Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania (now Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park), in Franklin County, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr. (1761–1821), a businessman, merchant, and farmer, and Elizabeth Speer, an educated woman (1767–1833). His parents were both of Ulster Scots descent, the father having emigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. Buchanan had six sisters and four brothers.
Buchanan attended the village academy (Old Stone Academy) and later Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Though he was nearly expelled at one point for poor behavior, he pleaded for a second chance and subsequently graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812.
A dedicated Federalist, he initially opposed the War of 1812 because he believed it was an unnecessary conflict. When the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit as a private and served in the defense of Baltimore. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who did not, at some point, serve as an officer.
Buchanan began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814 to 1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. He was elected to the 17th United States Congress and to the four succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1821 – March 4, 1831), serving as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in the 21st United States Congress. In 1830, he was among the members appointed by the House to conduct impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Peck was charged with abuse of the contempt power, but was ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek reelection and from 1832 to 1833 he served as Minister to Russia, appointed by Andrew Jackson.
With the Federalist Party long defunct, Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy and served from December 1834; he was reelected in 1837 and 1843, and resigned in 1845 to accept nomination of him as Secretary of State by President James K. Polk. He was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1836 to 1841.
After the death of Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin in 1844, Polk nominated Buchanan to fill the vacancy in March 1845, but he declined that nomination because he felt compelled to complete his collaboration on the Oregon Treaty negotiations. The seat was eventually filled by Robert Cooper Grier.
Buchanan served as Secretary of State under Polk from 1845 to 1849, despite objections from Buchanan’s rival, Vice President George Dallas. In this capacity, he helped negotiate the 1846 Oregon Treaty establishing the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the western United States. No Secretary of State has become President since Buchanan, although William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, often served as Acting Secretary of State during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
In 1852, Buchanan was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and he served in this capacity until 1866, despite a false report that he was fired.
He served as minister to the Court of St. James’s (Britain) from 1853 to 1856, during which time he helped to draft a memorandum that became known as the Ostend Manifesto. He signed the memorandum along with Pierre Soulé and John Mason. This document proposed the purchase from Spain of Cuba, then in the midst of revolution and near bankruptcy, declaring the island “as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present … family of states.” Against Buchanan’s recommendation, the final draft of the Manifesto suggested that “wresting it from Spain” if Spain refused to sell would be justified “by every law, human and Divine”. The Manifesto, generally considered a blunder overall, was never acted upon but weakened the Pierce administration and support for Manifest Destiny.
Democrats nominated Buchanan in 1856 as their nominee for President of the United States. He had been in England during the Kansas-Nebraskadebate and thus remained untainted by either side. Pennsylvania, which had three times failed Buchanan, now gave him full support in its state convention. Though he never declared his candidacy, it is apparent from all his correspondence that he was aware of the distinct possibility of his nomination by the Democratic convention in Cincinnati, even before heading home at the finish of his work as Minister to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, then serving as American Consul in Liverpool, recorded in his diary that Buchanan visited him in January 1855:
He returns to America, he says, next October, and then retires forever from public life… as regards his prospects for the Presidency, [h]e said that his mind was fully made up, and that he would never be a candidate, and that he had expressed this decision to his friends in such a way as to put it out of his own power to change it… that it was now too late, and that he was too old… although, really, he is the only Democrat, at this moment, whom it would not be absurd to talk of for the office…. I wonder whether he can have had any object in saying all this to me. He might see that it would be perfectly natural for me to tell it to General Pierce.
Jonathan Foltz told Buchanan in November 1855, “The people have taken the next presidency out of the hands of the politicians…the people and not your political friends will place you there.” While Buchanan did not overtly seek the office, he most deliberately chose not to discourage the movement on his behalf, something that was well within his power on many occasions.
Former president Millard Fillmore’s “Know-Nothing” candidacy helped Buchanan defeat John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856. He served as president from March 4, 1857, to March 4, 1861. Buchanan remains the most recent of the two Democrats (the other being Martin Van Buren) to succeed a fellow Democrat to the Presidency by election in his own right. President-elect Buchanan stated about the growing schism in the country: “The object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government.” He set about this initially by maintaining a sectional balance in his appointments and persuading the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories and two justices had hinted to Buchanan their findings.
Buchanan was the last president born in the 18th century and, at age 65, was the second-oldest man to be elected President at the time.
In his inaugural address, besides promising not to run again, Buchanan referred to the territorial question as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally”, and proclaimed that when the decision came he would “cheerfully submit, whatever this may be”. Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott Decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Such comments delighted Southerners and incited anger in the North.
