James Buchanan, fifteenth President of the United States, was born on April 23, 1791 near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, had emigrated to the Pennsylvania frontier where he became a successful storekeeper. James Buchanan attended school in Mercersburg before entering Dickinson College in the fall of 1807 as a junior. He was among the best scholars in his class, but he also acquired a reputation for rowdiness and intellectual vanity. When he graduated two years later, he left the college with little emotional attachment.
Eager to improve his situation, Buchanan trained for the law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. His considerable legal skill brought him acclaim and a growing income. It also drew him into politics. A Federalist like his father, Buchanan began his political career in 1814 as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; in 1820 he was elected to Congress. With only a few exceptions, he spent the next forty years as an officeholder, serving as both congressman and senator, as minister to Russia under President Andrew Jackson, as secretary of state during the presidency of James K. Polk, and as minister to Great Britain under Franklin Pierce. In 1856, at the age of sixty-five, he capped this long list of honors with his election as President.
Buchanan's early years in politics coincided with the demise of the Federalist party after the War of 1812. Initially a Federalist, he sought a new political home, and in the election of 1824, he supported Henry Clay for President. Despite Buchanan's maneuvers on Clay's behalf, he moved into Jackson's camp following that election. The victorious Jackson rewarded him with the appointment as minister to Russia in 1831. On his mission abroad, Buchanan showed considerable diplomatic skill in negotiating a commercial treaty with Russia. But wearied by service in this distant post, Buchanan returned to the United States in 1833, and was immediately elected to the Senate.
As a politician, Buchanan was a loyal Democrat, a party man who possessed knowledge and competence but lacked vision and imagination. He generally adhered to the Democratic party's principles of limited government and states' rights, and supported the leading measures of the Jackson and Van Buren presidencies. When the slavery issue began to intrude in politics during the 1830s, Buchanan expressed regret about the institution in the abstract. However, he expressed no moral indignation against slavery. He blamed the abolitionists for endangering southern security and the Union, and sympathized with the South's position as a minority section.
By the 1840s, Buchanan's political stature had increased and he was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. The Democratic nomination in 1844, however, went to James K. Polk. Recognizing Buchanan's standing and Pennsylvania's contribution to his election, Polk appointed Buchanan secretary of state. Buchanan remained in office for Polk's full term, and although the President was largely responsible for foreign policy, Buchanan was closely associated with the administration's leading measures, particularly the annexation of Oregon and the Mexican War. As secretary of state, Buchanan attempted to purchase the island of Cuba. Although nothing came of his effort, Buchanan became known as an ardent expansionist.
With the end of Polk's presidency, Buchanan temporarily retired from office and bought a country estate, called Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A movement to nominate him for the presidency in 1852 failed, but the successful Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, appointed Buchanan minister to Great Britain. In 1854, Buchanan and two other American ministers authored the famous Ostend Manifesto, which recommended the acquisition of Cuba by purchase or, under certain conditions, by force. Since Cuba was a slaveholding island, this expansionist document enhanced Buchanan's standing in the South.
Since Buchanan was out of the country while sectional tempers flared over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the fugitive slaves issue, and the organization of the Kansas Territory, he was admirably situated to capture the Democratic nomination in 1856. As a Pennsylvanian, he was a northerner, but his longstanding sympathy for the South brought him support in that section. On the seventeenth ballot, Buchanan became the party's presidential candidate. Buchanan won the election, but the Democratic ticket did not receive a majority of the votes cast, or capture a majority of the northern states.
Although Buchanan's goals as President were to diminish sectional antagonism and to strengthen the Democratic party, his presidency was marred by controversy. On the question of slavery in the territories, Buchanan endorsed the southern position that slaveholders had a right to hold slaves throughout the territorial stage. Taking an excessively legalistic view of the situation in Kansas, he urged that Kansas be admitted to the Union under the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. He reasoned that the antislavery forces in Kansas, who constituted the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, could eliminate slavery after statehood.
