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James Buchanan
Matthew Brady Photo of Buchanan, 1858, Library of Congress

In 1856 when James Buchanan was elected America's fifteenth president he became the first, and so far the only, Pennsylvanian to serve in that office. His long and diverse political career included service in Pennsylvania's General Assembly, United States congressman, United States senator, minister to Russia, secretary of state under President James K. Polk, and ambassador to Great Britain. It is with this impressive resume that Buchanan entered the White House at a moment when long-simmering sectional discontent over the issue of slavery was threatening to sunder the young Republic in two. Historians continue to debate the precise nature of Buchanan's role in failing to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War. At the time, however, a majority of the American people welcomed his election precisely because they believed that only his kind of deft conciliation and compromise could preserve the Union.

Born April 21, 1791 in a log cabin at a frontier outpost called Stony Batter in Cove Gap, Franklin County, James Buchanan was the eldest of eleven children. His father, James Buchanan Sr., an Irish immigrant who operated the trading post, was a demanding parent who offered his children little praise. James Buchanan's more indulgent mother, Elizabeth Speer Buchanan of Lancaster, was a self-educated and very religious woman who could recite long passages from the classics and the Bible. In 1796 his father moved the family to Mercersburg where they lived on the second floor above the family store. Young James Buchanan assisted his father in the store, where he mastered the kind of meticulous bookkeeping his father demanded. His formal education began at the Old Stone Academy in Mercersburg where he studied Greek and Latin.

At age sixteen, James Buchanan was admitted to Dickinson College in Carlisle where he proved a conscientious and popular student. He was also, however, given to disruptive antics, and he was expelled from the school. Fortunately, an influential family friend intervened on his behalf and Buchanan was readmitted, graduating with distinction in 1809. At the urging of his father, Buchanan traveled to Lancaster to study law with James Hopkins and was admitted to the bar in Lancaster in 1812. After practicing law for two years, he was nominated as a Federalist candidate for the Pennsylvania Assembly on August 24, 1814, the same day that British forces burned the city of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Although he at first opposed the war, Buchanan served several weeks in a volunteer cavalry unit during the siege of Baltimore. He was subsequently elected to two terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Although Buchanan was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and distinguished looking, he seldom gave campaign speeches, preferring to exert his political influence through writing personal letters. His letters reflect the disciplined logic of a lawyer. He also was very much at home at social gatherings. An upright shirt collar reaching to his chin was his trademark, and a congenital eye deformity caused him to tilt one side of his head forward, creating an impression of giving his fullest attention to those with whom he conversed. He enjoyed entertaining large groups at his home and was renowned for a sense of humor that seldom showed itself in his public statements.

He quickly established his reputation as a competent and thorough lawyer, known for developing sound legal strategies. Never regarded as a brilliant speaker, he won his cases by conducting exhaustive background research and presenting judges and juries with sound arguments grounded upon solid facts. Neither a brilliant nor visionary thinker, Buchanan's long political career was distinguished by this kind of minute attention to detail, strict legal logic, and hard work.Buchanan never married and many historians have attributed this to his tragic early relationship with Ann Caroline Coleman, daughter of Pennsylvania's wealthiest ironmaster Robert Coleman. When James and Ann became engaged in 1819, Ann's possessive father opposed the union. And when Ann learned that, upon his return from Philadelphia on business one afternoon, Buchanan had paid a visit at the home of another young woman rather than coming first to see her, she abruptly broke off the engagement. Shortly thereafter, Ann traveled to Philadelphia to avoid seeing Buchanan. While in the city, she fell ill and died under circumstances that hinted of a possible suicide. Buchanan was devastated by her death, and by Robert Coleman's refusal to allow him to attend her funeral. Buchanan never again came close to marrying and instead immersed himself in his law books and his political career. When he was elected president his niece, Harriet Lane, served as official White House hostess.

