-James Buchanan (1791-1868), served as president in the critical years just before the American Civil War. Many issues divided the nation, but slavery was the main cause of argument. Buchanan personally opposed slavery. But, as president, he insisted that the Constitution of the United States protected slavery and that the laws must be obeyed.
-James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, in a log cabin in Stony Batter, near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father, James Buchanan, Sr., had come from Ireland in 1783 at the invitation of an uncle living near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He married Elizabeth Speer, a neighbor of his uncle, and opened a country store.
-Soldier and legislator. Buchanan supported the Federalist Party, which favored a strong central government. Like most Federalists, he opposed a second war with the United Kingdom. But when the War of 1812 came, he volunteered as a private to help defend Baltimore. He served in the Pennsylvania legislature for two terms, from 1814 to 1816.
-Tragedy. Buchanan did not seek reelection to the legislature in 1816, choosing instead to build his law practice in Lancaster. Buchanan became interested in Ann Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy Lancaster iron manufacturer. In 1819, Ann and James reached an understanding to marry. But a quarrel—never specified—provoked Ann to move to Philadelphia, where she died several months later. Gossips suggested that she had committed suicide, though there was no proof of this.
-Congressman and diplomat. Buchanan ran successfully for the United States House of Representatives in 1820. During his 10 years of service there, he abandoned the dying Federalist Party. In 1824, he supported the presidential candidacy of Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812.
-In 1844, Buchanan's supporters in Pennsylvania mentioned him as a "favorite son" candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Buchanan withdrew his name before the convention met. Democrat James K. Polk won the election and offered Buchanan the post of secretary of state. Buchanan accepted and resigned from the Senate in 1845.
-Minister to the United Kingdom. The Whig Party regained the presidency in 1849, and Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1852, he pursued the Democratic presidential nomination. But Franklin Pierce won the nomination and the election. He appointed Buchanan minister to the United Kingdom.
-Election of 1856. Many leading Democrats became unpopular as presidential candidates because they had supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. But Buchanan had been in London when Congress passed this bill and had taken no stand on it. He returned from the United Kingdom in April 1856, and the Democrats nominated him for president the next month. They chose John C. Breckinridge, former Kentucky congressman, for vice president. The Republicans nominated two former senators, John C. Fremont of California and William L. Dayton of New Jersey. Nativists, known as “Know Nothings” or “Americans,” nominated a ticket of former President Millard Fillmore and Andrew Jackson Donelson, a former minister to Prussia. The Democrats appealed to the desire of conservatives to preserve the Union. The party tried to avoid the slavery question. The Republicans openly fought slavery, and used campaign posters with such slogans as "Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont and Victory!" The Know-Nothings could not agree on a position on slavery, emphasizing instead the need to restrain immigration. In a hotly contested election, Buchanan fell short of a popular majority but won a large electoral majority.
-The struggle over slavery continued with increasing intensity throughout Buchanan's administration. He tried to unite Democrats from the North and the South by balancing his appointments to public office. But many people felt that he favored the Southerners. At White House social functions, Southerners often outnumbered Northerners. Buchanan's forceful support of the Dred Scott Decision seemed further to hint at Southern favoritism.
-Life in the White House. The gloom of the White House during Franklin Pierce's administration gave way to a brilliant social life when Buchanan took office. Buchanan, who never married, asked his niece and ward, Harriet Lane, to serve as his hostess. Under her guidance, one reception and ball followed another. Buchanan added a conservatory to the White House to provide flowers for these affairs
-Election of 1860. By 1860, neither Northern nor Southern Democrats considered Buchanan for renomination, nor did he wish it. Southern Democrats nominated Vice President Breckinridge for president, and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon as his running mate. Northern Democrats chose a ticket of Senator Stephen A. Douglas and former Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia. The Constitutional Union Party named Senator John Bell of Tennessee and former Senator Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine led the Republican ticket to victory in the election.
-Prelude to war. Buchanan faced the gravest responsibility of his career during the period between Lincoln's election and inauguration. South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860, and on Feb. 4, 1861, met with six other slave states to form the Confederate States of America.
-Later years. Buchanan died on June 1, 1868. He was buried in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Wheatland has been restored and furnished as it was when Buchanan lived there.
Birkner, Michael J."Buchanan, James." World Book Advanced. World Book, 2013.