James Buchanan
James Buchanan

In office
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Vice President John C. Breckinridge
Preceded by Franklin Pierce
Succeeded by Abraham Lincoln

In office
March 10, 1845 – March 7, 1849
Preceded by John C. Calhoun
Succeeded by John M. Clayton

In office
December 6, 1834 – March 5, 1845
Preceded by William Wilkins
Succeeded by Simon Cameron

Born April 23, 1791(1791-04-23)
Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
Died June 1, 1868 (age 77)
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) None (Bachelor)
Occupation Lawyer, Diplomat
Religion Presbyterian
Signature James Buchanan Signature

James Buchanan (April 23, 1791June 1, 1868) was the fifteenth President of the United States (18571861). He was the only President from Pennsylvania and the only President to never marry. As president he was a "doughface" who battled Stephen A. Douglas for control of the Democratic Party. Scholars consistently rank him as one of the two or three worst American presidents. As southern states declared their secession in the lead-up to the American Civil War, he held that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal.

Early career[]

Buchanan was a Representative and a Senator from Pennsylvania. He was born in a log cabin at Cove Gap, near Mercersburg, Franklin County, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan and Elizabeth Spear as the second of ten children (two of whom did not survive past infancy). The Buchanan family claims direct descent from King James I of Scotland. In 1802, he moved to Mercersburg with his parents, where he was privately tutored. He later attended the village academy and graduated from Dickinson College, in Carlisle. At one point, he was expelled from Dickinson for wild behavior and bad conduct, but after pleading for a second chance he graduated with honors three years later on September 7, 1809.[1] Later that year he moved to Lancaster. For the next three years he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. He then opened a practice in Lancaster. A dedicated Federalist, he strongly opposed the War of 1812 on the grounds that it was an unnecessary conflict. Nevertheless, when the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit and served in the defense of Baltimore.


A Serviceable Garment or Reverie of a Bachelor
An 1856 cartoon depicts Buchanan sitting in his room examining the "Cuba" patch he has sewn on his jacket. As Minister to Britain, he pressed unsuccessfully for the purchase of Cuba in what is known as the Ostend Manifesto. He says, "My old coat was a very fashionable federal coat when it was new, but by patching and turning I have made it quite a Democratic Garment. That Cuba patch to be sure is rather unsightly, but it suits Southern fashions at this season, and then, if I am elected, let me see, $25,000 pr. annum and no rent to pay and no women and babies about, I guess I can afford a new outfit."

Political career[]

Buchanan started his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814–1820. He was elected to the Seventeenth and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1821March 4, 1831). He was chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary (Twenty-first Congress). He was not a candidate for renomination in 1830. Buchanan served as one of the managers appointed by the House of Representatives in 1830 to conduct the impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Buchanan served as minister to Russia from 1832 to 1834.


Portrait of Buchanan as a younger man.

With his original party of choice, the Federalists, long defunct, Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy and served from December 1834; he was reelected in 1837 and 1843, and resigned in 1845. He was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Twenty-fourth through Twenty-sixth Congresses).

After death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin in 1844, Buchanan was nominated (and refused the nomination) by President Polk to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court (seat was filled by Robert Cooper Grier).

Buchanan served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849, during which time he negotiated the 1846 Oregon Treaty establishing the 49th parallel as the northern boundary in the western U.S. No Secretary of State has become President since James Buchanan, although William Howard Taft, the 27th U.S. President of the United States, often served as Acting Secretary of State during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

In 1853, Buchanan was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in his hometown of Lancaster. He served in this capacity until 1865.

He served as minister to the Court of St. James (Britain) from 1853 to 1856, during which time he helped to draft the Ostend Manifesto, which proposed the purchase of Cuba from Spain in order to extend slavery. The Manifesto was a major blunder for the Pierce Administration, and greatly weakened support for Manifest Destiny.

Election of 1856[]

The Democrats nominated Buchanan in 1856 largely because he was in England during the Kansas-Nebraska debate and thus remained untainted by either side of the issue. He was nominated on the 17th ballot. Although he did not want to run, he accepted the nomination.

Former president Millard Fillmore's "Know-Nothing" candidacy helped Buchanan defeat John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856, and he served from March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861.

With regard to the growing schism in the country, as President-elect, he intended to sit out the crisis by maintaining a sectional balance in his appointments and persuading the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories and two justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.

Presidency 1857–1861[]

Buch poster

Chromolithograph campaign poster for James Buchanan


Inauguration of James Buchanan, March 4, 1857.