Harriet Lane, Buchanan's niece, served as First Lady during his presidency.  Painting by G.C. Munzig, C. 1899. Smithsonian InstituteFirst elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1820, he served four terms representing Lancaster, Lebanon and Dauphin Counties. Although long a Federalist, Buchanan supported Democrat Andrew Jackson as early as 1824. In 1828, with the decline of the Federalist Party, he finally declared himself a Democrat. A leader of the so-called "Amalgamation" wing of the Democratic party that consisted of a coalition of former Pennsylvania German Federalists from the eastern counties and western Scots-Irish Democratic farmers, Buchanan's faction vied with the "Family Party" faction for federal appointments and state offices. The "Family Party" faction, so-called because its leaders George Dallas and William Wilkins were related by marriage, at first favored South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun for the presidency. Though Buchanan admired and tried to emulate Andrew Jackson, Jackson distrusted Buchanan after a misunderstanding that arose during the 1824 presidential election. When the Electoral College failed to produce a majority for any candidate, the names of Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay were given to the House of Representatives for a final vote. Just before the balloting, Buchanan privately asked Jackson if he had purchased Clay's votes by promising to appoint Clay secretary of state if he himself won the presidency. Jackson said that if he had made such a promise he would never reveal it to anyone. But Jackson resented Buchanan even asking such a question, and he never fully trusted the Pennsylvanian after that. Adams received the votes from Clay's supporters, became president, and appointed Clay secretary of state. In 1827 Jackson, to make Clay look dishonest, suggested that Buchanan's private inquiry just before Adams had won the presidency had been part of Clay's 1824 secret plan for selling his supporters' votes to either Adams or Jackson. Buchanan publicly denied being Clay's agent, but he further angered Jackson by bringing the matter before the public. In 1831 Jackson retaliated by appointing Buchanan United States minister to Russia to prevent him from running for vice president. During his fourteen months in St. Petersburg Buchanan negotiated the first U.S. trade agreement with Russia.

Upon his return to the United States, Buchanan won a special election to the United States Senate in 1834 where he served continuously until 1845. As a senator, he promoted the notion that governmental power ought always to be held in check by a strict interpretation of the United States Constitution and counseled restraint on the part of both private individuals and elected officials with regard to the contentious issue of slavery. He believed that war could only be avoided if both sections agreed to mediation and made concessions. Though Buchanan was personally opposed to slavery, even to the extent of spending his own money to purchase slaves in order to grant them their freedom, he also believed that the institution of slavery was protected by the federal Constitution. He was especially disturbed by what he saw as the irresponsible agitation of abolitionists that served only to stir up anger and distrust in the southern states. Like Thomas Jefferson, he believed that left undisturbed and given enough time the institution of slavery would eventually wither away. He always preferred conciliation and compromise to confrontation. An example was his mediation of the so-called "Gag Rule" controversy of 1836. Northern abolitionists had been inundating the senate with petitions calling for an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. When South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun called for a rule banning the Senate from receiving such petitions, Buchanan suggested that all such petitions be accepted but then immediately tabled and ignored. So great was the desire among senators on both sides of the sectional divide to quiet the controversy that such a narrow legalistic compromise won a majority vote of 34-6.

Although considered a strong candidate for his party's nomination for the presidency in 1844, 1848, and 1852, he lost each time. In 1844, former President Andrew Jackson gave his support to James K. Polk. Polk and Buchanan both believed in the acquisition of Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican provinces of New Mexico and California, and Buchanan's support helped Polk carry Pennsylvania. Polk rewarded Buchanan with appointment as secretary of state, but the two men frequently disagreed over policy. Oregon was acquired from Great Britain by treaty and military victories in the Mexican War resulted in the purchase of as much territory from Mexico as Congress was willing to fund. Buchanan wanted to go even further by acquiring Cuba, the Hawaiian Islands, and Central America. The notion of acquiring Cuba and Central America was particularly favored by southern slave owners hoping to expand the slave-owning territory of the United States and thereby strengthen their position in Congress. Any annexation of such southern territories was opposed by northern abolitionists and free soil advocates, however, who feared such acquisitions precisely because they would increase the voting strength of southern slave owners.

When Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor won the presidency in 1848, Buchanan retired to Lancaster where he purchased the beautiful country estate called Wheatland. For many years, Buchanan played the role of wise elder statesman to his party while at the same time counseling, comforting, and supporting his less fortunate relatives. He found retirement to his liking, entertaining a constant stream of family and friends. During those years, he reared two nephews and his niece, Harriet Lane, at Wheatland.

