The Life of James Buchanan

The Bachelor President

Tall, stately and formal, James Buchanan was the only President who never married.

The successor to Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan was the President of a divided nation. As the political situation began to spiral out of control, Buchanan was not able to understand that Northern voters would never accept a Constitutional argument that favoured the South. Additionally, Buchanan was not able to see how factionalism was realigning the American political landscape. The Democrats were divided and the Whig Party was self-destructing. At the same time the Republican Party was on the rise.

James Buchana’s Early Career

James Buchanan was born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1791. He graduated from Dickinson College, where he was a gifted debater and well versed in law.

Buchanan was elected to Congress five times, in addition to serving in the Senate. He also served as Minister to Russia under President Jackson. Upon his return, he became President Polk’s Secretary of State. He was then named Minister to Great Britain by President Pierce. Because he had spent so much time overseas, Buchanan easily won the Presidential election in 1856. He was perceived as being untainted by the bitter debate dividing the nation. James Buchanan became the 15th President of the United States.

President Buchanan

As President, Buchanan believed that the crisis could be resolved, if he could maintain a factional balance between the North and the South. He also tried to persuade the American people to accept the constitutional view of slavery, as it was interpreted by the Supreme Court.

In his Inaugural Address, Buchanan proclaimed that the legality of slavery was “of little practical importance.” Two days later, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, which stated that Congress had no legal right to deprive property owners of the right to own slaves. The decision delighted voters in the South, but touched off a storm of controversy in the North.

Meanwhile, Buchanan also tried to end the on-going dispute in Kansas between Northerners and Southerners by encouraging the entrance of Kansas into the Union as a slave state. He tried to use his Presidential authority to achieve this, but only served to anger Republicans and alienate Democrats.

Even when the Republicans achieved a plurality in the House of Representatives, almost nothing got done in Congress. Virtually every bill passed by the House of Representatives was voted down by the Senate or subjected to a Presidential veto. The Federal Government found itself in a stalemate.

James Buchanan and the Civil War

By the time of the 1860 election, the factional in-fighting had risen to such a level that the Democratic Party split into a Northern and Southern wing, each with its own Presidential candidate.

As a result, it was clear that Abraham Lincoln would win the election, even though his name did not appear on any Southern ballots. Rather than accept a Republican President, many Southerners began to advocate for secession from the Union.

Buchanan denied the South’s legal ability to withdraw from the United States, but held that the government could not legally prevent it from doing so. Buchanan hoped for compromise, but it was too late. The South was not interested in a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

In response, Buchanan tried a more militaristic approach. When several of his Southern Cabinet members resigned, Buchanan replaced them with Northerners and ordered the United States Navy to reinforce Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which had fallen to the Confederacy. Before the relief force was able to arrive, Fort Sumter was surrendered to the South on January 9, 1861.

In light of this failure, Buchanan reverted to his earlier policy of inactivity, leaving President Lincoln to fight the American Civil War. James Buchanan retired to his Pennsylvania home, where he died in 1868.

Works Cited

James Buchanan.The White House. US Government. May 13/09

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