James Buchanan: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

James Buchanan was the last in a string of seven problematic presidents who served during the two decades before the Civil War. That period was marked by an inability to deal with the deepening crisis over enslavement. And Buchanan's presidency was marked by the specific failure to deal with the nation coming apart as pro-slavery states began to secede at the end of his term.

James Buchanan

Engraved portrait of President James Buchanan
James Buchanan.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Life span: Born: April 23, 1791, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
Died: June 1, 1868, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Presidential term: March 4, 1857 - March 4, 1861

Accomplishments: Buchanan served his one term as president in the years just prior to the Civil War, and most of his presidency was spent trying to find a way to hold the country together. He obviously did not succeed, and his performance, especially during the Secession Crisis, has been judged very harshly.

Supported by: Early in his political career, Buchanan became a supporter of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party. Buchanan remained a Democrat, and for much of his career he was a major player in the party.

Opposed by: Early in his career Buchanan's opponents would have been Whigs. Later, during his one presidential run, he was opposed by the Know-Nothing Party (which was disappearing) and the Republican Party (which was new to the political scene).

Presidential campaigns: Buchanan's name was placed in nomination for president at the Democratic Convention of 1852, but he could not secure enough votes to become the candidate. Four years later, the Democrats turned their back on President Franklin Pierce, and nominated Buchanan.

Buchanan had many years of experience in government, and had served in Congress as well as in the cabinet. Widely respected, he easily won the election of 1856, running against John C. Frémont, the candidate of the Republican Party, and Millard Fillmore, an ex-president running on the Know-Nothing ticket.

Personal Life

Spouse and family: Buchanan never married. 

Speculation abounds that Buchanan's close friendship with a male senator from Alabama, William Rufus King, was a romantic relationship. King and Buchanan lived together for years, and on the Washington social circle they were nicknamed "the Siamese Twins."

Education: Buchanan was a graduate of Dickinson College, in the class of 1809.

During his college years, Buchanan was once expelled for bad behavior, which including drunkenness. He supposedly determined to reform his ways and live an exemplary life after that incident.

After college, Buchanan studied in law offices (a standard practice at the time) and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1812.

Early career: Buchanan was successful as a lawyer in Pennsylvania, and became known for his command of the law as well as for public speaking.

He became involved in Pennsylvania politics in 1813, and was elected to the state legislature. He opposed the war of 1812, but volunteered for a militia company.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820, and served ten years in Congress. Following that, he became the American diplomatic representative in Russia for two years.

After returning to America, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1834 to 1845.

Following his decade in the Senate, he became President James K. Polk's secretary of state, serving in that post from 1845 to 1849. He took another diplomatic assignment, and served as the U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1853 to 1856.

Miscellaneous Facts

Later career: Following his term as president, Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his large farm in Pennsylvania. As his presidency was considered so unsuccessful, he was routinely ridiculed and even blamed for the Civil War.

At times he tried to defend himself in writing. But for the most part he lived in what must have been a fairly unhappy retirement.

Unusual facts: When Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857 there were already strong divisions in the country. And there is some evidence to suggest that someone tried to assassinate Buchanan by poisoning him at his own inauguration.

Death and funeral: Buchanan became ill and died at his home, Wheatland, on June 1, 1868. He was buried in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Legacy: Buchanan's presidency is often considered one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, in American history. His failure to deal adequately with the Secession Crisis is generally considered one of the worst presidential blunders.

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McNamara, Robert. "James Buchanan: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2020, thoughtco.com/james-buchanan-significant-facts-1773427. McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 15). James Buchanan: Significant Facts and Brief Biography. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-buchanan-significant-facts-1773427 McNamara, Robert. "James Buchanan: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-buchanan-significant-facts-1773427 (accessed March 21, 2023).