The Dred Scott case[]

In his inaugural address, besides promising not to run again, Buchanan referred to the territorial question as "happily, a matter of but little practical importance" since the Supreme Court was about to settle it "speedily and finally." Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a fellow alumnus of Dickinson College) delivered the Dred Scott Decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Much of Taney’s written judgment is widely interpreted as obiter dictum — statements made by a judge that are unnecessary to the outcome of the case, which in this case, while they delighted Southerners, created a furor in the North. Buchanan was widely believed to have been personally involved in the outcome of the case, with many Northerners recalling Taney whispering to Buchanan during Buchanan's inauguration. Buchanan wished to see the territorial question resolved by the Supreme Court. To further this, Buchanan personally lobbied his fellow Pennsylvanian Justice Robert Cooper Grier to vote with the majority in that case to uphold the right of owning slave property. Abraham Lincoln denounced him as an accomplice of the Slave Power, which Lincoln saw as a conspiracy of slave owners to seize control of the federal government and nationalize slavery.

Bleeding Kansas[]

Buchanan, however, faced further trouble on the territorial question. Buchanan threw the full prestige of his administration behind congressional approval of the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, which would have admitted Kansas as a slave state, going so far as to offer patronage appointments and even cash bribes in exchange for votes. The Lecompton government was unpopular to Northerners, as it was dominated by slaveholders who had enacted laws curtailing the rights of non-slaveholders. Even though the voters in Kansas had rejected the Lecompton Constitution, Buchanan managed to pass his bill through the House, but it was blocked in the Senate by Northerners led by Stephen A. Douglas. Eventually, Congress voted to call a new vote on the Lecompton Constitution, a move which infuriated Southerners. Buchanan and Douglas engaged in an all-out struggle for control of the party in 1859–60, with Buchanan using his patronage powers and Douglas rallying the grass roots; Buchanan lost control of the greatly weakened party.

Views on slavery[]

Buchanan personally favored the rights of slave owners and he sympathized with the slave-expansionists who coveted Cuba. In opposition to his great enemy Stephen Douglas, Buchanan shared the southern view of popular sovereignty, believing the residents of a territory could not prohibit slavery until they were ready for statehood. Douglas fought him on this issue and prevailed, at the cost of ripping the Democratic party apart. Buchanan despised both abolitionists and free-soil Republicans, lumping the two together. Seeing no injustice in the slave system, and no problem with slaveowner control of the government, he fought the opponents of the Slave Power. In his third annual message Buchanan claimed that the slaves were "treated with kindness and humanity....Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result." Shortly after his election, he assured a southern Senator that the "great object" of his administration would be "to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties. Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain." As historian Kenneth Stampp concludes, "Buchanan was the consummate 'doughface', a northern man with southern principles."[2]

Financial Panic[]

Buchanan Cabinet

President Buchanan and his Cabinet
From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)

Economic troubles also plagued Buchanan's administration with the outbreak of the Panic of 1857. The government suddenly faced a shortfall of revenue, partly because of the Democrats' successful push to lower the tariff. Buchanan's administration, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, began issuing deficit financing for the government, a move which flew in the face of two decades of Democratic support for hard-money policies and allowed Republicans to attack Buchanan for financial mismanagement.

Utah War[]

In the 1850s, responding to reports that Governor Brigham Young was planning revolt, Buchanan sent the Army to oust the Mormon leader.

1860–1861: The nation disintegrates[]

When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government reached a stalemate. Bitter hostility between Republicans and Southern members prevailed on the floor of Congress.

To make matters worse, Buchanan was dogged by the partisan Covode committee, which was investigating the administration for evidence of impeachable offenses.


John C. Breckinridge, Vice President of the United States under Buchanan.

Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party split. Buchanan played little part as the national convention meeting in Charleston deadlocked. The southern wing walked out of the Charleston convention and nominated its own candidate for the presidency, incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whom Buchanan refused to support. The remainder of the party finally nominated Buchanan's archenemy, Douglas. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Buchanan watched silently as South Carolina seceded on December 20, followed by six other cotton states, and by February, they formed the Confederate States of America. Eight slave states refused to join.

In Buchanan's Message to Congress (December 3, 1860), he denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want it.


Editorial cartoon in Republican newspapers, 1861.

Beginning in late December, Buchanan reorganized his cabinet, ousting Confederate sympathizers and replacing them with hard-line nationalists Jeremiah S. Black, Edwin M. Stanton, Joseph Holt and John A. Dix. These conservative Democrats strongly believed in American nationalism and refused to countenance secession. At one point, Treasury Secretary Dix ordered Treasury agents in New Orleans, "If any man pulls down the American flag, shoot him on the spot".

Before Buchanan left office, seven slave states seceded, the Confederacy was formed, all arsenals and forts in the seceded states were lost (except Fort Sumter and two remote ones), and a fourth of all federal soldiers surrendered to Texas troops. The government decided to hold on to Fort Sumter, which was located in Charleston harbor, the most visible spot in the Confederacy. On January 5, Buchanan sent a civilian steamer Star of the West to carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, South Carolina state batteries opened fire on the Star of the West, which returned to New York. Paralyzed, Buchanan made no further moves to prepare for war.

