James Buchanan 

 Fifteenth President of the United States

James Buchanan, the 15th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (1857-1861), served during the beginning of the secession crisis that led to the Civil War. Of Scottish-Irish descent, he was born on Apr. 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, near Mercersburg, Pa., the son of James Buchanan, a prosperous storekeeper, and his wife, Elizabeth Speer.
Young James received an academy education and attended Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., graduating in 1809. He then studied law in Lancaster, where he began practice in 1813. Although a FEDERALIST in political sympathies, he supported the prosecution of the War of 1812 and participated as a volunteer in the defense of Baltimore.
After serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814-16), Buchanan devoted attention to his law practice, which soon prospered. In 1819 he became engaged to Ann Coleman, daughter of a wealthy Lancaster iron manufacturer, but as a result of a misunderstanding the engagement was ended. Her sudden death shortly thereafter left Buchanan desolate. He never married.
In 1820, Buchanan was elected to the U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. With the collapse of the Federalist party, he supported Andrew JACKSON for the presidency. In the late 1820s he emerged as the leader of the Amalgamation party, the dominant faction of Pennsylvania Jacksonians.
Buchanan retired from CONGRESS in 1831 but later that year accepted Jackson's offer of the ministry to Russia. He remained at St. Petersburg from 1832 to 1834, where he concluded a commercial treaty. Shortly after his return he was elected to the U.S. SENATE, where he served from 1834 to 1845.

Mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1844, Buchanan became (1845) secretary of state in the cabinet of President James K. POLK. Although Polk personally directed the formulation of foreign policy, Buchanan worked diligently in matters relating to the consummation of the annexation (1845) of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon Question, and the Mexican War. He retired from office at the end of the Polk administration in 1849. Buchanan was a serious contender for the DEMOCRATIC nomination in 1852 but lost to Franklin PIERCE, who named him minister to Great Britain. His mission in London (1853-56) accomplished little but benefited him politically, for he remained aloof from the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).

At the Democratic convention in 1856, Buchanan won the presidential nomination on the 17th ballot. In the fall he won an ELECTORAL victory, although he failed to get a popular majority over John C. Fremont, the Republican, and Millard FILLMORE, the KNOW-NOTHING candidate.

Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, the Supreme Court declared in the Dred Scott case that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories.  He welcomed this ruling as the final word on that issue, but the REPUBLICANS and many Northern Democrats refused to accept the Court's opinion. Like Pierce, Buchanan met difficulties in organizing Kansas Territory. He urged Congress to accept the territory's proslavery LeCompton Constitution, even though it had been drawn up by an unrepresentative convention that had refused to submit it to the people. Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic senator of Illinois, broke with Buchanan, arguing that the president's stand made a mockery of the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty. Ultimately the constitution was referred to the Kansas electorate, which overwhelmingly rejected it.

With his long experience in diplomacy, Buchanan expected his administration to conduct a vigorous foreign policy. He sought to extend American influence in the Caribbean, but congressional opposition forced him to give up efforts to purchase Cuba from Spain. Inevitably, domestic matters intruded upon his attention. The panic of 1857 added to the unpopularity of his administration and contributed to heavy Democratic losses in the congressional elections of 1858.

The sectional controversy grew steadily more serious during the last two years of Buchanan's presidency. The raid by John Brown at Harpers Ferry and Brown's execution by Virginia authorities in 1859 intensified public feeling in both the South and the North. In the presidential campaign of 1860 the Democratic party split, and Buchanan endorsed Vice-President John C. BRECKINRIDGE of Kentucky, whom he considered the regular nominee, instead of Douglas, the candidate of the Northern Democrats.

The election of Abraham LINCOLN, the Republican candidate, prompted the secession of seven Southern states and the creation of the Confederate States of America during Buchanan's last months in office. The president was criticized by secessionists because he denied the legality of their action and by Northern advocates of a more vigorous policy because he believed that the executive lacked the power to coerce a state. He based his hopes for the survival of the Union on last-minute compromise efforts, which failed. As the more pro-Southern cabinet members resigned during the crisis, he took a stronger pro-Union stand, refusing to turn over Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Summer in South Carolina to the authorities in those secessionist states.

During the Civil War Buchanan generally supported Lincoln's war policies while preparing a defense of his own administration, which he published in 1866. He died at his estate, Wheatland, near Lancaster, on June 1, 1868.

Buchanan's reputation is judged mainly by his conduct during the last months of his presidency, and he is therefore generally regarded as an ineffective executive. In his defense it can be said that he was a lame-duck president caught in a vicious crossfire between secessionists and Republicans. But at the same time his adherence to a conservative legalism led him to interpret narrowly his powers to deal with an unprecedented constitutional crisis.




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