James Buchanan

Mary Stone | November 4, 2022


James Buchanan Jr. (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was an American lawyer and politician who served as President of the United States from 1857 to 1861. He had previously served as Secretary of State from 1845 to 1849 and came to represent Pennsylvania in both houses of Congress. He was an advocate of “states” rights” and downplayed the role of the federal government in the last years of slavery.

Born into a wealthy family, Buchanan became a prominent lawyer in Pennsylvania and was elected to the State Assembly by the Federalists. He then ran for and won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1820, remaining there for eleven years. During this time, he aligned himself ideologically with President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. Buchanan served as ambassador to Russia under President Jackson in 1832. He was elected in 1834 to the Federal Senate from Pennsylvania, retaining this position for eleven years. Buchanan was then appointed by President James K. Polk to serve as his Secretary of State in 1845, and eight years later he was appointed, this time by President Franklin Pierce, as ambassador to the United Kingdom. In 1846, Buchanan was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

In early 1844, Buchanan became a frequent candidate for the Democratic Party”s nomination for the presidency. He finally won his party”s nomination in 1856, defeating President Franklin Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the Democratic National Covenant; he benefited from the fact that he had been out of the country (as ambassador to London) and thus had not been involved in the slavery issue, which was dividing the nation. Buchanan and his vice presidential candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, won the election in every slave state in the Union except Maryland, defeating Republican John C. Frémont and Know Nothing Millard Fillmore, winning the 1856 presidential election by a good margin.

As president, Buchanan intervened in the Supreme Court to rally majority support in the pro-slavery, anti-black decision in the Dred Scott Case. He did what Southern leaders wanted in their attempt to project the Kansas Territory”s entry into the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In doing so, he angered not only the Republicans, but also many northern Democrats. Buchanan honored his promise to serve only one term and supported his vice Breckinridge in his unsuccessful attempt to win the 1860 presidential election. He failed to reconcile a fragmented Democratic Party due to a simmering grudge against Stephen Douglas, which led the party to split in two in the election, ensuring the victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Within weeks of Lincoln being elected as Buchanan”s successor, the Southern states began to declare independence from the Union, precipitating the American Civil War. Buchanan”s weak leadership between the time of the election in November 1860 and the inauguration of his successor in March 1861 was highly criticized both at the time and by academics in later years. He simultaneously angered the North for not stopping secession and the South for not adhering to its secession. He supported the failed Corwin Agreement in an attempt to reconcile the country, but it was too little too late. He unsuccessfully tried to reinforce and resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter, but took no action to prepare the army for war. His failure to prevent the Civil War was alternatively described as incompetent inaction or passive acceptance of the Southern cause. Many contemporaries blamed him for the war and he was a hated person after leaving the presidency. He would spend the last years of his life trying to save his reputation. In his personal life, Buchanan was never married, and to date, he is the only president who never married in the course of his life. Biographers have variously suggested that he was celibate, homosexual, or asexual. Buchanan died of respiratory failure in 1868 and was buried in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he had lived for nearly 60 years. Most modern historians condemn him for not having tried to resolve the slavery issue or having made efforts to avert the Civil War and prevent southern secession. Academics often rank him as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States.

Buchanan was born in a cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania (now Buchanan”s Birthplace State Park) in Franklin County on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr. (1761-1821), a businessman, merchant, and farmer, and Elizabeth Speer, an educated woman (1767-1833). His parents were both of Scotch-Irish descent, the father immigrating from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. Buchanan had six sisters and four brothers.

In 1797, the family moved to nearby Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The house in Mercersburg was later to become the James Buchanan Hotel.

Buchanan attended the Village Academy (Old Stone Academy) and later Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although he was almost expelled at one point for bad behavior, he asked for a second chance and subsequently graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812.

A dedicated Federalist, he initially opposed the War of 1812 because he believed it was an unnecessary conflict. When the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a dragon light volunteer unit as a private company and served in the defense of Baltimore.Buchanan is the only president with military experience who did not at some point serve as an officer.

An active Mason, he was the Master of Masonic Lodge No. 43 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

Buchanan began his political career in Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives (1814-1816) as a member of the Federalist Party. He was elected to the 17th Congress of the United States and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1821 – March 4, 1831), serving as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in the 21st Congress of the United States. In 1830, he was among the members appointed by the House to conduct impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Peck was charged with abuse of the contempt power, but was ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek re-election, and 1832-1833, he served as minister to Russia, appointed by Andrew Jackson.

With the Federalist Party long defunct, Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy and served from December 1834; he was re-elected in 1837 and 1843, and resigned in 1845 to accept his appointment as Secretary of State by President James K. Polk. He was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1836 to 1841.

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin in 1844, Polk appointed Buchanan to fill the vacancy in March 1845, but he declined this appointment because he felt compelled to complete his collaboration in Oregon Treaty negotiations. The seat was eventually filled by Robert Cooper Grier.

Buchanan served as Polk”s secretary of state 1845-1849, despite the objections of Buchanan”s rival, Vice President George Dallas. In this capacity, he helped negotiate the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, which established the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the United Western Kingdom. No Secretary of State became President since Buchanan, although William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, often served as Acting Secretary of State during Theodore Roosevelt”s administration.

