James Buchanan Biography: 15th President of the United States

Updated on August 11, 2018

James Buchanan stands out among the United States presidents for many reasons: the only president born in Pennsylvania, the only President who was a bachelor throughout his life, and possibly the only homosexual to hold the office. He is also remembered as the moderate Democratic President who was unable to find an appropriate compromise to prevent the Civil War between the North and South, thus, historians have put him at the bottom of the list of American presidents.

Early Years

James Buchanan Jr. was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. The home-stead where he was born is now called Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. His father was a sucessful businessman and farmer, while his mother was a highly educated housewife and devout Christian. Both his parents had moved to the United States from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. James was one of eleven brothers and sisters, but he was the oldest in his family who lived past infancy.

A few years after James Buchanan was born, his family moved to Mercersburg, another town in Pennsylvania. His father’s businesses were taking off, which resulted in the Buchanans being the richest family in the town. Young Buchanan went to the Old Stone Academy School before enrolling in Dickinson College in Carlisle.

Due to his father’s wealth and family status, James had many educational opportunities open up for him. He was a rambunctious young man almost got permanently expelled from Dickinson College because of his behavior, but he managed to plead his case to stay. He later said of that time of his life, “Without much natural tendency to become dissipated, and chiefly from the example of others, and in order to be considered a clever and spirited youth, I engaged in every sort of extravagance and mischief.” He eventually settled down and graduated with honors in September 1809.

During the War of 1812, Buchanan joined a volunteer regiment and helped defend Baltimore during the British attack upon the city. He saw little action and his only duty was to confiscate horses for use by the Army.

Following college, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, where he worked under James Hopkins, one of the most reputable lawyers in the city. By 1812, Buchanan had found his place in the Pennsylvania bar after passing the oral exam. Unlike other lawyers at the time, Buchanan remained in Lancaster and built his own law firm in the city. He was very successful at his work, which resulted in his annual income rising to around $11,000 a year by 1821. It is the equivalent of earning over $200,000 a year in today’s dollars.

Buchanan fell in love with Ann Coleman, the daughter of an iron-mill owner in Lancaster. He proposed marriage and she accepted, but her parents disapproved fearing that he was only after the family’s money. Being a dutiful daughter, she broke off the engagement, became grief stricken and sank into depression. Not long after, she died under mysterious circumstances. The rumor was that she committed suicide, however, this was never proven. The parents blamed Buchanan and banned him from the funeral. He was not able to recover from the emotional toll the episode caused and he never married.

Political Beginnings

As he as working on his law career, Buchanan also began to take an interest in politics. He entered politics through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he was a member of the Federalist Party. Since the legislature only functioned during three months of the year, Buchanan had the chance to double as a legislator and lawyer, which gave more prominence to his legal practice. Buchanan’s early political beliefs centered on the ideals of the federal government improving infrastructure, having high tariffs, and a national bank.

James Buchanan Video Biography

From Congress to Secretary of State

Around 1820, the Federalist Party had effectively ended. Buchanan was not done with politics and ran for the House of Representatives under the umbrella of the “Republican-Federalist” party. Buchanan also had a newfound admiration for the policies and actions of Andrew Jackson. General Jackson had rising to national prominence for his victory at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He also started to believe strongly in states’ rights. Post-1824, Buchanan started to organize supporters of Andrew Jackson into the Democratic Party.

Buchanan was now one of the most prominent Democrats in Pennsylvania who also had close political alliances with southern Congressmen, such as William Rufus King from Alabama. He was closer with southern Congressmen, as compared to those from New England. He was very skeptical of politicians from New England, viewing them as dangerous because of their “radical” ideas.

During his time in Congress, Buchanan served on the Committee of Agriculture. He served a total of five terms in Congress, declining another nomination for what would have been his sixth term. He was considering returning to private life full time. But it was only a brief break from politics for Buchanan, who was given the position of Ambassador to Russia by then-President Andrew Jackson in 1832. He served in the post for 18 months.

