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date: 08 March 2021

Buchanan, Jamesfree

(23 April 1791–01 June 1868)
  • William E. Gienapp

James Buchanan.

Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-BH82101-6628 DLC).

Buchanan, James (23 April 1791–01 June 1868), fifteenth president of the United States, was born near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, the son of James Buchanan, a storekeeper, and Elizabeth Speer. He was educated at a local academy and then at Dickinson College, where he graduated in 1809. He then studied law in Lancaster and was admitted to the bar in 1812. He prospered in his profession and through shrewd investments acquired considerable wealth. In 1819, for obscure reasons, his fiancée broke off their engagement, and when she died shortly thereafter, he vowed never to marry. Though he subsequently carried on many flirtations, he remained a bachelor throughout his life. Henceforth, he found his deepest friendships in the world of politics, while his family interests increasingly centered on his many nephews and nieces.

Buchanan’s interest in oratory soon drew him to politics. A moderate Federalist, he served in the Pennsylvania legislature (1814–1816) and then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1821–1831). In Washington he initially gravitated to Henry Clay, but after 1824 he supported Andrew Jackson, who appointed him minister to Russia, where he served from 1832 to 1833. Upon his return, Buchanan won election as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1834 to 1845. A party loyalist, he increasingly adopted a strict constructionist outlook and supported the policies of Jackson and then Martin Van Buren.

As a member of Congress, Buchanan was notable for his prosouthern views. Although he considered slavery wrong, he lacked strong moral feelings about the institution, saw no practical solution to its existence, and opposed any outside interference in the South’s internal affairs. Buchanan’s closest friends in Congress were southerners, and he increasingly sided with the South in sectional controversies. Strongly denouncing the abolitionist movement, he backed southern leaders’ demand that abolitionist literature be excluded from the mails, upheld the gag rule tabling antislavery petitions, and supported the annexation of Texas. Buchanan sought the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination and was instrumental in Van Buren’s defeat at the national convention, although James K. Polk obtained the nomination. Polk selected Buchanan as his secretary of state but found him too indecisive and largely conducted foreign affairs himself. Buchanan waffled on Polk’s demand for all of the Oregon country, and during the Mexican War he wavered on how much territory should be annexed from Mexico. Polk confided in his diary, “Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” Buchanan’s most decisive act was taking the lead in the cabinet in urging the acquisition of Cuba, a goal he consistently pursued for the rest of his public career. He opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to prohibit slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, and advocated the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific to settle the question of slavery’s status in the territories.

After unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1848, Buchanan retired to private life at the end of the Polk administration. He made another unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 1852, losing to Franklin Pierce, who was elected. He hoped to become secretary of state again, but Pierce instead named him minister to Great Britain. The most notable development during his tenure was the Ostend Manifesto, which he drew up with two other American ministers. This document declared that Cuba was vital to American interests and, if Spain would not sell the island, it should be forcibly seized. The ensuing outcry in the northern press helped block the Pierce administration’s efforts to acquire Cuba.

Buchanan resigned in early 1856 and returned to the United States to once again seek the Democratic presidential nomination. His two main rivals, Pierce and Stephen A. Douglas, were both hurt by their connections to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the ensuing turmoil in Kansas, which had badly weakened the Democratic party in the free states. As a result, the convention turned to Buchanan, who had the good fortune to be out of the country in 1854 and was thus not associated with the Kansas controversy. In addition, Buchanan’s extensive experience and conservative outlook encouraged the belief that he would dampen sectional tensions. Aided by very strong support in the South, Buchanan was elected in November in a three-way race, but he managed to win only a plurality of the vote. Indeed, the strength of the antislavery Republican party, which finished first in the northern states, was the most significant feature of the election.

During the campaign, southerners threatened to secede if the Republicans were victorious, and unlike many northerners, Buchanan recognized that the Union was in serious danger. Therefore, he took office determined to defuse the sectional crisis by settling the Kansas controversy, reassuring public opinion in both sections, and checking the growth of the Republican party. Rarely has a president pursued policies, however, that so consistently defeated his larger purposes. Under his leadership, sectional animosities deepened, popular fears in both the North and the South intensified, and the Republican party steadily gained strength.

Buchanan carefully balanced the two sections in selecting his cabinet, but rather than include diverse viewpoints, he appointed advisers he was comfortable with personally and who agreed with him ideologically. As a result, his cabinet, while providing him with crucial emotional support, was excessively prosouthern in its orientation. Contrary to the view that Buchanan was controlled by a cabinet “directory,” he was in fundamental agreement with his advisers, and indeed his cabinet was unusually harmonious until the final months of his term. Excluded from the cabinet was any supporter of Douglas, the most popular and influential northern Democrat. Buchanan heartily disliked the Illinois senator and, in an ill-fated decision, ignored him in patronage matters.