Buchanan preferred to see the territorial question resolved by the Supreme Court. He wrote to Justice John Catron in January 1857, inquiring about the outcome of the case and suggesting that a broader decision would be more prudent. Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10 that the Supreme Court’s southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds if there was no support from the Court’s northern justices—unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority. Buchanan then wrote to Grier and successfully prevailed upon him, allowing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision that transcended the specific circumstances of Scott’s case to declare the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. The correspondence was not public at the time; however, at his inauguration, Buchanan was seen in whispered conversation with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. When the decision was issued two days later, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Abraham Lincoln, in his 1858 House Divided Speech, denounced Buchanan, Taney, Stephen A. Douglas and Franklin Pierce as accomplices of the Slave Power, a supposed conspiracy to eliminate legal barriers to slavery.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created Kansas Territory, and allowed the settlers there to choose whether to allow slavery. This resulted in violence between “Free-Soil” (anti-slavery) and pro-slavery settlers (see “Bleeding Kansas”).
The anti-slavery settlers organized a government in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a seat of government in Lecompton, Kansas. For Kansas to be admitted to statehood, a state constitution had to be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of residents.
Toward this end, Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker as territorial Governor, with the mission of reconciling the settler factions and approving a constitution. Walker, who was from Mississippi, was expected to assist the pro-slavery faction in gaining approval of their Lecompton Constitution. However, most Kansas settlers were Free-Soilers. The Lecomptonites held a referendum, which Free-Soilers boycotted, with trick terms and claimed their constitution was adopted. Walker resigned in disgust.
Nevertheless, Buchanan now pushed for Congressional approval of Kansas statehood under the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan made every effort to secure Congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments and even cash for votes. The Lecompton bill passed through the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate, where it was opposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, leader of the northern Democrats. Douglas advocated “popular sovereignty” (letting settlers decide on slavery—nicknamed “squatter sovereignty” by Douglas’ opponents); he rejected the fraudulent way the Lecompton Constitution was supposedly adopted.
The battle over Kansas escalated into a battle for control of the Democratic Party. On one side were Buchanan, most Southern Democrats, and northern Democrats allied to the Southerners (“Doughfaces”); on the other side, Douglas and most northern Democrats plus a few Southerners. The struggle lasted from 1857 to 1860. Buchanan used his patronage powers to remove Douglas’ sympathizers in Illinois and Washington, DC and installed pro-administration Democrats, including postmasters.
Douglas’s Senate term ended in 1859; so the Illinois legislature elected in 1858 had to choose whether or not to re-elect him. The Senate choice was the primary issue of the legislative election, marked by the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Buchanan, working through Federal patronage appointees in Illinois, ran candidates for the legislature in competition with both the Republicans and the Douglas Democrats. (They were known as “Danites”.) This could easily have thrown the election to the Republicans—which showed the depth of Buchanan’s animosity toward Douglas.
In the end, however, the Danite vote was insignificant. Douglas Democrats won the legislative election and Douglas was re-elected to the Senate. Douglas forces took control throughout the North, except in Buchanan’s home state of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was reduced to a narrow base of southern supporters.
Buchanan considered the essence of good self-government to be founded on restraint. The constitution he considered to be “…restraints, imposed not by arbitrary authority, but by the people upon themselves and their representatives…. In an enlarged view, the people’s interests may seem identical, but “to the eye of local and sectional prejudice, they always appear to be conflicting … and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution.”
One of the greatest issues of the day was tariffs. Buchanan condemned both free trade and prohibitive tariffs, since either would benefit one section of the country to the detriment of the other. As the Senator from Pennsylvania, he thought: “I am viewed as the strongest advocate of protection in other states, whilst I am denounced as its enemy in Pennsylvania.”
Buchanan, like many of his time, was torn between his desire to expand the country for the benefit of all and his insistence on guaranteeing to the people settling the expanded areas their rights, including slavery. On territorial expansion, he said, “What, sir? Prevent the people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might just as well command the Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny.” On the resulting spread of slavery, through unconditional expansion, he stated: “I feel a strong repugnance by any act of mine to extend the present limits of the Union over a new slave-holding territory.” For instance, he hoped the acquisition of Texas would “be the means of limiting, not enlarging, the dominion of slavery”.
Nevertheless, in deference to the intentions of the typical slaveholder, he was quick to provide the benefit of much doubt. In his third annual message Buchanan claimed that the slaves were “treated with kindness and humanity…. Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.”
Historian Kenneth Stampp wrote: “Shortly after his election, he assured a southern Senator that the “great object” of his administration would be “to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question in the North and to destroy sectional parties. Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain.” In the northern anti-slavery idiom of his day, Buchanan was often considered a “doughface”, a northern man with southern principles.
The President, however, also felt that “this question of domestic slavery is the weak point in our institutions, touch this question seriously … and the Union is from that moment dissolved. Although in Pennsylvania we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, we can never violate the constitutional compact we have with our sister states. Their rights will be held sacred by us. Under the constitution it is their own question; and there let it remain.”
Buchanan was irked that the abolitionists, in his view, were preventing the solution to the slavery problem. He stated, “Before [the abolitionists] commenced this agitation, a very large and growing party existed in several of the slave states in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery; and now not a voice is heard there in support of such a measure. The abolitionists have postponed the emancipation of the slaves in three or four states for at least half a century.”
