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James Buchanan

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Buchanan, James (1791–1868), 15th president of the United States. Buchanan held office during the years of mounting crisis that led up to the Civil War. The bitter divisions between North and South over the issue of slavery intensified during Buchanan's administration. When he left office in Mar. 1861, 7 slave states had already seceded from the Union and the nation was on the verge of war.

Early life

Buchanan was born in a pioneer settlement near Mercersburg, Pa. He was graduated in 1809 from Dickinson College, studied law, and then served in the War of 1812. He became a state legislator (1814–16) and later a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania (1821–31). Initially a Federalist, Buchanan switched to the Democratic party after the Federalist party dissolved in the 1820s. After serving as U.S. minister to Russia (1832–33), Buchanan became a U.S. senator (1834–45). In 1845 President James K. Polk appointed him secretary of state, a position he held until 1849.

Buchanan's diplomatic career resumed in 1853, when President Franklin Pierce named him minister to Great Britain. In 1854 Buchanan, along with the U.S. ministers to France and Spain, formulated the Ostend Manifesto, which stated that the United States should try to purchase the island of Cuba from Spain but also suggested that the United States might, under certain circumstances, be justified in using force to “wrest” the island away from Spain.


In 1856 the Democratic party nominated Buchanan for president. He won the election, defeating two opponents from the Republican and Native American, or “Know-Nothing,” parties. Although he opposed slavery on moral grounds, Buchanan felt that it was an issue for each state or territory to decide. One such territory was “Bleeding Kansas,” which had been the scene of virtual civil war between proslavery groups and abolitionists.

Buchanan endorsed the principle of popular sovereignty, which would allow the people of Kansas to vote whether to enter the Union as a slave or a free state. He submitted to Congress the proslavery state constitution drawn up at Lecompton, Kans., in Sept. 1857. However, this constitution was not approved by antislavery forces in Kansas, and the U.S. House of Representatives rejected it. Buchanan's action on the Kansas issue and his endorsement of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision angered the North, and the 1858 elections returned majorities hostile to the president in both houses of Congress. The financial panic of 1857 further weakened confidence in Buchanan's administration.

In 1860 the nation elected Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, as president. In the months preceding his inauguration, 7 Southern states seceded from the Union, establishing the Confederate States of America.

Although war was imminent, Buchanan tried to maintain peace. A U.S. steamer attempting to bring supplies to U.S. troops at Fort Sumter, S.C., was fired upon by a Southern battery, but since no blood was shed, Buchanan chose not to regard this as an act of war. The nation he handed over to Lincoln was still precariously at peace. In his last annual message to Congress, On Dec. 4, 1860, Buchanan asserted that no state could secede from the Union. He professed that he knew of no legal authority to prevent it, but he said, “Secession is neither more nor less than revolution,” and he supported the Union during the Civil War.


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