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James Buchanan: 15th President: Neutral During Eve of Rebellion

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.

James Buchanan, aka "Old Buck," served as America’s 15th president.

James Buchanan, aka "Old Buck," served as America’s 15th president.

James Buchanan Never Married

From 1857-1861, James Buchanan, aka "Old Buck," served as America's 15th president. He was born on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, as the oldest of eleven children to James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer Buchanan. His father owned a store where he worked. At 18, he graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He went on to study law and built a very successful law practice in Lancaster, PA. By the time he was thirty years old, he had already made $300,000.

Although professionally he was very successful, he had trouble in romance. He was engaged in 1819 to Ann Coleman, but she broke off their engagement due to a misunderstanding. Before he had a chance to reconcile, she died. Rumors stated it was a suicide, although no one knows for sure. Buchanan never pursued marriage with anyone else, making him the only President of the United States never to have been married.

Buchanan Cabinet

From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)

From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)

Buchanan's Political Career

From when he was 22 until he was President at 65, Buchanan served in many governmental positions, where he was well-liked for all 43 years. Ten of those years, beginning in 1820, he served as a Congressman under the Federalist Party and was re-elected five times. Then Buchanan worked as Minister to Russia and served twelve years as a Senator. The Federalist Party dissolved, and he realigned himself with the Democratic Party.

Throughout the presidencies of Jackson, Polk, and Pierce, he worked as a top-level foreign diplomat. During Jackson's term, he was the US ambassador to Russia. During Polk's term, James resigned from the Senate and became Secretary of State. He was very successful in this position, and the nation's territory grew substantially. California was acquired, Texas was annexed, and what would become the Oregon Territory was secured after settling with Great Britain over a boundary dispute.

During his predecessor, Pierce's term, he was appointed the Minister to Great Britain. He drafted the Ostend Manifesto, which Pierce strongly encouraged, which allowed Cuba to be acquired from Spain. Many did not like Pierce's involvement in this, and it caused a lot of controversy between the Northern and slave states. Many feared Cuba would become a slave state. Although that did not happen, Pierce became intensely disliked. Because Buchanan was overseas during much of his governmental experience, he was free from many domestic controversies, including slavery, so the Democratic Convention felt he was a better choice than Pierce.

Although the Democratic Party strongly supported him, the Republican party nicknamed him "Ten-Cent Jimmy" because he had stated during his presidential campaign that ten cents were a fair daily wage for manual laborers. John Fremont, the first-ever Republican presidential candidate, strongly asserted that the government should ban slavery in all states, while Buchanan maintained that each state and territory should decide. He kept this stance because he felt that the constitution protected the right to own slaves, despite his strong views that slavery was morally objectionable.

Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, winning the race. He named John Breckinridge vice-president, who was only 35 then, making him the youngest to serve in that position ever. Having been a bachelor when he entered the office, his niece Harriet Lane took on the social duties of the first lady and was well-liked.

Unfortunately, since he often served in foreign countries, he could avoid the bitter argument of slavery. Although this helped him get elected, his neutrality caused conflict after he was elected. He was unprepared for the slavery conflict due partly to his very cautious nature. Many felt he could not make the hard decisions he needed to make as President. He wanted to keep the peace between Northerners and Southerners, but this was viewed as sympathetic to Southern pro-slavery beliefs.

Two weeks into his presidency, the Dred Scott decision had been made by the Supreme Court, which forbade Congress from interfering in cases of slavery and allowed for slave hunters to search in free states for runaway slaves. Most notably, it denied African Americans the right to be US citizens. The ruling increased the animosity between Northerners and Southerners, bringing the US closer to the looming Civil War.

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Buchanan was criticized since he refused to take sides. Many southern states threatened to secede unless he backed slavery, so trying to keep the peace, he urged Kansas to become a slave state by supporting the Lecompton Constitution. Although Kansas remained a territory until after his presidency, this angered the Republican party.

In 1858, the Republican party won a plurality in the House in 1858, which caused stalemates on many significant bills as they would block Buchanan's agendas, and he would veto Republican legislation.

Homes of President James Buchanan

Civil War and Lincoln's Inauguration

Buchanan did not seek reelection, which was in line with his promise during his inaugural address. His successor Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was elected during the 1860 election with a vast majority of the electoral votes, despite his name not appearing on any southern ballots. Southern states feared losing their "right" to have slaves under Lincoln's presidency; therefore, on December 20, 1860, during Buchanan's last few months as President, South Carolina was the first of seven states to secede. They created the "Confederate States of America" under Jefferson Davis.

Although Buchanan denied the legal right to allow a state to secede, the Federal Government could not legally prevent them from doing so. Then, James took more aggressive action by replacing any Cabinet members that resigned with Northerners. He then sent reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Before he left office, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded and joined the Confederate States of America.

A month after he left office, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and the Civil War Began. Buchanan supported Lincoln's policies and the Union during the war.

In 1866, the former president published a memoir, "Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion," in which he defended his administration. He died seven years after leaving office on June 1, 1868, at age 77, and was buried at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.

Fun Facts

  • He currently is the only president to be elected from Pennsylvania thus far.
  • His nicknames include "Old Buck" and "Ten-Cent Jimmy."
  • He was the oldest of 11 children.
  • He is the only president who never married.
  • His niece Harriet Lane assumed the responsibilities of the first lady and was quite popular.
  • The Dred Scott decision was made while he was in office.
  • Seven states seceded during his last months n office.

Excerpt from the History Channel

Basic Facts

Question Answer


April 23, 1791 - Pennsylvania

President Number




Military Service

United States of America Dragoons - Private

Wars Served

War of 1812

Age at Beginning of Presidency

66 years old

Term of Office

March 4, 1857 - March 3, 1861

How Long President

4 years


John C. Breckinridge

Age and Year of Death

June 1, 1868 (aged 77)

Cause of Death



  • Freidel, F., & Sidey, H. (2009). James Buchanan. Retrieved April 22, 2016, from
  • Staff. (2009). James Buchanan. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from
  • Sullivan, George. Mr. President: A Book of U.S. Presidents. New York: Scholastic, 2001. Print.

© 2017 Angela Michelle Schultz

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