Historians in 2006 voted his failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made. [1]

On Buchanan's final day as president, he remarked to the incoming Abraham Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland you are a happy man."[3]

James Buchanan's average historical ranking by scholars considering presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures and faults (such as corruption), is a lowly 36.58 (with smaller numbers reflecting better scores), placing him 41st out of a total of 42 presidents.

Administration and Cabinet[]


Official White House portrait of James Buchanan

The Buchanan Cabinet
Office Name Term
President James Buchanan1857–1861
Vice President John C. Breckinridge1857–1861
Secretary of State Lewis Cass1857–1860
Jeremiah S. Black1860–1861
Secretary of Treasury Howell Cobb1857–1860
Philip F. Thomas1860–1861
John A. Dix1861
Secretary of War John B. Floyd1857–1860
Joseph Holt1860–1861
Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black1857–1860
Edwin M. Stanton1860–1861
Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown1857–1859
Joseph Holt1859–1860
Horatio King1861
Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey1857–1861
Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson1857–1861

Supreme Court appointments[]

Buchanan appointed the following Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States:

States admitted to the Union[]

King the Vice President

William Rufus DeVane King, thirteenth Vice President of the United States. A friend of James Buchanan with whom he shared his home.

Personal relationships[]

In 1819 Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy iron manufacturing businessman and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, a colleage of Buchanan's from the House of Representatives. However, Buchanan spent little time with her during the courtship; Buchanan was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects at the time, taking him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded, opining that he was marrying for her money as he came from a less affluent family, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan, for his part, never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, however, letters from Ann revealed she was paying heed to the rumors, and after Buchanan paid a visit to the wife of a friend, Ann broke off the engagement. Ann soon after died; the records of Dr. Chapman, who looked after Ann in her final hours, and who said just after her passing that this was "the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death," reveal that he theorized the woman's demise was caused by an overdose of laudanum.[4]

His fiancée's death struck Buchanan. In a letter to her father – which was returned to him unopened – Buchanan said "It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it... I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever."[5] The Coleman family became bitter towards Buchanan, and denied him a place at Ann's funeral.[6] Buchanan vowed he would never marry, though he continued to be flirtatious, and some pressed him to seek a wife. In response he said "Marry he could not, for his affections were buried in the grave." He preserved Ann Coleman's letters, kept them with him throughout his life, and requested they be burned upon his death.[4]

For fifteen years in Washington, prior to his presidency, Buchanan lived with his close friend, Alabama Senator William Rufus King[7]. King had been Vice President under Franklin Pierce. He took ill and died shortly after Pierce's inauguration, and four years before Buchanan became President. Buchanan and King's close relation prompted Andrew Jackson to refer to King as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy," while Aaron V. Brown spoke of the two as "Buchanan and his wife."[8][9] Further, some of the contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan and King's relationship. Buchanan and King's nieces destroyed their uncles' correspondence, leaving some questions as to what relationship the two men had, but surviving letters illustrate "the affection of a special friendship",[8] and Buchanan wrote of his "communion" with his housemate. Such expression, however, was not unusual amongst men at the time. Though the circumstances surrounding Buchanan and King have led some to speculate that he was America's first homosexual president, there is currently no evidence that King and Buchanan had a sexual relationship.[8]

The only President never to marry, Buchanan turned to Harriet Lane, an orphaned niece whom he had earlier adopted, to act as his First Lady. "I feel that it is not good for man to be alone", he wrote, "and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection."[10][11]

Post-presidency, death, and legacy[]

In 1866 Buchanan published Mr Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion — the first presidential memoir. He died June 1, 1868, at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland. He was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery, in Lancaster. On the day before his death, he predicted that "history will vindicate my memory." Nevertheless, historians continue to emphasize his failure to deal with secession. The policy of appeasement practiced by Buchanan and his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, toward the pro-slavery lobby is often criticized. There is no evidence, however, that Pierce and Buchanan taking a harder line against slavery would have done anything but provoke the Southern states to secede a few years earlier than they eventually did. Whether America's slide toward secession during his administration was Buchanan's fault, or whether it was simply his bad luck to have presided over it, remains a matter for debate. Nonetheless, surveys of Presidential scholars consistently rank Buchanan among the five worst presidents.

