Who Was James Buchanan?
James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States. Serving as president during the run-up to the Civil War, Buchanan's inability to halt the southern states' drive toward secession has led most historians to consider his presidency a failure. Buchanan was the only U.S. president from Pennsylvania, and the only one to remain a lifelong bachelor.
Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791. His father, James Sr., was a well-to-do merchant and farmer, and his mother, Elizabeth, intelligent and well-read. As a young boy, Buchanan was educated at the Old Stone Academy in his village, and later, Dickinson College, where he was nearly suspended for bad behavior before finally graduating in 1809.
After graduating from college, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he studied law, and, in 1812, he was admitted to the bar. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the military at the start of the War of 1812 and participated in the defense of Baltimore.
Early Political Career
In 1814, at age 23, Buchanan began what would be a long political career when he was elected as a member of the Federalist Party to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He later won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served five consecutive terms, from 1821 to 1831. In 1832, when Andrew Jackson was elected to his second term as president, he appointed Buchanan as his envoy to Russia, a post in which Buchanan further proved his aptitude as a diplomat.
In 1834 Buchanan returned to the United States and won a seat in Senate as a Democrat, a position he would hold for the next 10 years, until, in 1845, he resigned to serve as James K. Polk's secretary of state, a position he used to further an expansionist agenda. In 1852, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, losing to Franklin Pierce, who, after being elected president, made Buchanan his minister to England.
In 1856, Buchanan successfully defeated Republican candidate John C. Fremont and, on March 4, 1857, was sworn in as the 15th president of the United States. In his inaugural address, Buchanan, who had won, in no small part, due to the support he had garnered in the southern states, reiterated a belief that had been one of the major running points of his campaign: that slavery was a matter for states and territories to decide, not the federal government. He went on to suggest that the matter was one that would be easily resolved, both "speedily and finally." Historians have cited these remarks as indicative of Buchanan's fundamental misunderstanding of the issue.
Shortly after his inauguration, the Dred Scott decision was delivered, essentially stating that the federal government had no right to exclude slavery in the territories. Around this time, Buchanan also attempted to resolve the slavery dispute in Kansas, so that it could agree on a constitution and be admitted to the Union. Buchanan supported the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution, which passed the House but was blocked by the Senate and ultimately defeated.
By the end of Buchanan's presidency, the slavery issue threatened to tear the country apart. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the possibility that several states would secede was approaching likelihood. In his final address to Congress, Buchanan argued that while the states had no legal right to seceded, the federal government had no right to prevent them from doing so. Despite Buchanan's attempts to prevent it, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede. By February 1861, six more states followed suit and the Confederate States of America was formed. When Buchanan left office on March 3, 1861, to retire to his estate outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he left the nation on the brink of civil war.
Final Years and Death
In his retirement, Buchanan devoted much of his time to defending his handling of events leading to the Civil War, for which he was ultimately blamed. In 1866 he published a memoir, in which he laid blame for the war on abolitionists and Republicans. The book was ignored, and Buchanan retreated into privacy. He died on June 1, 1868, at the age of 78, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was buried in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In 1819, Buchanan became engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy iron mogul. Their engagement was an unhappy one, however, and amidst rumors that Buchanan was seeing other women, Coleman broke off the engagement. She died shortly thereafter, leaving Buchanan brokenhearted, and her family to blame him for her death, to the point that they would not let him attend her funeral. Buchanan vowed to never marry, and he never did. When Buchanan eventually won the presidency, his niece Harriet Lane assumed the responsibilities of first lady. Buchanan is the only bachelor president in U.S. history.
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