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James Buchanan: The 15th President of the United States

James Buchanan: The 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, served from 1857 to 1861. As one of the lesser-known presidents, Buchanan’s time in office was marked by challenges and controversies. However, his life and presidency provide a fascinating insight into a crucial period in American history. From his upbringing in Pennsylvania to his diplomatic career and his role in the lead-up to the Civil War, Buchanan’s story is a captivating one that deserves closer examination.

Early Life

James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, was born on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a close-knit family, the second of eleven children. Buchanan’s childhood was filled with hard work and responsibility, helping his father with the family’s trading business. Despite the demands of work, Buchanan’s parents ensured he received a solid education, emphasizing the importance of learning and intellectual pursuits.

Buchanan’s education began at a local village school, where he developed a strong foundation in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Recognizing his talents, his parents sent him to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he continued to excel academically. Buchanan’s time at college exposed him to a wide range of subjects, including Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and mathematics. This well-rounded education would later serve as a strong foundation for his legal and political career.

Legal Career

After graduating from college in 1809, Buchanan decided to pursue a career in law. He was admitted to the bar in 1812 and quickly established a successful practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Buchanan’s legal career flourished, and his reputation as a skilled and knowledgeable attorney grew. He gained recognition for his expertise in corporate law, and his clients included prominent individuals and organizations.

Buchanan’s legal skills were not his only contribution to the field. He also played a crucial role in shaping Pennsylvania’s legal system, advocating for reforms such as the elimination of debtor’s prison and the establishment of a public defender system. His dedication to justice and fairness earned him respect and admiration from his peers and the community.

Political Career

Buchanan’s political career began in the early 1820s when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. His years of experience in law and his natural leadership qualities made him an effective and influential legislator. During his tenure in the state legislature, Buchanan championed causes such as public education, infrastructure development, and economic growth.

Congressional Service

In 1821, Buchanan was elected to the United States House of Representatives, representing Pennsylvania’s eighth congressional district. He quickly established himself as a skilled debater and pragmatic lawmaker. Buchanan’s ability to work across party lines and find common ground with his colleagues earned him a reputation as a moderate and conciliatory politician.

During his time in Congress, Buchanan played a significant role in shaping legislation and policies that impacted the nation’s development. He supported protective tariffs to promote domestic industries and advocated for internal improvements such as canals and roads. Buchanan’s commitment to the principles of democracy and his dedication to public service gained him respect among his colleagues and positioned him as a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Minister to Russia

In 1832, Buchanan left Congress to serve as the United States Minister to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. As an ambassador, Buchanan represented the United States abroad and worked to maintain and strengthen diplomatic relations with Russia. His diplomatic skills and impeccable manners earned him the respect of Russian officials and foreign dignitaries.

During his time in Russia, Buchanan successfully negotiated several treaties and agreements, including the first commercial treaty between the United States and Russia. These diplomatic accomplishments showcased Buchanan’s expertise in foreign affairs and prepared him for future roles in international diplomacy.

Presidential Election

Buchanan’s political ambitions eventually led him to seek the highest office in the land. In 1856, he received the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. Buchanan’s nomination was seen as a compromise between the various factions within the party, as he had built a reputation as a moderate Democrat capable of reaching across party lines.


The 1856 election campaign was marked by intense debates and deep divisions over issues such as slavery and the preservation of the Union. Buchanan positioned himself as a unifying figure, pledging to uphold the Constitution and maintain peace and harmony between the states. His message resonated with voters who were eager to find a candidate who would bridge the growing divide in the country.

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Buchanan campaigned diligently, traveling throughout the country to rally support and make his case to the American people. His friendly and approachable demeanor won over many voters, and his extensive experience in politics and diplomacy gave him credibility as a leader. Despite facing strong opposition from the newly formed Republican Party and its candidate, John C. Frémont, Buchanan emerged victorious in the election.

Election Results

In the 1856 presidential election, Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, securing a decisive victory over Frémont and the incumbent President, Millard Fillmore. Buchanan carried 11 of the 16 free states and garnered support from southern states, where his more conciliatory stance on slavery resonated with voters. His election as the 15th President of the United States made him the only Pennsylvanian to ever hold the highest office in the land.


Buchanan’s presidency was marked by numerous challenges, most notably the escalating tension between North and South over the issue of slavery. His attempts to maintain the balance between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions ultimately failed, and his presidency was marred by the outbreak of the Civil War.

Policies and Actions

As President, Buchanan prioritized preserving the Union and maintaining a delicate balance between the free and slave states. He believed that the Constitution protected slavery, and he sought to prevent any confrontation that could lead to secession. To that end, Buchanan pursued policies that aimed to appease both sides of the slavery debate, including supporting the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Despite his efforts, his policies and actions fell short in addressing the deep-rooted divisions within the country. Buchanan’s inability to take decisive action on issues such as the expansion of slavery and the enforcement of federal laws further exacerbated tensions, setting the stage for the Civil War.