Following his stint in Russia, Buchanan had a renewed desire to get into politics. He was elected by the Pennsylvania state legislature as the man who would replace William Wilkins in the senate. Buchanan won further terms in the United States Senate in 1836 and 1842, while remaining loyal to Andrew Jackson.

Buchanan was against the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. He also did not believe in the gag rule, as he felt that it was not within the federal government’s purview to interfere with slavery in the South. He believed that each state had the right to decide whether to continue with slavery - and he argued against those who used emotions to articulate their abolitionist views. Buchanan also believed in Manifest Destiny, which was the idea that American settlers had a destiny to expand across the entire North American continent.

By the 1844 Presidential election, Buchanan was hoping that he would be the Democratic nominee, rather, the nomination went to James K. Polk. Buchanan worked hard for the nominee, and Polk rewarded him by appointing him secretary of state. Buchanan played a vital role in expanding the United States through treaties during his years in the position, including the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

After the Polk Presidency came to an end, Zachary Taylor from the Wig Party served as President. Buchanan had no place left in politics, which led him back to Pennsylvania and private life. He did attempt to win the nomination as the 1852 Democratic candidate, but he did not get the two-thirds majority that he needed for the nomination. Too many people viewed him as “doughface,” a northern with southern sympathies.

Buchanan could have become Vice-President to Franklin Pierce, who won the election. But he declined, and the position went to William Rufus King. Pierce did appoint Buchanan as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1853, a position he held for the next three years.

Historians who have studied the life and presidency of Buchanan say there is strong evidence that he had a long-term homosexual relationship with Rufus King, an Alabama Senator and Vice President under Buchanan’s predecessor, Franklin Pierce. The men lived together and were close, causing colleagues to nickname them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” King was also referred to as Buchanan’s “better half.” When King was sent to Paris in 1844 to serve as the Ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote to friend lamenting: “now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone to wooing several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” Except for brief interruptions due to King’s travel, the two remained close until King’s death from tuberculosis in 1853. The idea of a homosexual president wasn’t quite as shocking then as I would be today, as the American public was more tolerant of individuals sexual inclination.

Portrait of William Rufus King, painted by George Cooke in 1839
Portrait of William Rufus King, painted by George Cooke in 1839

Run for President

The Presidential Election of 1856 was the moment James Buchanan would rise to the highest political office in the United States. He was not in the country when the Kansas-Nebraska Act rolled around, which may have helped his popularity. While he was not actively campaigning for the Presidency, it was a known ambition of his. The 1856 Democratic National Convention was his chance. The platform chosen by the party was almost identical to his own views, which included support for slavery and the idea the United States should ascend into the Gulf of Mexico. While President Pierce wanted the nomination again, Buchanan had the support of many powerful senators within the party. He was the man who got the nomination after a total of seventeen ballots. His Vice-President candidate was John C. Beckinridge.

Buchanan was in a three-way race in the general election against Millard Fillmore from the American Party and John C. Fremont from the Republican Party. As was the custom of the time, there was little direct campaigning by each candidate, especially compared to modern elections. Buchanan would write letters that said he was committed to the Democratic platform. The election resulted in Buchanan winning the Presidency. He won every slave state except Maryland, along with five states where slavery had been abolished. He did win his home state of Pennsylvania. The election saw him win 45 percent of the popular vote, along with 174 electoral votes. The next closest was John C. Fremont, who won 114 electoral votes. Millard Fillmore only managed eight electoral votes.

Presidency

The tone for the James Buchanan Presidency began during his inaugural address. He described the Republican Party as a very dangerous party that was only focused on geographical differences within the nation. He felt they had been very harsh on the South, especially on the issue of slavery. President Buchanan stated the goal of his Presidency would be to get rid of any sectional party, whether it is based on the North or South. He had the ambition of unifying the Union under a single government. Unfortunately, it is not how his Presidency turned out.

When it came to the issue of slavery, Buchanan felt that it was most important to maintain constitutional doctrines to bring everyone together. He felt that it was the right of Southern states to continue with slavery, if they so chose. He also felt that it would be the Supreme Court that would end the crisis that was threatening to engulf the Union.