The most explosive issue confronting the country was the status of slavery in the territories. The 1856 Democratic platform endorsed the principle of popular sovereignty, which declared that the residents of a territory and not Congress should determine the status of slavery there. Northern and southern Democrats disagreed, however, on the meaning of this principle. Northern Democrats, led by Douglas, argued that this decision could be made at any time during the settlement of a territory, whereas southern Democrats generally insisted that it could be made only when its residents drafted a state constitution. Buchanan looked to the Supreme Court to settle this question in the Dred Scott case (1857), and prior to his inauguration he improperly intervened to get a northern justice to join the Court’s southern majority in issuing a broad prosouthern decision. The Court’s opinion, announced two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, declared that, since the U.S. Constitution protected slave property, Congress could not prohibit slavery from any territory. Buchanan naively believed that this decision would settle the territorial controversy. But the decision, which reversed a number of political and judicial precedents, strengthened the growing northern belief in the existence of a “slave power,” determined to spread slavery everywhere, at the same time that it weakened northern Democrats by calling into question the constitutionality of popular sovereignty. Republicans, who refused to accept the ruling, now took up the cry that slavery threatened the free states as well.

Buchanan’s political position was further undermined by an economic depression that began in the fall of 1857 and continued for the duration of his presidency. The administration failed to respond effectively to this economic downturn, which revitalized economic issues in national politics and increasingly pitted northerners against southerners in votes in Congress. Buchanan hurt his party in the North by vetoing bills to finance agricultural colleges, improve navigation on the Great Lakes, and provide free homesteads to western farmers, actions that drove many conservative northerners into the Republican ranks.

Buchanan’s greatest challenge, however, was to settle the Kansas controversy and remove the issue of slavery’s expansion from national politics. Since Kansas was opened to white settlement in 1854, chaos and disorder had plagued it as antislavery and proslavery forces battled for control of the territory. By 1857 a majority of the residents opposed slavery, but proslavery elements managed to win control of a convention to draft a state constitution when free state men refused to participate in the election. The resulting Lecompton constitution recognized slavery and prohibited any amendments until 1865. Unwilling to submit the constitution to the electorate for approval, proslavery leaders in the convention provided for a limited submission, allowing voters to decide only if new slaves could be brought into the state. With antislavery voters again abstaining, the constitution with additional slaves won approval.

Under heavy southern pressure, Buchanan ignored his earlier pledge that the people of Kansas would be allowed to vote on the proposed constitution as well as the warning of the territorial governor that a decided majority of the residents of Kansas opposed the Lecompton constitution. Buchanan endorsed admitting Kansas under this constitution. Following a stormy personal meeting on 3 December 1857, Douglas broke with Buchanan on this issue, declaring that the Lecompton constitution made a mockery of the principle of popular sovereignty. Despite Douglas’s opposition, the Senate approved the Lecompton constitution, with most Democrats following Buchanan. The president then pulled out all the stops to get the Lecompton constitution through the House, authorizing various inducements, including cash, to congressmen for their support. Nevertheless, after an extremely bitter debate, the House rejected it. Democratic leaders eventually fashioned a compromise that by indirect means provided for a new vote in Kansas. With both factions participating this time, the constitution was defeated by an overwhelming margin. Buchanan’s defeat was obvious.

The Lecompton struggle embittered southerners, strengthened the northern fear of the slave power, and ruptured the Democratic party. Southerners bitterly assailed Douglas and vowed that they would never accept him as the party’s presidential nominee in 1860. Buchanan systematically removed anti-Lecompton Democrats from federal office and tried unsuccessfully to defeat Douglas’s reelection in Illinois. The Republican party made significant gains in the 1858 fall elections in the North, yet Buchanan stubbornly refused to heal the breach with Douglas and instead aided southern party leaders intent on politically destroying the northern Democratic leader.

As president, Buchanan aggressively promoted American expansion. He tried to buy Alaska from Russia, secured groundbreaking treaties with China and Japan, and sought to limit British influence in Central America. While more vigilant than his predecessor, he failed to prevent several southern filibustering expeditions. Congressional opposition, however, stymied his expansionist schemes. His main goal continued to be Cuba, but a bill introduced by one of his associates appropriating $30 million to purchase Cuba garnered only limited support. Thus he increasingly refocused his expansionist policy on Mexico. Congress ignored his proposal to establish a protectorate in northern Mexico, fearing it was a pretext to annex the region, and in 1860 the Senate rejected a treaty he submitted that gave the United States two perpetual transit routes in Mexico from the Atlantic to the Pacific along with the right to protect them militarily. By adding credence to Republican charges of a conspiracy to expand slavery, these policies further inflamed sectional tensions.

Democratic prospects were further damaged by a series of scandals that wracked the Buchanan administration, which was one of the most corrupt in American history. A congressional investigation revealed that postal funds had been diverted to Democratic candidates, naval contracts were dispensed in exchange for campaign contributions, public printing contracts involved kickbacks and bribes, and Secretary of War John Floyd sold public lands at minimal prices to friends of the administration and covered up the embezzlement of federal funds by a kinsman. While he had not profited personally from these misdeeds, Buchanan displayed little interest in ferreting out or preventing such wrongdoing.