Major Events

Buchanan presided over several major events during his presidency, many of which were directly linked to the mounting tensions over slavery. One of the key events was the Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, were not citizens and had no rights under the Constitution. The decision deepened the divide between North and South and further fueled the abolitionist movement.

Another significant event during Buchanan’s presidency was the secession crisis. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, several southern states, starting with South Carolina, seceded from the Union in protest against what they perceived as a threat to their way of life and the institution of slavery. Buchanan’s response to the growing secession movement was criticized for its lack of decisive action, leaving the country on the brink of a devastating civil war.

Civil War Crisis

The Civil War crisis reached its climax in the months leading up to Buchanan’s departure from office. The southern states formed the Confederate States of America, and tensions between the North and the South escalated. Despite mounting pressures, Buchanan remained steadfast in his belief that secession was illegal and unconstitutional.

However, Buchanan’s attempts to prevent the outbreak of war were largely ineffective. He was unable to maintain control over the seceding states or convince them to reconsider their decision. When he left office in March 1861, the nation was torn apart, and Buchanan’s presidency was widely criticized for its perceived failures in addressing the secession crisis.

Foreign Policy

During his presidency, Buchanan faced significant challenges and opportunities in foreign affairs. His expansionist policies aimed to extend American influence around the world, while his relationship with Great Britain and a conflict with Mexico further shaped his foreign policy legacy.

Expansionist Policies

Buchanan believed in the importance of expanding American influence and asserting the country’s presence on the global stage. He advocated for the acquisition of new territories, including the annexation of Cuba, an idea that was met with resistance both domestically and internationally.

Buchanan also sought to open up new markets for American goods through trade agreements, negotiations, and treaties. His efforts to establish commercial relations with Japan and other countries reflected his commitment to expanding America’s economic opportunities and global reach.

Relations with Great Britain

Tensions between the United States and Great Britain were a recurring challenge during Buchanan’s presidency. One of the major points of contention was the issue of British interference with American commerce, particularly in relation to Confederate states during the Civil War. Buchanan worked to resolve these conflicts diplomatically and prevent an escalation that could lead to war.

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Despite these challenges, Buchanan also recognized the value of maintaining good relations with Great Britain. He sought to strengthen ties and improve communication between the two countries, negotiating treaties and agreements that promoted mutual cooperation and understanding.

Conflict with Mexico

Another foreign policy challenge during Buchanan’s presidency was the conflict with Mexico over the border between the two countries. The dispute centered around the western territories, particularly in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

Buchanan pursued a peaceful resolution to the conflict, seeking diplomatic solutions and negotiations to prevent a military confrontation. He appointed commissioners to establish boundaries and resolve land disputes, but progress was slow, and a permanent resolution was not achieved during his presidency.

Slavery and Secession

The issue of slavery dominated much of Buchanan’s presidency and played a significant role in shaping the political landscape of the time. Several key events and decisions heightened tensions, leading to the secession crisis and ultimately the Civil War.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

One of the most controversial decisions of Buchanan’s presidency was his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty. This decision further inflamed passions on both sides of the slavery debate and led to violent conflicts in the Kansas Territory.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act paved the way for the emergence of new political parties, such as the Republican Party, which was formed in opposition to the expansion of slavery. Buchanan’s support for the Act strained his relationship with many in his own party, further deepening divisions within the country.

Dred Scott Decision

Another significant event during Buchanan’s presidency was the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court ruled that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, were not American citizens and could not sue for their freedom in federal courts.

The decision was widely condemned by abolitionists and northern states, who saw it as an attack on their rights and a reinforcement of the institution of slavery. It further polarized the nation and added fuel to the growing anti-slavery sentiment that would ultimately lead to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Secession Crisis

Perhaps the greatest challenge Buchanan faced during his presidency was the secession crisis. As southern states increasingly felt marginalized and threatened by the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North, tensions reached a breaking point. Buchanan’s attempts to prevent secession and maintain the Union proved unsuccessful.

His belief that secession was illegal and unconstitutional clashed with the reality on the ground, as southern states one by one declared their independence from the Union. Buchanan’s response, characterized by indecisiveness and a lack of strong leadership, was widely criticized, and historians attribute a significant portion of the blame for the outbreak of the Civil War to his presidency.


James Buchanan’s presidency is often remembered as one of the most challenging and divisive in American history. His inability to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War and his perceived failures in addressing the secession crisis have overshadowed other aspects of his career.

Public Perception

During his presidency, Buchanan faced widespread criticism and opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Many accused him of being weak and indecisive, unable to navigate the complex issues of the time. His reputation suffered further as the nation descended into the chaos of civil war, and historians have often ranked him among the worst presidents in American history.

