew Jackson

Time in the U.S. Senate

Buchanan stayed only about a year in Russia. Upon his return to the U.S., he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1833. His highlight in the Senate came when he served as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

U.S. Secretary of State (1845- 1849)

Shortly after leaving the Senate, President James K. Polk appointed him as the US Secretary of State. His crowning achievement in the state department came when he secured a deal with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary issue.

Top Diplomat to England

After missing out on the chance to compete in the 1852 U.S. presidential election, Buchanan accepted President Franklin Pierce’s appointment to the position of Minister to England.

While in London, his Democratic Party fought amongst themselves over the issue of slavery. James Buchanan was largely spared from this conflict because he was abroad. His absence from the country a that time eventually paid huge dividends in his political career a few years on.

1856 U.S. Presidential Election

In the lead up to the 1856 presidential election in the United States, both the Whig Party and the Democrats were plagued by immense infighting. The Whigs were virtually out of the American political arena. As for the Democrats, the tension between Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats was very palpable. Presidential aspirants from the Democratic Party hotly debated over the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Because Buchanan was away on a diplomatic appointment in England, he was largely spared from the political crisis. He was seen as a neutral figure in the deeply divided Democratic Party. First of all, he was Northerner by birth. Secondly, he maintained some amount of support for the Southerners when it came to the issue of slavery. In short, he was seen as the perfect candidate to unite the Democratic Party.

Come Election Day, Buchanan faced off against Republican Party candidate John C, Frémont and former President Millard Fillmore of the Know Nothing Party.  His two opponents in the election could not hold a candle to him as Buchanan swept his way to victory in the 1856 U.S. Presidential election. He won 174 of the electoral votes, against 114 and 8 votes for Frémont and Fillmore respectively.

Presidency of James Buchanan

James Buchanan’s presidency went on the record as one of the most tension-packed time in the history of the United States. Even before his inauguration in March 1857, the very divisive Supreme Court case – Dredd v. Stanford – raged on. Such was the complexity in the case that Buchanan prayed that the verdict be given before his inauguration ceremony. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Roger B. Taney, gave out the verdict on March 6, 1857- two days after Buchanan was sworn into office.

Buchanan vowed to comply with and enforce the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Dred Scott v. Stanford case. The highly controversial verdict took away Congress’s authority to regulate slavery in the United States. It also stated that freed slaves were not to be considered as citizens of the United States and therefore did not have the rights to sue in Federal courts. In effect, the verdict nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

James Buchanan defending the principle of popular sovereignty

Challenges faced during his presidency

The North were obviously outraged by the Dred Scott verdict. More so, they were livid at President Buchanan’s support for the verdict. He was tagged as a “Dough Faced” president – that is, a Northerner who supports the South’s principles and slavery.

  • Lecompton Constitution

Another action of Buchanan that incurred the wrath of his fellow Northerners was when he supported the admission of Kansas as a slave-holding state. He did not want to offend the South – the same people who helped him come into power. He reasoned that going against the Lecompton Constitution (i.e. the pro-slavery constitution) of Kansas would result in the evaporation of his support in the South.

In the end, the Lecompton Constitution failed to get passed in Congress. The biggest opponent of the Lecompton was Senator Stephen Douglas – Buchanan’s arch rival. The president’s unwavering support for the Lecompton Constitution bill cost him and his Democratic Party dearly. In the mid-term elections of 1858, many Northerners voted out Democrats in the North, replacing them with Republicans. As the president’s popularity and influence waned, Stephen Douglas’ increased among the Democrats.

  • Harper’s Ferry Raid

Buchanan’s presidency was also blighted by the Harper’s Ferry raid carried perpetrated by John Brown, a radical abolitionist and murderer.  John Brown conducted the raid in October 1859, hoping that the ensuing chaos would lead to a slave rebellion across the United States. The North considered John Brown a martyr while the South regarded him as murderer.

Again, President Buchanan was caught in the middle of the political turmoil. Fearing he could damage his political career, Buchanan refused intervening, he remained largely aloof all throughout the crisis. Throw in the Economic Panic of 1857 into the mix and Buchanan’s political career was long over.

  • Rise of the Republican Party

Judging by all the damage that his political career took while in the White House, President Buchanan was right to not bid for a second term. Half of his Democratic Party scorned him. The other half regarded him as an inept leader.

While the Democrats continued to fight amongst themselves, the Republican Party rose and gained enormously. There was absolutely no way Buchanan would/could have won a reelection in the 1860 Presidential election.

Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln went on to win the election instead. This obviously sparked a series of secession from the Union by Southern states. Buchanan came out to denounce the seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) that seceded. However, he stated that there was nothing that he could do to halt them from seceding. In his final days in Washington, he was more anxious to to get his term done with than handle the crisis at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.


Retirement and Death

After leaving office in March 1861, Buchanan headed to his home state Pennsylvania. He lived a very reclusive life at Wheatland, near Lancaster. At the age of 77, James Buchanan passed away on June 1, 1868. The cause of his death was a respiratory failure. 

The Legacy of James Buchanan

Even in the twilight of his presidency, James Buchanan preferred acting like a lame-duck, waiting for the problem to pass onto President-elect Abraham Lincoln.

Although he desired nothing but to keep the Union intact, he failed to take any action simply because he was very much afraid of antagonizing the South. This shows us how how much of an ineffectual leader President James Buchanan was.

His name will be forever be associated to the American Civil War,  although not in a positive light. Thus, it is not uncommon for many historians to blame him for failing to arrest the conflict between the North and South long before the Civil War started. Many believe that he was in a vital position to bring about relative peace between the two sides; however, his lack of foresight and bravery were the two things that further divided the Union.

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  1. April 7, 2020

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