Buchanan always considered his retirement to Wheatland temporary and continued to have an active interest in the presidency. Political discussions often centered on Buchanan's opposition to the Compromise of 1850. The compromise had opened the door for the possibility that settlers in each new territory might decide whether to allow slavery, an idea that was known as "popular sovereignty." Buchanan, like many southerners, had favored extending the 1820 Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. States erected out of territory located north of the line would continue to exclude slavery while states south of the line would allow slavery, thereby maintaining a congressional balance of power between the sections. In 1849, however, California applied for admission as a free state. Under the Compromise of 1850, the south reluctantly accepted the admission of California as a free state in exchange for passage of a new fugitive slave law designed to test the good faith of the north. Though many leading Whigs and Democrats believed this compromise was the only way to quiet the agitation over slavery, Buchanan correctly feared that the Compromise of 1850 could only lead to further confrontation and ultimate disaster.

Though Buchanan was put forward as the 1852 Democratic presidential candidate by Pennsylvania's delegation, the convention instead selected Franklin Pierce as the Democratic nominee. Hoping to isolate Buchanan from domestic affairs-and any chance of obtaining the 1856 nomination for the presidency-President Pierce appointed Buchanan minister to Great Britain in 1853. While in England, Buchanan continued to promote the expansion of the United States and was instrumental in crafting the Ostend Manifesto, an unofficial notification that the United States meant to acquire Cuba even if Spain would not sell it. A naval war with Great Britain over Central America was averted only when British public opinion reacted negatively to the horrors of the Crimean War. Frustrated at his inability to effect any lasting change in Britain's foreign policy in favor of the United States, Buchanan asked to go home in 1855.

In 1856 Buchanan, at the age of 65, at last enjoyed the solid support of the Democratic Party for the presidency. During his absence in England, all of the other potential candidates had seen their reputations tarnished by their involvement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the beginning of violent confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas territory. Since Buchanan believed that both secession and federal interference with slavery in states where it already existed were unconstitutional, he seemed the perfect compromise candidate for the majority of voters who wanted desperately to preserve the Union at all costs. In the general election he faced John C. Fremont, the first national candidate of the new Republican Party which drew support from northern free soil partisans and abolitionists. Some southern extremists threatened immediate secession if Fremont were elected. Buchanan carried all of the slave states except Maryland, as well as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, and California. Though he had a clear majority in the Electoral College, he received only 45 percent of the popular vote in a three-way contest where Fremont got 33 percent and Whig/Know Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore got 22 percent.

In his inaugural address, Buchanan said that the Supreme Court would soon decide slavery's status in the territories and lay that contentious issue to rest. What he did not say is that he knew this because he already had engaged in secret discussions with members of the Court. During these discussions, he urged one of the northern justices to vote with the southern justices in the Dred Scott case in a decision that would be written broadly enough to clarify more than the status of just one slave. Handed down two days later, the majority decision declared that slaves were property under the federal Constitution and that no territory or state could alter their status. Rather than quieting the controversy, however, this decision angered not only abolitionists but also northern free soil partisans who saw slave labor as a threat to the economic viability of free labor in the emerging western states.

James Buchanan's Estate in Lancaster, Wheatland.  Courtesy of the James Buchanan FoundationFailing to appreciate the growing power of free soil ideology in the north, Buchanan continued his longstanding policy of appeasing the slave states by appointing many southerners to his cabinet. He also showed his southern leaning in the matter of "Bleeding Kansas." The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise line of 1820 and destroyed the finality of the Compromise of 1850 by allowing voters in the western territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The result was that large numbers of pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed into the Kansas territory. When voters met at Lecompton to write a state constitution, free-soil Kansans boycotted the registration and delegate election process, resulting in the election of a pro-slavery convention. When only a pro-slavery constitution was presented to voters, the anti-slavery faction again refused to participate in the election and the pro-slavery constitution was sent to Buchanan for congressional approval. Meanwhile, the territorial legislature in Kansas called for a referendum on the entire constitution and, with anti-slavery partisans participating this time, the result was a large majority against the Lecompton Constitution. Amidst the ensuing national firestorm, Buchanan characteristically decided his course by applying a narrow legalistic logic to the case. Since the first election had been legal, neither the president nor a territorial legislature had authority to intervene and so he submitted the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution to Congress. Fellow Democrat Stephen A. Douglas immediately broke with Buchanan, fracturing the Democratic Party into pro-Lecompton and anti-Lecompton factions. Meanwhile, Buchanan's expansionist foreign policy that sought to acquire Cuba and to make further inroads in the Pacific Northwest and Central America also alarmed many northern voters.