In 1856 , the Democrats selected Buchanan as their candidate for President of the United States . He had been in England during the Kansas- Nebraska debate and thus remained unvoted by both sides. Pennsylvania, which had three times failed Buchanan, has now given him full support at its state convention . Although he never declared his candidacy , it is evident from all his correspondence that he was aware of the distinct possibility of his nomination by the Democratic convention in Cincinnati even before he went home at the end of his work as a minister to the St. James Court in the United Kingdom . Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, then serving as American consul in Liverpool, recorded in his diary that Buchanan visited him in January 1855:

He returns to America, he says, next October, then retires forever from public life… with regard to his prospects for the Presidency, and said that his mind was fully made up, and that he would never be a candidate, and that he had expressed this decision to his friends, in such a way as to put him out of his own power to change it … that it was now too late, and that he was too old… although, really, he is the only Democrat, at this moment, whom it would not be absurd to talk about for the office …. I wonder if he might have had any object in saying all this to me. He can see that it would be perfectly natural for me to say that he General Pierce .

Jonathan Foltz said to Buchanan in November 1855, ” The people have taken the next Presidency out of the hands of the politicians …. the people and not your political friends will put you there.” While Buchanan did not openly seek office, he deliberately chose no longer to discourage movement on his behalf, something that was well within his power on many occasions.

Former President Millard Fillmore helped Buchanan defeat John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856. He served as president from March 4, 1857, to March 4, 1861. Buchanan remains the latest of two Democrats (the other being Martin Van Buren) to succeed a fellow Democrat to the Presidency by election in his own right. President-elect Buchanan stated about the growing division in the country: “The goal of my administration will be to destroy sectional parties, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government”. The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories and two justices had suggested to Buchanan their conclusions. Buchanan was elected president in 1857.

In his inaugural speech, besides promising not to run again, Buchanan referred to the territorial issue as “fortunately a matter of little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to resolve it “quickly and finally” and proclaimed that, when the decision came, he would “cheerfully submit, whatever that may be. Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney handed down the Dred Scott decision, stating that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Such delighted Southern comments and incited anger in the North.

Buchanan preferring to see the territorial issue resolved by the Supreme Court. He wrote to Justice John Catron in January 1857, asking about the outcome of the case and suggesting that a broader decision would be more prudent. Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10 that the southern majority of the Supreme Court would rule against Scott, but would probably have to publish the decision on narrow grounds if there was no northern support from the Court justices-unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority. Buchanan then wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him, allowing the majority leverage to issue a far-reaching decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott”s case to declare the Missouri settlement of 1820 unconstitutional. The correspondence was not public at the time; however, at his inauguration, Buchanan was seen in whispered conversation with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. When the decision was issued two days later, Republicans began spreading the word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the upcoming outcome. Abraham Lincoln, in 1858 his house divided speech, denounced Buchanan, Taney, Stephen A. Douglas, and Franklin Pierce as accomplices to the slave power, an alleged oligarchy with the goal of eliminating legal barriers to slavery.

Civil war broke out within two months of Buchanan”s retirement. He supported it , writing to his former colleagues that ” the assault on Sumter was the beginning of the war , by the Confederate states , and no alternative was , but ceased to prosecute it with vigor on our part ” . He also wrote a letter to his Pennsylvania Democratic colleagues, urging them to “join the many thousands of brave and patriotic volunteers already in the field.”

However, Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the civil war, which came to be referred to by some as “Buchanan”s War.” He began to receive angry and threatening letters daily, and stores displayed Buchanan”s likeness with eyes in red ink, a rope drawn around his neck and the word “traitor” written on his forehead. The Senate proposed a resolution of condemnation that ultimately failed and newspapers accused him of conspiring with the Confederacy. His former cabinet members, five of whom had been given jobs in the Lincoln administration, refused to publicly defend Buchanan.

Initially so disturbed by the attacks that he fell ill and depressed, Buchanan finally began to defend himself in October 1862, in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott, which was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. He soon began writing his maximum public defense, in the form of his memoir Administration of Mr. Buchanan on the Eve of the Rebellion, which was published in 1866.

Buchanan caught a cold May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1, 1868, of respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home in Wheatland and was buried in Woodward Cemetery on Lancaster Hill.

In 1818, he met Anne Caroline Buchanan Coleman at a grand ball at the Lancaster White Swan Inn, and the two began courting. Anne was the daughter of wealthy iron manufacturing entrepreneur (and protective father) Robert Coleman and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan”s colleagues in the House of Representatives. By 1819 , the two were involved, but could spend little time together: Buchanan was extremely busy with his law office and political projects during the Panic of 1819, which took him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded, suggesting that he was marrying her for money because his family was less well-off, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan never spoke publicly of his motives or feelings, but letters from Anne revealed that she was paying attention to the rumors.

Buchanan never had a serious relationship (nor did he ever get married), so it was his niece, Harriet Lane, who served as hostess at White House events.


  1. James Buchanan
  2. James Buchanan
  3. ^ Ellis, Franklin; Evans, Samuel (1883). History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck. p. 214.
  4. ^ Curtis, George Ticknor (1883). Life of James Buchanan, Fifteenth President of the United States. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-62376-821-8.
  5. ^ Olausson, Lena; Sangster, Catherine (2006). Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation. Oxford University Press. p. 56. ISBN 0-19-280710-2.
  6. ^ a b Baker 2004, pp. 9–12.
  7. ^ Baker 2004, pp. 12.
  8. a b Curtis, George Ticknor (1883). Life of James Buchanan: Fifteenth President of the United States. 2. [S.l.]: Harper & Brothers. ISBN 9781404754447
  9. Baker, Jean H. (2004). James Buchanan. [S.l.]: Times Books. ISBN 0-8050-6946-1  (excerto e pesquisa de texto)
  10. Klein 1962, p. 9-12
  11. a b et c (en) Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan : A Biography, Newtown, American Political Biography Press, 1995, p. 408-413. (ISBN 978-0-9457-0711-0).
  12. a et b Frank Browning et John Gerassi, Histoire criminelle des États-Unis, Nouveau monde, 2015, p. 235
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