President Buchanan: Facts & Explanation

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861. He was a Democrat who saw sectional tensions rise leading up to the Civil War, which began shortly after he left office.

Of the 44 men to hold the office of the President of the United States as of 2013, only one thus far has been from Pennsylvania. That man was James Buchanan, the last man to hold the office before the Civil War. Let's learn more about this often-forgotten president.

Early Years

Born in 1791, James Buchanan spent his early years in Franklin County and Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Dickinson College, became a lawyer, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1812. In 1814, he was elected to his first political office as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In 1821, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and began his career in national politics.

National Politics

By the 1830s, Buchanan had become a Democrat (the Federalist party fell apart by 1820). In 1834, he moved from the U.S. House over to the Senate when he was asked to fill in and complete the term for a vacated seat. When Democrat James Polk was elected president in 1844, he hired Buchanan to take a seat in his cabinet as Secretary of State. Polk even appointed Buchanan to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in a rare act in American history, Buchanan turned down the offer. During his time as Secretary of State, Buchanan negotiated the Oregon Treaty in 1846, which laid out the 49th Parallel as the northern boundary of the U.S. After the end of the Polk administration, Buchanan served as an ambassador to Great Britain

In 1856, James Buchanan became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. While he did not actively seek the nomination, his reputation and service made him such a prominent figure that his party elevated him to the important position. This election was the first in American history between the Democrats and the nascent Republican Party. Born out of sectional tension and opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Republicans were a party opposed to the westward spread of slavery. For their first presidential election, the Republicans nominated John Fremont, an explorer and Senator from California. Buchanan defeated Fremont in 1856, becoming the 15th President of the United States.

President James Buchanan

President of the United States

Buchanan's time in office was filled with numerous sectional troubles. Just a few days after his inauguration, the U.S. Supreme Court came down with the Dred Scott decision. In this decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Congress could not stop the westward spread of slavery, essentially declaring the 1820 Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional. Taney's ruling essentially declared that there was no way to stop the spread of slavery. Buchanan was already on record as saying in his inaugural address that he would support the Dred Scott decision, no matter what it was. Being linked to such an inflammatory decision was a bad start for his presidency. Dred Scott further inflamed anti-slavery and Republican forces, making the sectional divide in the country much worse.

Following Dred Scott, there was trouble in Kansas. After being opened to the possibility of slavery by the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, there was widespread fighting and bloodshed in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery forces. In fact, the state became known as Bloody Kansas during these years. Democrats in Congress tried to force a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas, but it was met with fierce opposition. The problems in Kansas hurt Buchanan and further fanned the fires of sectional discord.

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