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James Buchanan
15th U.S. President
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States, serving immediately before the American Civil War.
Born: April 23, 1791, Cove Gap, PA
Died: June 1, 1868, Lancaster, PA
Succeeded by: Abraham Lincoln
Political party: Democratic Party
Vice President: John C. Breckinridge (1857–1861)
Presidential term: March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861

James Buchanan (1791-1868), America’s 15th president, was in office from 1857 to 1861. During his tenure, seven Southern states seceded from the Union and the nation teetered on the brink of civil war. A Pennsylvania native, Buchanan began his political career in his home state’s legislature and went on to serve in both houses of the U.S. Congress; he later became a foreign diplomat and U.S. secretary of state. Buchanan, a Democrat who was morally opposed to slavery but believed it was protected by the U.S. Constitution, was elected to the White House in 1856. As president, he tried to maintain peace between Pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the government, but tensions only escalated. In 1860, after Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was elected to succeed Buchanan, South Carolina seceded, and the Confederacy was soon established. In April 1861, a month after Buchanan left office, the American Civil War (1861-1865) began.

Once in office, James Buchanan appointed a cabinet composed of Northerners and Southerners and hoped to keep the peace between the country’s Pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. Instead, the national debate over slavery only intensified, and the new president was seen by many people as being more sympathetic to Southern interests. Two days after he was sworn in, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision, which said the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories and denied African Americans the rights of U.S. citizens. Buchanan hoped the ruling would resolve America’s slavery issue, and he reportedly pressured a Northern justice to vote with the Southern majority in the case. Far from settling the issue, the Dred Scott decision, which Southerners applauded and Northerners protested, led to increased divisiveness.

Buchanan further rankled Northerners by supporting the Lecompton Constitution, which would have allowed Kansas to become a slave state. (It was later voted down, and Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861.) In 1858, relations between Congress and the president were further strained when the Republicans won a plurality in Congress and blocked much of Buchanan’s agenda. He, in turn, vetoed Republican legislation.

In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) tried unsuccessfully to stage a massive slave uprising by raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). After Brown was convicted of treason and hanged, hostilities between the North and South continued to escalate.

Upholding a promise he had made in his inaugural address, James Buchanan did not seek reelection in 1860. At their national convention, the Democrats were split over their choice for a nominee, with Northern Democrats selecting Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) of Illinois and Southern Democrats picking Vice President Breckinridge. The Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln, and the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell (1796-1869). Lincoln won 180 electoral votes (and a little less than 40 percent of the popular vote) while his challengers garnered a combined electoral 123 votes. On December 20, 1860, in response to Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina seceded from the Union. By the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1861, six more states–Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas–had also seceded and formed the Confederate States of America.

Buchanan asserted that states did not have the right to secede; however, he also believed he had no constitutional power to stop them. In the end, he left the slavery crisis to be resolved by the Lincoln administration. He reportedly told his successor, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania], you are a happy man.”

On April 12, 1861, a little over a month after Buchanan left office and retired to Wheatland, 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 on June 1, 1868, at age 77, and was buried at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.