Tall, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan was the only president who never married.
Presiding over a rapidly dividing nation, Buchanan did not quite grasp the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor did he realize how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split; the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans.
Born into a well-to-do Pennsylvania family on April 23, 1791, Buchanan, a graduate of Dickinson College, was gifted as a debater and learned in the law. He was elected five times to the House of Representatives; then, after an interlude as minister to Russia, served for more than a decade in the Senate. He became James K. Polk’s secretary of state and Franklin Pierce’s minister to Great Britain. Service abroad helped to bring him the Democratic nomination in 1856 because it had removed him from domestic crises and kept his political opinions fairly private.
As president-elect, Buchanan thought the crisis would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and if he could persuade the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The Court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories, and two justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.
Thus, in his Inaugural Address the president referred to the territorial question as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.” Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans were not citizens and had no standing to sue for freedom. The court also found the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, stating that Congress did not have the power to outlaw slavery in the territories.
Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. This further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.
When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a presidential veto. The federal government reached a stalemate. A year later, abolitionist John Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown, who had killed several proslavery settlers in Kansas, hoped to inspire a slave uprising but was captured, convicted, and executed. Abolitionists viewed him as a freedom fighter and martyr; southerners considered him a murderer and proof that abolitionists would use any means necessary to destroy slavery.
These events intensified sectional tensions so much that in 1860 the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name did not appear on most southern states’ ballots. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession.
Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the federal government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want it.
Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was fired upon and driven away.
Buchanan refused to act. In March 1861, he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland. In his final years, Buchanan supported the Union cause but critics castigated him for permitting secession. After the war, Buchanan published a book that defended his views of the Constitution and the actions he took toward the South during his presidency. He died on June 1, 1868.
You Might Also Like
Podcast St. John’s, the Church of the Presidents
Since the James Madison presidency, St. John’s Church has been an important part of the life of Lafayette Square an...
Collection The 2020 White House Christmas Ornament
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
Podcast Freemasons and the White House
Since the laying of the cornerstone in 1792, Freemasons have played an important role in the construction and the history of...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Collection Olympic Celebrations
Honoring some of the greatest moments in sports history has become a tradition at the White House. Presidents and their...
Podcast Presidential Portraits
Portrait artists have captured the image and personality of our presidents throughout history, providing a record of their time in...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Podcast Women’s Suffrage and the White House
This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the culmination of the suffragists' fight to secure the right to...
Collection Art in the White House
The collection of fine art at the White House has evolved and grown over time. The collection began with mostly...
Collection America Under Fire
The young national capital at Washington, D.C. became the center of the War of 1812 with Great Britain during the...
Collection A Tour of the White House
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy resolved to make the White House a “living museum” by restoring the historic integrity of the...