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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.