The problem with Buchanan’s thinking was that he did not have a proper understanding of how much anger was present in the northern states. The issue of slavery had moved past the Constitution and any orders that would come from the Supreme Court. Northern states were not in a mood to accept constitutional arguments that would allow southern states to continue with slavery. Sectionalism had been on the rise for many years, which is what prompted the rise of the Republican Party.

Despite the impression among the country that Buchanan heavily favored the South, he was fair in terms of choosing his Cabinet. He had a mix of people from the North and South. He felt that a balanced Cabinet was key to maintaining peace between the two factions within the government.

Only a few days into Buchanan’s Presidency, the Supreme Court delivered its Dred Scott decision. The Supreme Court had come to a decision that the federal government did not have any authority to regulate slavery in its territories. It also said that African-Americans did not have the right to be citizens of the nation. Buchanan truly believed this decision would help heal the divide. Instead, it made things worse. The North was incensed, while the South rejoiced. The President also supported Kansas’ pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, which would have made Kansas a slave state. However, it was voted down, and Kansas would eventually join the Union as a free state.

Relations between Buchanan and the rest of the government became even more strained in 1858, because the elections resulted in more Republicans gaining positions in Congress. They blocked his entire agenda, while he vetoed everything they passed.

By 1859, an uprising started in Virginia, led by the abolitionist John Brown, who attempted to start a slave uprising at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. But the rebellion was unsuccessful, and Brown was hanged for treason. These events made hostilities between the North and South even worse.

James Buchanan did not seek re-election in 1860. He had promised to serve as a one-term President when he was inaugurated, and he kept his word. The Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, while the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln who went on to win the Presidency. During the last few weeks of Buchanan’s term, South Carolina seceding from the Union. Six more states followed suit before Lincoln’s inauguration - Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Now they formed the Confederate States of America.

Buchanan took as neutral a position as he could on the issue of secession. He believed the states were going outside their rights to secede. But he also felt there was no Constitutional authority to stop them.

Harper's Weekly Illustration of U.S. Marines attacking the firehouse which John Brown used as a fort during his raid on Harper's Ferry.
Harper's Weekly Illustration of U.S. Marines attacking the firehouse which John Brown used as a fort during his raid on Harper's Ferry.

Legacy and Retirement

Following his presidency, Buchanan retired from public life. When the Civil War broke out, he supported the Union and President Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan may have sided with southern states in the past, but he did not feel they were right in breaking from the Union. He published a memoir in 1866, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, with most of the book focused on defending his Presidency. He passed away on June 1st, 1868 at the age of 77. James Buchanan Jr. was buried at the Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When he died, his obituary in the New York Times didn’t emphasis his presidency, with the exception, “he met the crisis of secession in a timid and vacillating spirit, temporizing with both parties, and studiously avoiding the adoption of a decided policy.” In the following decades, Buchanan was ridiculed for his approach, and his weak leadership was viewed as a causative factor in the outbreak of the Civil War.

Whether it is fair or not, James Buchanan will be remembered by most as the United States president who made the issues between the North and South worse. Perhaps he was simply president at the wrong time, as there was no conceivable way to reconcile differences between the North and South. But many argue that Buchanan’s favoring of the southern states often made matters worse. His reluctance to view slavery as a moral issue was also to his detriment and tarnished his legacy.

References

Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.

Mataz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 2009.

Whitney, David C. and Robin V. Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2012.

Cooney, Katherine. “Who Was Our First Gay President?” http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/17/who-was-our-first-gay-president/ May 17, 2012. Accessed June 8, 2018.

Questions & Answers

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      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        2 months ago from U.S.A.

        Superb, Doug. I remember reading about Hhow Buchanan was a president who would not oppose slavery. History has not been favorable to him in many ways. I didn't know about the suspected homosexual behavior of this president. That was a surprise.

        As always, your factual story telling skills about the history of our nation is excellent and worth the read.

        Sincerely,

        Tim

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        2 months ago from Norfolk, England

        This was very interesting to read about a President I knew very little about.

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