James Buchanan (April 23, 1791 - June 1 , 1868) was the 15th ( 857 -
1861) President of the United States . He was the only President never
to marry, and the only citizen of Pennsylvania to hold that office. He
has been criticized for failing to take any positive action in order to
attempt to prevent the country from sliding into schism and civil war.
Buchanan was a Representative and a Senator from Pennsylvania. He was born
at Cove Gap, near Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania , on April
23 , 1791 . He moved to Mercersburg with his parents in 1799 , was privately
tutored and then attended the village academy and was graduated from Dickinson
College , Carlisle, Pennsylvania . In 1809 he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania
. The same year he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1812 and
practiced in Lancaster. He was one of the first volunteers in the War of
1812 and served in the defense of Baltimore, Maryland . He was a member
of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives from 1814 to 1815 .
He was elected to the Seventeenth and to the four succeeding Congresses
( March 4 , 1821 - March 3 , 1831 ). He was chairman of the 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 .
Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill
the vacancy caused by the resignation of William Wilkins. He served from
December 6 , 1834; was reelected in 1837 and 1843 , and resigned on March
5 , 1845 , to accept a Cabinet portfolio. He was chairman of the Committee
on Foreign Relations (Twenty-fourth through Twenty-sixth Congresses).
Buchanan served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President James
Polk from 1845 to 1849 , then as Minister to Great Britain from 1853 to
1856 . He was elected as a Democrat President of the United States in 1856
and served from March 4 , 1857 , to March 4 , 1861 .
In regards to the growing schism in the country, he as President-elect,
thought the crisis would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance
in his appointments and could persuade 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.
In his Inaugural the President 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 delivered the Dred Scott
decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive
persons of their property rights in slaves in the territories. Southerners
were delighted, but the decision created a furor in the North.
Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission
of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential
authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated
members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.
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.
Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party
split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate
for the Presidency. 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. Rather than accept a Republican
administration, the southern "fire-eaters" advocated secession.
President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, 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
Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members
resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry
reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9 , 1861 , the vessel was far
He retired to his home "Wheatland," near Lancaster, Pennsylvania , where
he died June 1 , 1868 . He was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery, in Lancaster.
Some people have speculated that Buchanan may have been gay. They point
to the unusual circumstances surrounding his failed engagement to Ann Coleman
, the fact that he never married, and his very close personal relationship
with former United States Vice President William R. King . The theory is
controversial and a source of debate.