In 1859 Buchanan announced he would not run for reelection. In the ensuing contest, the Democratic Party remained split and Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected in a four-way race in which he carried not a single southern state and less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Upon learning the results of the election, South Carolina immediately seceded from the Union and was quickly followed by seven other southern states. During the remaining three months of his term, Buchanan refused to recognize the right of any state to secede from the Union but also vowed he would commit no act of aggression toward the seceded states. He refused to give in to demands by South Carolina to surrender Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens but when he attempted to send reinforcements to Fort Sumter they were turned back by Confederate artillery. He hoped that a constitutional convention might be called to draft amendments to the federal Constitution that would settle the slavery issue but believed that as president he did not possess the power to call such a convention without the support of Congress. A proposal in the Senate called the Crittenden Compromise would have restored the Missouri Compromise line but extremist secessionists nixed the deal. When southern appointees resigned from his cabinet, he replaced them with northern Unionists. Informal agreements between Buchanan and South Carolina prevented the outbreak of war until after Lincoln had moved into the White House.

Following his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln at first followed many of the same conciliatory strategies pursued by Buchanan. Lincoln had already pledged during the campaign not to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states where it already existed and resolved that if war were to come the South would have to fire the first shot. When South Carolina did fire that shot at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Buchanan fully backed Lincoln's policies. Though Buchanan admired Lincoln's sincerity, supported the war effort with monetary contributions and encouraged volunteers to enlist, he also believed Lincoln sometimes overstepped his constitutional powers. In 1866 Buchanan published a full defense of his policies as president in a book entitled Mr. Buchanan's'Administration on the Eve of Rebellion. Though he believed that in time the wisdom of his actions would be appreciated, most historians today agree that his inability to grasp the importance of the emerging free soil ideology, his narrow legalistic reasoning and a lack of visionary thinking hastened rather than retarded the final rift. In the spring of 1868 Buchanan contracted a serious cold from which he rapidly developed complications. When he died on June 1, 1868, nearly twenty thousand people attended his funeral.

It is one of the ironies of history that, although Buchanan entered the White House with a more impressive set of qualifications than virtually any of his predecessors, historians have consistently given him poor marks for his performance in office. He was the last of a long series of presidents, going back to Thomas Jefferson, who hoped for an eventual peaceful end to slavery in an undetermined future when the right conditions came to pass. With the benefit of knowing how things turned out, it is easy to focus on Buchanan's blunders such as his meddling in the Dred Scott Case, his ill-considered backing of the Lecompton Constitution, and his persistent efforts to appease southern secessionists while ignoring the rising tide of northern free soil ideology.

Buchanan's mistakes alone did not cause the Civil War. Those causes may be traced through a long chain of events stretching all the way back to the 3/5s compromise of 1788 that enshrined slavery in the United States Constitution. His inability, however, to rise above narrow legalistic thinking undoubtedly worsened the impending crisis. As in 1856, radicals in South Carolina threatened to secede should a Republican be elected in 1860. Had Buchanan succeeded in placing another Democrat in the White House in 1860, a secession crisis might have been forestalled for a generation, and he would undoubtedly be credited by historians as the skillful negotiator those who elected him believed him to be. It was Buchanan's misfortune to occupy the White House at the moment when the long simmering forces tending toward disintegration of the Union were proving irreconcilable. The rebellion that was touched off by the failure of Buchanan's attempts at conciliation and compromise would reach its high water mark in Pennsylvania in 1863. During the Gettysburg campaign, Confederate forces approached within ten miles of Wheatland in a failed attempt to capture a bridge across the Susquehanna River. As the blood of two great armies was spilled on the soil of Pennsylvania that fateful summer, it was the bold vision of Abraham Lincoln rather than James Buchanan's policies of conciliation that would eventually bind the Union together and extinguish the institution of slavery.