Remembering President James Buchanan (1857-1861)

Posted by in Commemoration/Celebration | February 12, 2021

James Buchanan was born during the first term of President George Washington on April 23, 1791 to a well-to-do family of Pennsylvania.  He was the second of eleven children (the oldest son) and was the last president to be born in the 18th Century. 

He entered Dickinson College at the age of 16 and had a few disciplinary issues, but made amends and graduated with honors.  Immediately after college he entered law school and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1813.  He served in the War of 1812, but saw no active combat.  Shortly after the war his excellent knowledge of the law and his powerful debating skills allowed him to not only amass a small fortune, but these also made him a great political candidate.  He ran for the office of state representative in the Pennsylvania Legislature and won serving for one 2 year term.    

It was around the end of his term as state legislator that he fell in love with Ann Caroline Coleman to whom he became engaged.  Despite his being wealthy himself, her family was against the marriage thinking that he was only marrying her for the family fortune.  When Miss Coleman heard local gossip that Buchanan was seeing another woman she broke off the engagement and died a few days later from pneumonia.  The family hatred for Buchanan was such that Buchanan was not permitted to attend the funeral.  After the death of Coleman he swore that he would never marry and he never did, becoming the only bachelor president.   

Buchanan found his refuge in politics running for U.S. Congress and winning.  He served ten years in Congress and shorty afterword became a strong supporter of General Andrew Jackson and the newly formed Democratic Party.  Jackson blamed Buchanan for his loss of the presidency in 1824, and blamed Buchanan accusing him of having been involved in some type of corrupt bargain, but Buchanan always continued to support him.  Buchanan helped Jackson win Pennsylvania in the 1828 presidential election and after Jackson’s second win in 1832 Buchanan was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Russia here he was able to negotiate a most difficult trade agreement.  After returning with the trade agreement he was elected Senator from Pennsylvania.   

A prominent issue while he was senator was slavery.  He personally objected to slavery, but believed that the Southern states had the Constitutional right to maintain the institution of slavery. 

He ran for the presidency in 1844, but lost the nomination to James Knox Polk.  He became the Secretary of State for Polk and negotiated the northern boundary between Oregon and British Columbia with Great Britain. 

He tried again for the presidency in 1852.  The debates between him and Stephen A. Douglas (who would later in 1860 run against and lose to Abraham Lincoln) so hurt each candidate that an unknown from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce, became the nominee and the president.  Pierce appointed Buchanan ambassador to England, which kept him out of the country and allowed him to avoid the bitter debates regarding the issue of slavery from 1852 to 1856.  It was during this time that he also tried and failed to negotiate a deal to purchase Cuba from Spain so that it might be added as a slave state. 

Upon his return home he was nominated as the candidate for the Democratic Party because his position was  generally unknown regarding slavery (having been in England for four years) and he won the election of 1856 with running mate John C. Breckinridge, who would later become the first vice-president of the Confederacy.  Buchanan tried to maintain the Union by filling his cabinet with those pro-slavery and those anti-slavery. He also believed that reasonable heads would prevail and the Union would be maintained through the acceptance of Constitutional Law by all as interpreted in the Supreme Court.   However, the famous Dred Scott Decision supporting slavery was rendered two days after his inauguration and the division in the country worsened.

When he pushed for the admission of Kansas into the Union as a slave state, he angered the Republicans and even alienated many in his own party.  This helped to split the Democratic Party and lead to the Republican Abraham Lincoln winning the presidency in 1860.  After the Lincoln election, Southern States began to secede from the Union, but Buchanan did nothing to stop or discourage them.  And when he sent a ship with reinforcements to Fort Sumter, it was fired on by the Confederacy and the ship returned home.  

He was reported to have told Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln’s inauguration that he was the happiest man in world leaving the presidency. 

Thus, despite Mr. Buchanan’s overwhelming desire to become president, his repeated attempts to become president, and the promising potential evidenced by his prior service and his apparent skills, we see that not all presidencies have been successes.  Many historians consider James Buchanan’s presidency to be among the least successful.

After leaving office, Buchanan retired to Pennsylvania where he died seven years later from pneumonia, a few months after War hero General Ulysses S. Grant became president.  

If you would like to learn more about President James Buchanan, you may visit his home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.