In other ways, too, Buchanan identified his administration with the South. The Democratic Senate blocked passage of a bill that would have raised tariff rates, and Buchanan himself vetoed a homestead bill to provide free land to settlers. Both measures were popular among northerners. Slaveholders constituted a majority of Buchanan's cabinet, and its other members were, like him, highly sympathetic to southern concerns. Buchanan's foreign policy, which boldly spoke of the annexation of territory, particularly Cuba, to the United States, also worried many northerners. Buchanan, therefore, alienated many northern Democrats, including the powerful Illinois senator, Stephen A. Douglas. In its 1860 national convention, the Democratic party divided and ran two presidential candidates, one favored by northern Democrats, the other by southern Democrats. Buchanan supported the southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge. The party's division contributed to the Republican electoral victory.
Following the election of 1860, seven deep South states left the Union, and Buchanan was presented with the final crisis of his administration. In his message to Congress in early December 1860, issued prior to secession, Buchanan showed his sympathy for the South by blaming the sectional crisis on the North's interference with slavery. He urged northern states to repeal their laws which hampered the return of fugitive slaves. At the same time, however, Buchanan unequivocally defended the Union. He claimed that secession was unconstitutional and could only be justified by the revolutionary right of resistance to oppression. He urged the South to wait until the Republicans committed some overt and dangerous act before seceding. But Buchanan was vague as to what the federal government would do if a state seceded. He claimed that while the government had the responsibility of enforcing the laws, it had no power to coerce a state to remain in the Union.
Once secession began, Buchanan sought to retain the loyalty of the upper South and to avoid a confrontation with the departed states until they found their way back to the Union. He hoped that Congress or the Peace Convention, which assembled in Washington in February 1861, would find a solution to the crisis. He also recommended that a constitutional convention be held to pass amendments protecting slavery in the territories and in slaveholding states. However, nothing came of these compromise efforts.
Buchanan also faced the delicate issue presented by the federal forts in Florida and South Carolina, which the seceding states had failed to seize. Buchanan initially ordered the reinforcement of these forts, but he revoked his orders at the urging of pro-southern friends and cabinet members. However, a series of changes in Buchanan's cabinet throughout December replaced its pro-secessionist members with staunch unionists. Buchanan now changed his position and sent a relief expedition to Charleston in early January 1861. The relief attempt failed, and Buchanan returned to his previous policy of maintaining the status quo. An unofficial armistice, sometimes referred to as a "truce," prevailed at the forts. Buchanan never considered surrendering the forts to the South, and at the end of his presidency, they remained in federal hands. But not having been reinforced, they were more difficult to defend. The problem of holding them in their more vulnerable condition became the responsibility of his successor.
On March 4, 1861, weary and happy to be relieved of his duties, Buchanan left office and retired to his Wheatland estate. Although he supported the war effort and blamed the South for instigating the fighting, he was widely ridiculed for failing to put down secession and to protect federal forts. He devoted considerable time in his retirement to defending his administration, and in 1866, he published his memoirs, Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. He died on June 1, 1868, at the age of seventy-seven, from a severe cold and the complications of old age.
Buchanan never expressed regrets for any of his public acts, and he predicted that history would vindicate his memory. But while he has been credited with good intentions in his efforts to avert civil war and achieve a compromise, his general handling of the sectional crisis has been criticized. The reasons vary. Some scholars find fault in Buchanan's character. They portray Buchanan as timid, weak, and indecisive. Insecure and excessively reliant on the opinions of others, he was also prone at times to adhere stubbornly to a decision, however flawed. Others emphasize Buchanan's reliance on legalistic thinking and the power of reason, which hampered his ability to deal with the intense passions and emotions that infused sectional politics. Still others claim that Buchanan was unable to comprehend the nature of the sectional dispute over slavery. He never gave to the North's concerns about slavery and southern power the same sympathy and understanding that he gave to the South's complaints.
At the time of his presidency, Buchanan was a distinguished figure. Six feet tall, heavy-set, with white hair and a ruddy complexion, he had the old fashioned manners of a country gentleman. He suffered a vision defect in one eye, which caused him to tilt his head to the side and squint when engaged in conversation. As a young man, Buchanan had been engaged to a woman who broke off their relationship after a misunderstanding; before matters could be patched up, she died. Deeply affected by this incident, Buchanan never remarried, and he became the only bachelor President. Although outwardly formal and reserved, he eagerly sought companionship and friendship in the company of attractive women and of like-minded politicians. He felt especially at ease among southerners. Buchanan's cabinet members and their wives served as a kind of family, visiting and dining frequently at the White House. His niece, Harriet Lane, was a constant presence in his life, and presided over White House social events.