“What is right and what is practicable are two different things.”– James Buchanan
James Buchanan was born on this day in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, USA in 1791. Today is the 222nd anniversary of his birth.
Although he was born in a log cabin Buchanan’s family was well to do. His father was a prosperous businessman. His father, James Buchanan, Sr. was a farmer, businessman and merchant, his mother, Elizabeth Speer, was intelligent and well-respected. James was the second of 11 children, 8 of whom lived to adulthood.
Young James attended school in the Mercersberg area, but his father’s business triumphs and his mother’s interest in education dictated better opportunities for the boy. At age sixteen, he entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, seventy miles from home. [the Miller Center.org]
After graduation in 1809 he went to Lancaster, PA, to study Law. He passed the bar in 1812.
Although he was against the War of 1812 (he thought it was unnecessary) He joined the light dragoon unit when the British invaded Maryland and helped defend the city of Baltimore. Although the Battle of Baltimore would later become famous because of Francis Scott Key’s poem The Star Spangled Banner, Buchanan’s unit didn’t see any action.
He returned to Lancaster after the war. At 23 he ran for Pennsylvania House of Representatives and won a seat as a Federalist.
Toward the end of his time in the legislature, Buchanan fell in love with Ann Caroline Coleman. … The young woman’s family opposed the match with Buchanan, however. … Ann Coleman sent him a letter breaking off the engagement. A few days later she died. The Coleman family turned its grief and guilt on the young lawyer and forbade him to attend the funeral. The experience severely shook Buchanan; he vowed he would not marry another, and he never became seriously involved with any other woman for the rest of his life, though he carried on many flirtations. He would be the nation’s first and only bachelor President. [the Miller Center.org]
He threw himself into his work and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820.
He was elected five times to the House of Representatives; then, after an interlude as Minister to Russia, served for a decade in the Senate. He became Polk’s Secretary of State and Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain. [White House.gov]
Being out of the country during a contentious primary season helped Buchanan side step the bloody Slavery debate. “The overseas post enabled Buchanan to be unblemished by the political bloodshed that resulted from the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.” [the Miller Center.org] He became the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1856. He beat Republican John C. Frémont and took the White House on March 4, 1857 as the 15th president of the United States.
The first crisis of his presidency happened when the Supreme Court handed down the Dread Scott Decision…
Asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights in slaves in the territories. Southerners were delighted, but the decision created a furor in the North. [White House.gov]
More slavery woes were in store in the territory of Kansas. The choice in Bleeding Kansas was between two rival state constitutions, the Free-Soil (anti-slavery settlers) took Topeka as their capital, those who were pro-slavery picked Lecompton as the seat of government. The Free-Soil party was in the majority but the Lecomptons managed (through a number of shady means) to get their platform passed.
Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory. [Ibid]
By the mid-term elections Buchanan’s political star had fallen and the Republican took the House and Senate. He was the lamest of lame ducks and the government was at a stalemate. In the presidential election of 1860 the Democrats split with Buchanan taking the Southern states and Douglas taking the Northern states.
Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession…President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise. [White House.gov]
South Carolina was first to secede (on December 20, 1860.) Six other states joined South Carolina and formed the Confederate States of America. “When Buchanan left office on March 3, 1861, to retire to his estate outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he left the nation on the brink of civil war.” [Biography.com ]
He lived out the war at his home, Wheatland, in Lancaster, PA.
Rightly or wrongly, considerable blame for the Civil War fell upon him. His portrait had to be removed from the Capitol to keep vandals from damaging it, and posters captioned “Judas” depicted him with his neck in a hangman’s noose. A wave of second-guessing condemned Buchanan’s actions with regard to Fort Sumter. The Republican press attacked him while absolving the Republican Party and Lincoln from all responsibility for the conflict. Although Buchanan vocally supported the Union cause, many branded him an appeaser of the South and a lover of slavery. [the Miller Center.org]
He died of respiratory failure in 1868. He 77.
- Life Portraits: James Buchanan (c-span.org)
- James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president? (constitutioncenter.org)
- James Buchanan: An Assessment (coordinationproblem.org)
- Mourning the Death of James Buchanan (delong.typepad.com)