James Buchanan, Fifteenth President of the United States

President James Buchanan
Public Domain

James Buchanan (1791-1868) served as America's fifteenth president. He presided over the contentious pre-Civil War era. When he left office seven states had already seceded from the union. 

James Buchanan's Childhood and Education

Born on April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, James Buchanan moved at age five to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He was born into a prosperous merchant family. He studied at the Old Stone Academy before entering Dickinson College in 1807. He then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812.

Family Life

Buchanan was the son of James, Sr., who was a wealthy merchant and farmer. His mother was Elizabeth Speer, a well-read and intelligent woman. He had four sisters and three brothers. He never married. However, he was engaged to Anne C. Coleman but she died before they were married.While president, his niece, Harriet Lane took care of the duties of first lady. He never fathered any children. 

James Buchanan's Career Before the Presidency

Buchanan started his career as a lawyer before joining the military to fight in the War of 1812. He was then elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1815-16) followed by the U.S. House of Representatives (1821-31). In 1832, he was appointed by Andrew Jackson to be the Minister to Russia. He returned home to be a U.S. Senator in from 1834-35. In 1845, he was named Secretary of State under President James K. Polk. In 1853-56, he served as President Pierce's Minister to Great Britain.

Becoming the President

In 1856, James Buchanan was nominated as the Democratic nominee for president. He upheld the right of individuals to hold slaves as constitutional. He ran against Republican candidate John C. Fremont and Known-Nothing Candidate, former President Millard Fillmore. Buchanan won after a hotly contested campaign and the threat of Civil War if the Republicans won.

Events and Accomplishments of James Buchanan's Presidency

The Dred Scott court case occurred at the beginning of his administration which stated that slaves were considered property. Despite being against slavery himself, Buchanan felt that this case proved the constitutionality of slavery. He fought for Kansas to be entered into the union as a slave state but it was eventually admitted as a free state in 1861.

In 1857, an economic depression occurred called the Panic of 1857. The North and West were hit hard but Buchanan took no action to help alleviate the depression.

By the time for reelection, Buchanan had decided not to run again. He knew that he had lost support, and he was unable to stop the problems that would lead to secession.

In November, 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency immediately causing seven states to secede from the Union forming the Confederate States of America. Buchanan did not believe that the federal government could force a state to remain in the Union. Afraid of Civil War, he ignored aggressive action by the Confederate States and abandoned Fort Sumter. He left office with the union divided.

Post-Presidential Period

Buchanan retired to Pennsylvania where he was not involved in public affairs. He supported Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War. On June 1, 1868, Buchanan died of pneumonia.

Historical Significance

Buchanan was the last pre-Civil War president. His time in office was filled with handling the increasingly contentious sectionalism of the time. The Confederate States of America were created while he was President after Abraham Lincoln was elected in November, 1860. He did not take an aggressive stance at all against the states that seceded and instead attempted reconciliation without war.