Buchanan greatly valued education but believed that colleges were the duty of state governments rather than the central government, as expressed in his veto of a bill to grant land for colleges.
“It is extremely doubtful, to say the least, whether this bill would contribute to the advancement of agriculture and the mechanic arts–objects the dignity and value of which can not be too highly appreciated.”
“The Federal Government, which makes the donation, has confessedly no constitutional power to follow it into the States and enforce the application of the fund to the intended objects. As donors we shall possess no control over our own gift after it shall have passed from our hands. It is true that the State legislatures are required to stipulate that they will faithfully execute the trust in the manner prescribed by the bill. But should they fail to do this, what would be the consequence? The Federal Government has no power, and ought to have no power, to compel the execution of the trust.”
Near the end of his administration he had a serious exchange with the Rev. William Paxton. After what Paxton described as quite a probative discussion, Buchanan said, ” Well, sir … I hope I am a Christian. I have much of the experience you have described, and as soon as I retire, I will unite with the Presbyterian Church.” Paxton asked why he delayed, to which he replied, “I must delay for the honor of religion. If I were to unite with the church now, they would say ‘hypocrite’ from Maine to Georgia.”
In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball at Lancaster’s White Swan Inn, and the two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturing businessman (and protective father) Robert Coleman and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan’s colleagues from the House of Representatives. By 1819, the two were engaged, but could spend little time together; Buchanan was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects during the Panic of 1819, which took him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded, suggesting that he was marrying her for her money, because his own family was less affluent, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, but letters from Anne revealed she was paying heed to the rumors.
After Buchanan visited a friend’s wife, Coleman broke off the engagement. She died suddenly soon afterward, on December 9, 1819. The records of a Dr. Chapman, who looked after her in her final hours, and who commented just after her death that it was “the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death”, reveal that he theorized, despite the absence of any valid evidence, that she had overdosed on laudanum, a concentrated tincture of opium. Buchanan was prevented from attending the funeral service. In a letter to her father he wrote, however, that “I feel happiness has fled from me forever.”
After Coleman’s death, Buchanan never courted another woman or seemed to show any emotional or physical interest; a rumor circulated of an affair with President James K. Polk’s widow,Sarah Childress Polk but it had no basis. It has been suggested that Anne’s death in fact served to deflect awkward questions about his sexuality and bachelorhood. While Buchanan may have been asexual or celibate, there are many indicators that suggest he was homosexual. The argument has been put forward by Shelley Ross, biographer Jean Baker, sociologist James W. Loewen, Robert P. Watson, and historian John Howard.
A source of this interest as been Buchanan’s close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King (who became Vice President under Franklin Pierce). The two men lived together in a Washington boardinghouse for 10 years from 1834 until King’s departure for France in 1844, after which point they never again shared a residence. King referred to the relationship as a “communion”, and the two attended social functions together. Contemporaries also noted the closeness. Andrew Jackson called them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” (the former being a 19th-century euphemism for an effeminate man), while Aaron V. Brown referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half”. James W. Loewen described Buchanan and King as “siamese twins.” In later years Kat Thompson, the wife of a cabinet member, expressed her anxiety that “there was something unhealthy in the president’s attitude”.
Buchanan adopted King’s mannerisms and romanticised view of southern culture. Both had strong political ambitions and in 1844 they planned to run as president and vice president. One historian has found them both to be soft, effeminate, and eccentric. In May 1844, Buchanan wrote to Cornelia Roosevelt, “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
King became ill in 1853 and died of tuberculosis shortly after Pierce’s inauguration, four years before Buchanan became President. Buchanan described him as “among the best, the purest and most consistent public men I have known.” The length and intimacy of their surviving letters illustrate “the affection of a special friendship.”
The Civil War erupted within two months of Buchanan’s retirement. He supported it, writing to former colleagues that “the assault upon Sumter was the commencement of war by the Confederate states, and no alternative was left but to prosecute it with vigor on our part”. He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to “join the many thousands of brave & patriotic volunteers who are already in the field”.
However, Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War, which was even referred to by some as “Buchanan’s War”. He began receiving angry and threatening letters daily, and stores displayed Buchanan’s likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word “TRAITOR” written across his forehead. The Senate proposed a resolution of condemnation (it failed), and newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy. His former cabinet members, five of whom had been given jobs in the Lincoln administration, refused to defend Buchanan publicly.
Initially so disturbed by the attacks that he fell ill and depressed, Buchanan finally began defending himself in October 1862, in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott that was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. He soon began writing his fullest public defense, in the form of his memoir Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, which was published in 1866.
Buchanan caught a cold in May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland and was interred in Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.
- April, 23, 1791
- Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
- June, 01, 1868
- Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Cause of Death
- respiratory failure, rheumatic gout
- Woodward Hill Cemetery
- Lancaster, Pennsylvania