Biography of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States

James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president

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James Buchanan (April 23, 1791–June 1, 1868) served as America's 15th president. He presided over the contentious pre-Civil War era and was considered a hopeful and strong choice by the Democrats when he was elected. But when he left office, seven states had already seceded from the union. Buchanan is often perceived as one of the worst U.S. presidents.

Fast Facts: James Buchanan

  • Known For: 15th U.S. president (1856–1860)
  • Born: April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: James Buchanan, Sr. and Elizabeth Speer
  • Died: June 1, 1868 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Education: Old Stone Academy, Dickinson College, legal apprenticeship and admitted to the bar in 1812
  • Spouse: None
  • Children: None

Early Life

James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, in Stony Batter, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, and his family moved when he was 5 to the town of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He was the second and oldest surviving son of the 11 children of James Buchanan Sr., a wealthy merchant and farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Speer, a well-read and intelligent woman. The senior Buchanan was an immigrant from County Donegal, Ireland, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1783, moving to Stony Batter (batter means "road" in Gaelic) in 1787. He moved the family several times over the next few years, buying up real estate and establishing a store in Mercersburg and becoming the wealthiest man in town. James Buchanan, Jr. was the focus of his father's aspirations.

James, Jr. studied at Old Stone Academy, where he read Latin and Greek, and learned mathematics, literature, and history. In 1807, he entered Dickenson College but was expelled for bad behavior in 1808. Only the intervention of his Presbyterian minister got him reinstated, but he did graduate with honors in 1810. He then studied law as an apprentice to the eminent lawyer James Clemens Hopkins (1762–1834) in Lancaster, and was admitted to the bar in 1812.

Buchanan never married, although he was considered Lancaster's most eligible bachelor as a young man. He got engaged in 1819 to Lancastrian Anne Caroline Coleman, but she died that same year before they wed. While president, his niece Harriet Lane took care of the duties of First Lady. He never fathered any children.

Career Before the Presidency

By the time he was elected president, James Buchanan was an experienced politician and diplomat, one of the most experienced individuals ever chosen to be president of the United States. Buchanan started his career as a lawyer before joining the military to fight in the War of 1812. While still in his 20s, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1815–1816), followed by the U.S. House of Representatives (1821–1831). In 1832, he was appointed by Andrew Jackson to be the Minister to Russia. He returned home to be a senator from 1834–1835. In 1845, he was named secretary of state under President James K. Polk. In 1853–1856, he served as President Franklin Pierce's minister to Great Britain.

Buchanan was highly esteemed in the Democratic Party: Both Polk and his predecessor in the White House John Tyler had offered him a seat on the Supreme Court, and he was proposed for high appointments by every Democratic president from the 1820s onward. He explored running for the presidential nomination in 1840 and became a serious contender in 1848 and again in 1852.

Becoming President

In short, James Buchanan was considered an outstanding choice for president, with an extensive dossier of national and international service who believed he could resolve the cultural divide created by the issue of slavery and bring harmony to the nation.

In 1856, James Buchanan was chosen as the Democratic nominee for president, running on a ticket that upheld the right of individuals to enslave people as constitutional. He ran against Republican candidate John C. Fremont and Know-Nothing Candidate, former President Millard Fillmore. Buchanan won after a hotly contested campaign amid Democratic concerns that the threat of a civil war loomed if the Republicans won.


Despite his promising background, Buchanan's presidency was riddled with political missteps and misfortunes that he was unable to alleviate. The Dred Scott court case occurred at the beginning of his administration, the decision of which stated that enslaved people were considered property. Despite being against enslavement himself, Buchanan felt that this case proved the constitutionality of the institution of slavery. He fought for Kansas to be entered into the union as a pro-slavery state but it was eventually admitted as a free state in 1861.

In 1857, an economic depression swept the country known as the Panic of 1857, driven by the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange on August 27 from a rush to unload securities. The North and West were particularly hard-hit, but Buchanan took no action to help alleviate the depression.

In June 1860, Buchanan vetoed the Homestead Act, which offered 160-acre plots of federal land in the west to small farmers and homesteaders. Buchanan interpreted it as a Republican effort to reactivate the issue over slavery: He and the southern Democratic states felt that the addition of thousands of small farmers would upset the political balance of pro-slavery states and free states. That decision was very unpopular across the country and is considered one of the main reasons the Republicans took the White House in 1860: the Homestead Act passed in 1862 after the South seceded.

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

In November 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency, and before Buchanan had left office, seven states seceded 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, and, afraid of civil war, he ignored aggressive action by the Confederate States and abandoned Fort Sumter.

Buchanan left the presidency in disgrace, condemned by Republicans, vilified by northern Democrats, and dismissed by the southerners. He is considered by many scholars as an abysmal failure as chief executive.

Death and Legacy

Buchanan retired to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he was not involved in public affairs. He supported Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War. He worked on an autobiography that would vindicate him for his failures, a book he never finished. On June 1, 1868, Buchanan died of pneumonia; the official biography including the fragment was published as a two-volume biography by George Ticknor Curtis in 1883.

Buchanan was the last pre-Civil War president. His time in office was full of handling increasingly contentious sectionalism of the time. The Confederate States of America was created while he was the lame-duck president. He did not take an aggressive stance against the states that seceded and instead attempted reconciliation without war.


  • Baker, Jean H. "James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857–1861." New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2004.
  • Binder, Frederick Moore. "James Buchanan and the American Empire." 
  • Curtis, George Ticknor. "Life of James Buchanan." New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883.
  • Klein, Philip Shriver. "President James Buchanan: A Biography." Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.
  • Smith, Elbert B. "The Presidency of James Buchanan." Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975. 
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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Biography of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).