The rupture in the Democratic party that developed during Buchanan’s presidency came to a climax at the 1860 national convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern radicals, aided by Buchanan’s closest advisers, were determined to prevent Douglas’s nomination. They demanded adoption of the “Alabama Platform,” which called for a congressional slave code to protect slavery in the territories. Northern delegates retorted that this platform would destroy the party in the free states and refused to accept it. When the convention finally rejected the southern platform, the delegates from eight southern states walked out. All efforts to heal the breach failed, and eventually two Democratic candidates were nominated. Northern Democrats put forward Douglas on a platform endorsing popular sovereignty, while southern Democrats, joined by Buchanan’s northern followers, selected Vice President John C. Breckinridge on the minority southern platform. With the Democratic party hopelessly divided, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican nominee, swept to victory in November. Buchanan’s misguided sectional policies and his continuing personal war against Douglas had played a major role in producing this outcome—precisely what he had set out to avoid when he assumed office.

In response to Lincoln’s election, the seven states of the Deep South began the process of seceding from the Union. Buchanan traced this crisis entirely to the northern antislavery movement, and in his annual message singled out for condemnation “the long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern states.” He denied any right of secession but insisted that under the Constitution he had no power to prevent it. He also urged that a constitutional convention be called to devise amendments to protect slavery in the territories, overturn northern laws that interfered with the rendition of fugitive slaves, and safeguard slavery in the southern states. This one-sided message destroyed the little remaining prestige Buchanan had in the North.

Still, Buchanan’s devotion to the Union was unshakable. He steadfastly refused to recognize the legality of secession or to negotiate the surrender of federal forts in the South. The most precarious situation existed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Still under construction and manned by only a small garrison, it could easily be attacked or isolated by batteries ringing the harbor. After some indecision, Buchanan refused to abandon the fort. In response his cabinet, which contained several secessionists, dissolved. Eventually a majority of its members, including all who favored secession, resigned, and the cabinet was reorganized on a firm Unionist basis. Bolstered by his Unionist advisers, Buchanan on the last day of the year dispatched the unarmed merchant vessel, the Star of the West, to reinforce Fort Sumter, but fire from the shore batteries prevented it from accomplishing its mission. In his last weeks in office Buchanan avoided any similar action that might precipitate a war, but he announced his determination to use force to protect federal property in the South. He goal was to get through his term without starting a war, and it was with considerable relief that he turned the crisis over to Lincoln in March.

Returning to his estate, “Wheatland,” near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Buchanan found little peace in retirement. Partisan critics hounded him, blaming him for failing to deal decisively with secession, for allegedly arming the South, and for not preparing the North for war. Buchanan bore these unfair charges with his accustomed dignity. While no longer politically active, he supported the Union war effort, although he believed the policy of emancipation mistaken and hoped to restore the Union as it had existed before the war. His memoirs vindicating his conduct as president were published in 1866. Shortly before his death at Wheatland he declared: “I have always felt and still feel that I discharged every public duty imposed on me constitutionally. I have no regret for any public act of my life.”

Tall and stout, with an imposing physique and flowing white hair, the meticulously dressed Buchanan presented a distinguished appearance that was reinforced by his courtly manners. Fussy and legalistic, he had a passion for precision, displayed great diligence, and was an indefatigable correspondent. Although he enjoyed society and dancing and brought a festive air to the White House, he did not make friends easily and was unusually dependent emotionally on his closest associates. He enjoyed good liquor and cigars and spent long evenings conversing with friends. Plodding and unimaginative, he was a useful subordinate but an unsuccessful leader. He lacked a brilliant mind and had no gift for writing memorable words or uttering striking phrases and thus was ineffective at rallying popular support. Acquaintances were struck by his exceedingly cautious nature, and his closest friends found him very timid about voicing his own opinions on controversial issues, even in private. He was sincere and well-intentioned, but his presidential term was largely a disaster. He isolated himself from dissenting views, disliked confrontation, never understood northern feelings against slavery, and was excessively prosouthern in his views, qualities that eventually destroyed his political influence and wrecked his presidency.


Buchanan’s voluminous papers are in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with a smaller collection in the Library of Congress. His memoirs, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866), are self-serving but informative. Many of his important letters and documents are published in John B. Moore, ed., The Works of James Buchanan (12 vols., 1908–1910). See also George T. Curtis, Life of James Buchanan (2 vols., 1883). The fullest modern biography, defensive in tone, is Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan (1962). Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975), is briefer and more critical. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols., 1950), presents a full account of Buchanan’s presidency but is weakened by its view of Buchanan as merely a tool of his cabinet. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis (1976), completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, is a magisterial history of these years that provides a particularly penetrating analysis of Buchanan’s presidency. Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (1948), is a brilliant examination of the Democratic party’s worsening internal divisions under Buchanan’s leadership. Valuable specialized studies include Fehrenbacher’s authoritative The Dred Scott Case (1978); Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857 (1990); James Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (1987); Mark W. Summers, The Plundering Generation (1987), which details the extensive corruption of Buchanan’s administration; and Stampp, And the War Came (1950), an astute study of the secession crisis. Michael J. Birkner, ed., James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s (1996), contains important essays evaluating Buchanan’s leadership and presidency from the perspective of recent scholarship.