However, there were those who defended Buchanan’s presidency, arguing that he was caught in an impossible situation and that events beyond his control ultimately led to the war. Supporters laud his attempts to prevent secession and preserve the Union, highlighting his commitment to the principles of democracy and constitutional governance.

Historical Assessment

Historians have offered varied assessments of Buchanan’s presidency. While there is no consensus on the extent of his responsibility for the outbreak of the Civil War, many agree that his inability to address the deep divisions within the country and prevent secession contributed to the erosion of the Union.

Some historians view Buchanan’s presidency as a missed opportunity, arguing that he had the potential to exercise strong leadership and guide the nation towards a peaceful resolution. However, his approach to compromise and conciliation often fell short, and his legacy remains one of division and uncertainty.

Impact on Civil War

James Buchanan’s presidency undoubtedly played a significant role in the events leading up to the Civil War. His inability to address the escalating tensions over slavery and prevent secession allowed the divide between North and South to reach irreparable levels. The war that followed resulted in immense suffering and loss of life, forever altering the course of American history.

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While Buchanan may not have been directly responsible for the outbreak of the Civil War, his presidency highlighted the deep-rooted divisions within the nation and the urgent need for strong, decisive leadership. The lessons learned from his presidency continue to shape the way the United States approaches political crises and the preservation of the Union.

Personal Life

Throughout his life, James Buchanan maintained a commitment to public service, but he also had a personal life that provided balance and fulfillment.

Family and Relationships

Buchanan never married and did not have children of his own. However, he formed close and lasting relationships with family members and friends. He was particularly close to his niece, Harriet Lane, who would serve as his First Lady during his presidency.

Buchanan’s family ties extended beyond blood relationships. He often referred to his close social circle as his “intimate friends” and relied on their advice and support throughout his career. These personal connections provided him with a sense of camaraderie and companionship.

Hobbies and Interests

In addition to his political pursuits, Buchanan had a variety of hobbies and interests that enriched his life. He was an avid reader and enjoyed literature, history, and philosophy. Buchanan’s education and intellectual curiosity fueled his passion for learning, and he dedicated significant time to expanding his knowledge and understanding of the world.

Buchanan also had a love for the outdoors and enjoyed activities such as fishing and horseback riding. These pastimes provided him with an opportunity to relax and enjoy nature, providing a much-needed respite from the demands of his political career.


After leaving the presidency in 1861, Buchanan returned to his home in Pennsylvania. While he never held public office again, he remained active in public affairs, lending his voice and support to causes he believed in. He continued to correspond with friends and colleagues and occasionally attended social gatherings and public events.

Buchanan’s retirement allowed him to reflect on his presidency and the state of the nation. Despite the criticism he faced, he remained steadfast in his belief that he had acted in the best interests of the country. Buchanan spent his final years in relative seclusion, passing away on June 1, 1868.

Death and Memorials

James Buchanan’s death marked the end of an era, as well as the closing chapter of a tumultuous presidency. His contributions to American history are commemorated through various memorials and tributes.


James Buchanan passed away on June 1, 1868, at the age of 77. After suffering from a debilitating illness, he died peacefully at his home, Wheatland, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. News of his death spread across the nation, and many Americans mourned the loss of a former president who had played a significant role in shaping the destiny of the country.


Buchanan was laid to rest in the Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, alongside other members of his family. His burial site serves not only as a final resting place but also as a testament to his legacy and his contributions to the nation.


In addition to his burial site, Buchanan is honored through various memorials and landmarks. The James Buchanan House in Lancaster is a National Historic Landmark and serves as a museum dedicated to his life and presidency. A statue of Buchanan also stands in Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., commemorating his service as President.

These memorials serve as reminders of the complex and often controversial legacy of James Buchanan. They invite visitors to reflect on the challenges he faced, the decisions he made, and the lasting impact of his presidency on the nation.


To learn more about James Buchanan and his presidency, the following references are recommended:


  • Birkner, Michael J., Randall M. Miller, and John W. Quist (eds.). James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. American Political Biography Press, 1962.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. Redeemer President: The New Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Further Reading

For more comprehensive studies on James Buchanan and his era, consider these works:

  • Baker, Jean H. James Buchanan. Times Books, 2004.
  • Binder, Frederick M. James Buchanan and the American Empire. Susquehanna University Press, 1994.
  • Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

Primary Sources

To gain a deeper understanding of Buchanan’s perspective and the events of his presidency, consult primary sources such as:

  • Buchanan, James. The Works of James Buchanan: Comprising His Speeches, State Papers, and Private Correspondence. J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1970 (reprint).
  • Moore, John Bassett (ed.). The Works of James Buchanan: Comprising His Speeches, State Papers, and Private Correspondence. J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1911.