James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He was the second of ten children. In 1809, he graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, even though he was previously expelled from the school for bad behavior. After graduating, he studied law and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1812. In the War of 1812 against Great Britain, Buchanan fought in the defense of Baltimore.
Buchanan’s political career began in 1814 in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He next served in Congress as a representative for Pennsylvania from 1821-1831. From 1832 to 1834, he served as the United States Ambassador to Russia. In 1834, he was elected to fill a vacancy in the US Senate and was reelected in 1837 and 1843 before resigning in 1845. He next served as Secretary of State under President James K. Polk and negotiated a treaty that designated the northern boundary of the western United States at the 49th parallel. This was known as the Oregon Treaty. After the Polk administration, Buchanan continued his work in foreign relations and served as ambassador to Great Britain.
The Ineffective President
In 1856, Buchanan was nominated for president by the Democratic Party. Buchanan defeated the Republican candidate John C. Fremont and was elected the nation’s 15th president. Immediately, his presidency got off to a controversial start as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, which asserted the Constitution did not authorize the right to prohibit slavery in the new territories. Buchanan, who was sympathetic to the Southern cause, was decried by abolitionists after he lobbied for the cause of slaveholders. Abraham Lincoln even suggested the outcome may have been a conspiracy of slaveholders to gain control of the federal government. During the Bleeding Kansas controversy, Buchanan supported the LeCompton Constitution, which would have admitted Kansas to the Union as a slave state. Even though the LeCompton Constitution was rejected by Kansas voters, Buchanan managed to pass the bill through the House of Representatives (although it was rejected by the Senate). Buchanan’s pro-slavery position infuriated Northerners and weakened the power of the Democratic Party by alienating some of its members. By 1860, the Democratic Party had split into a Northern and Southern contingency, each nominating its own candidate for the presidential election of 1860. With the party divided, the Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln was assured of the presidency. At the end of Buchanan’s presidency, the issue of slavery had grown so divisive that seven states seceded from the Union. Buchanan refused to take a stand on the issue of secession, claiming that states did not have the right to secede but that the federal government could not stop them if they did.
James Buchanan died on June 1, 1868, at the age of 77 at his home, known as Wheatland. Historians generally consider him a weak president who failed to deal with the secession of the Southern states. He was the only president to have never married.