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James Buchanan

Born: April 23, 1791
Place: Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
Died: June 1, 1868
Place: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

James Buchanan James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, near Mercersburg. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was born in a log cabin, but unlike Lincoln, his beginnings were not so humble. His father was a successful merchant, having emigrated from Ireland some ten years before James' birth, and building up a prosperous general store and trading post. James was the second of eleven children. His family's situation allowed him the opportunity to gain an education, and at the age of 16 he went on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He graduated with honors, went on to study law, and in 1813 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. He set up a law practice in Lancaster that was soon interrupted by a short stint serving with a regiment that defended Baltimore during the War of 1812. At its conclusion, he returned to his law practice in Lancaster. Buchanan was a good lawyer and successful businessman, enhancing his reputation and building up his personal wealth.

When he was 23, Buchanan was elected to Pennsylvania's legislature, and he served two terms while still keeping his law practice. In 1819, he became engaged to a young woman, but tragedy struck when she died shortly thereafter, and Buchanan never married. In 1820, he re-entered the world of politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served there for ten years. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson appointed Buchanan as an ambassador to Russia where his negotiating skills produced a trade treaty between Russia and the United States. He returned home in the fall of 1833, and a year later the Pennsylvania legislature chose him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1845. Buchanan set his eyes on the White House, but in 1844 James Polk was elected President. Polk named Buchanan Secretary of State at a time when the U.S. was actively acquiring new territory. One of his first tasks was to facilitate the acquisition of Texas, a move that angered Mexico and resulted in war between the U.S. and Mexico. In 1848 Buchanan helped arrange the peace treaty with Mexico that resulted in the U.S. purchasing the land from Texas to the Pacific Ocean. As Secretary of State, James Buchanan also focused on the northwest in the region known as the Oregon Territory, which was claimed by both the U.S. and Great Britain. Buchanan averted the threat of war with Great Britain over this area by brokering the Oregon Treaty of 1846 that resulted in the establishment of the northwestern boundary between Canada and the United States. When President Polk left office, Buchanan retired from politics, and bought a huge mansion known as Wheatland near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here he had the room and resources to entertain political guests as well as to provide for an extended family of nieces and nephews.

But James Buchanan's retirement was short-lived. In 1852 he ran for President as a member of the Democratic Party, but the country elected Franklin Pierce. In 1853 Pierce selected Buchanan to be the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. In a way, this overseas post was beneficial to Buchanan's political career by enabling him to stay out of the domestic controversies regarding slavery, and particularly to avoid the bitter arguments over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. While politicians at home were embroiled in controversy, Buchanan was able to return to the United States, and to the Democratic National Convention of 1856, untarnished by all the domestic political controversy. Combined with his record of compromise and respect for the Southern states' positions on slavery, Buchanan's untarnished image proved too much for his political opponents, and on March 4, 1857 James Buchanan became the nation's 15th President. He was also the only bachelor to hold the nation's highest office.

But the nation was becoming more and more divided over the issues of slavery, and President James Buchanan could not avoid the fallout. Soon after his inauguration, the Supreme Court addressed the Dred Scott case, refusing to hear the case, but issuing a non-binding declaration that basically said the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional by forbidding slavery in new territories or states. It also stated that slaves were not citizens, but were property. The Supreme Court's statements set well with the slave states and angered the abolitionists. The nation continued to grow more divided. And although Buchanan had managed to stay out of the Kansas-Nebraska Act controversy when he was ambassador to Great Britain, he did not stay clear of it as President. The act provided for residents of Kansas to decide for themselves whether the state would be a "free" or a "slave" state, and both pro- and anti-slavery moved in to influence the vote. Buchanan backed the pro-slavery forces, and sent Congress a letter urging them to accept Kansas as a slave state. This drew the ire of fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas, who loudly criticized Buchanan. Kansas eventually entered the Union in 1861 as a free state, but Buchanan's image was becoming more tarnished. John Brown's uprising at Harper's Ferry added fuel to the fire, and Buchanan was unable to calm the nation as he continued to advocate that states decide the slavery issues themselves. Buchanan served only one term, and left office as the nation was headed toward Civil War.

James Buchanan retired to his Wheatland estate shortly after Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. He stayed largely out of public life from that point on, and spent several years writing a book to explain and defend his administration's policies. In 1866, he published Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion. It is still in print, and is available now through our association with by clicking here.


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