A bronze and granite memorial residing near the Southeast corner of Washington, D.C.'s Meridian Hill Park was designed by architect William Gorden Beecher and sculpted by Maryland artist Hans Schuler. Commissioned in 1916, but not approved by the U.S. Congress until 1918, and not completed and unveiled until June 26, 1930, the memorial features a statue of Buchanan bookended by male and female classical figures representing law and diplomacy, with the engraved text reading: "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law," a quote from a member of Buchanan's cabinet, Jeremiah S. Black. The memorial in the nation's capital complemented an earlier monument, constructed in 1907–08 and dedicated in 1911, on the site of Buchanan's birthplace in StonyBatter, Pennsylvania. Part of an 18.5-acre memorial site, the monument is a 250-ton pyramid structure designed to show the original weathered surface of the native rubble and mortar.

An active Freemason during his lifetime, he was master of a Masonic Lodge in Lancaster and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

Three counties are named in his honor: Buchanan County in Iowa, Missouri, and Virginia.


  • Baker, Jean H. James Buchanan. Henry Holt, 2004. 192 pp.
  • Binder, Frederick Moore. "James Buchanan: Jacksonian Expansionist" Historian 1992 55(1): 69-84. Issn: 0018-2370 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Binder, Frederick Moore. James Buchanan and the American Empire. Susquehanna U. Press, 1994. 318 pp.
  • Birkner, Michael J., ed. James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s. Susquehanna U. Press, 1996. 215 pp.
  • Meerse, David E. "Buchanan, the Patronage, and the Lecompton Constitution: a Case Study" Civil War History 1995 41(4): 291-312. Issn: 0009-8078
  • Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln 2 vols. (1960) highly detailed narrative of his presidency
  • Nichols, Roy Franklin; The Democratic Machine, 1850–1854 (1923), detailed narrative; online
  • Potter, David Morris. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976). ISBN 0-06-013403-8 Pulitzer prize.
  • Rhodes, James Ford History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 Volume: 2. (1892)
  • Smith, Elbert B. The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975). ISBN 0-7006-0132-5, standard history of his administration
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (1990). ISBN 0-19-503902-5 online version
  • Updike, John Buchanan Dying (1974). ISBN 0-8117-0238-3

Primary sources[]


Portal Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Portal Small Red Rose.JPG
  1. ^ Paletta, Lu Ann and Worth, Fred L. (1988). "The World Almanac of Presidential Facts".
  2. ^ Stampp (1990) p. 48
  3. ^ Baker, Jean H., James Buchanan, New York: Henry Holt, 2004, pg 140
  4. ^ a b Klein, Philip Schriver; American Heritage Magazine: The Lost Love of a Bachelor President; December, 1955; Vol. 7, Issue 1
  5. ^ The Lost Love of a Bachelor President Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  6. ^ [University of Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs: James Buchanan: Life Before the Presidency]
  7. ^ Klein, Philip S., President James Buchanan: A Biography, Newtown, CT: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962, pg 111
  8. ^ a b c Baker, Jean H.; James Buchanan; Henry Holt and Company; 2004; pages 25-26
  9. ^ Boller, Paul F., Not So!, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pg 75
  10. ^ Klein, Philip, President James Buchanan: A Biography, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962, pg 156
  11. ^ Curtis, George Ticknor, Life of James Buchanan, New York: Harper's, 188, 1:519

External links[]

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Political offices
Preceded by
Philip P. Barbour
Chairman of the United States House
Committee on the Judiciary

1829 – 1831
Succeeded by
Warren R. Davis
Preceded by
John C. Calhoun
United States Secretary of State
March 10, 1845 – March 7, 1849
Succeeded by
John M. Clayton
Preceded by
Franklin Pierce
President of the United States
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Succeeded by
Abraham Lincoln
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Jacob Hibshman
James M. Wallace
Member from Pennsylvania's
3rd congressional district

1821 – 1823
Served alongside: John Phillips
Succeeded by
Daniel H. Miller
Preceded by
James S. Mitchell
Member from Pennsylvania's
4th congressional district

1823 – 1831
Served alongside: Samuel Edwards,
Isaac Wayne, Charles Miner, Samuel Anderson,
Joshua Evans, George G. Leiper
Succeeded by
William Hiester
David Potts
Joshua Evans
United States Senate
Preceded by
William Wilkins
Senator from Pennsylvania (Class 3)
1834 – 1845
Served alongside: Samuel McKean, Daniel Sturgeon
Succeeded by
Simon Cameron
Party political offices
Preceded by
Franklin Pierce
Democratic Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Stephen A. Douglas
John C. Breckinridge¹
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John Randolph
United States Minister to Russia
1832 – 1833
Succeeded by
Mahlon Dickerson
Preceded by
Joseph R. Ingersoll
United States Minister to Great Britain
1853 – 1856
Succeeded by
George M. Dallas
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Martin Van Buren
Oldest U.S. President still living
July 24, 1862 – June 1, 1868
Succeeded by
Millard Fillmore
Notes & References
1. The Democratic party split in 1860, producing two presidential candidates. Douglas was nominated by Northern Democrats; Breckinridge was nominated by Southern Democrats.

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