April 23, 1791 - June 1, 1868
James Buchanan was one of the most prominent leaders of the Democratic Party during the antebellum period. After a long career as a congressman and senator from Pennsylvania, Buchanan served as secretary of state in the Polk administration. Long regarded as a potential party standard-bearer, Buchanan received his party’s presidential nomination in 1856. As the 15th president, his ill-fated single term was beset by sectional tensions that would lead to the outbreak of civil war one month after he left office in 1861.
Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then studied law in Lancaster before being admitted to the bar in 1812. During the war of 1812, he served in a Maryland regiment in the defense of Baltimore but saw no action. Returning to Lancaster after the war, he amassed a considerable fortune before turning to politics.
Elected to Congress as a Federalist in 1820, Buchanan served on the House Judiciary Committee and gained a reputation as an expert in constitutional matters. With the party of Washington and Hamilton in its death throes, Buchanan threw his support to Democrat Andrew Jackson in the presidential campaign of 1824. Although accused by Jackson of being part of the "corrupt bargain" that had cost him the presidency, Buchanan remained an enthusiastic supporter of Jackson and worked hard for him in Pennsylvania. Following his re-election in 1832, Jackson appointed Buchanan as minister to Russia, where he successfully negotiated a long-stalled commercial treaty. Returning to the United States, Buchanan won election to the Senate in 1833. Serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he became one of the most powerful senators in Congress by the end of his second term.
In 1845 President James K. Polk tapped Buchanan as his secretary of state, although the decision had more to do with domestic politics than Buchanan’s foreign policy experience. Determined to lower the tariff, the Jacksonian president was eager to bolster his support in Pennsylvania, a state that favored protective duties for manufacturing and mining interests. The appointment caused friction with Vice-President Dallas, who was then locked in a struggle with Buchanan for control of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania.
The appointment was one that Polk himself would have reason to regret. The president relied heavily on his cabinet members, meeting with them twice a week. It is clear from Polk’s diary, a meticulous record of these proceedings, that the president soon came to distrust his secretary of state’s counsel, convinced that Buchanan was tailoring his advice so as not to compromise his chances for a presidential bid in the next election. At the outset of the conflict with Mexico, Buchanan opposed the president’s determination to make the acquisition of Mexican territory a war aim. In a cabinet meeting on May 13 1846, two days after the declaration of war, Buchanan suggested that the administration issue a formal statement forswearing any territory from Mexico. European powers, he reasoned—-specifically Great Britain and France--might join with Mexico if they believed the war was being waged to obtain California. The expansionist Polk refused to consider the proposal, insisting that the United States had a right to demand a territorial indemnity from Mexico to defray the costs of waging war. Eighteen months later, with U.S. troops having seized the capital of Mexico, some political leaders and pundits called for an expansionist program far greater than anything Polk had ever envisioned--the acquisition of "All Mexico." Polk noted with some irritation that as the movement to annex Mexico gained popularity in Democratic circles, Buchanan quickly abandoned his territorial concerns, and by war’s end could be found among the most zealous champions of American expansionism.
Polk expressed similar exasperation with Buchanan’s shifting views on the Oregon question. In contrast to the chief executive’s position that the United States had a legitimate claim to the entire Northwest territory, Buchanan supported a compromise settlement with Great Britain, which would divide the territory along the 49th parallel (a position supported by every president since Monroe). As the war of words between the two countries escalated throughout the spring and summer of 1845, Buchanan continued to press for a compromise settlement, although Polk remained firm in his "all or nothing approach" until the end of February 1846, when the administration learned that a British naval force was being assembled to send to Canada. Unwilling to confront Great Britain as a showdown with Mexico over the Texas question loomed, Polk agreed to refer the British compromise proposal to the Senate. Much to the president’s surprise-—and irritation--Buchanan now argued for a resolute stand on behalf of the "all Oregon" position, a move Polk suspected was designed to curry favor with western expansionists, a key political bloc should Buchanan become a candidate in 1848.
Buchanan’s presidential ambitions notwithstanding, his political fortunes ebbed in the immediate aftermath of the war with Mexico. He polled a distant third to head the party ticket in the Democratic conventions of 1848 and 1852. He accepted Franklin Pierce’s offer to serve as minister to Great Britain. The appointment proved fortuitous, as it spared him from taking part in the bruising sectional debates of the mid-1850s. In 1854, along with the U.S. ministers to Spain and France, Buchanan authored the Ostend Manifesto, which recommended the acquisition of Cuba either by purchase or force. Although the manifesto was unpopular in the North and never acted upon, it enhanced Buchanan’s standing with southerners, making the Pennsylvanian acceptable to Democrats on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Deeply divided over the issue of slavery, the Democratic Party denied Franklin Pierce the chance to win a second term in 1856, allowing Buchanan, after fending off a challenge from Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, to win the nomination on the seventeenth ballot. Having spent much of his career trying to appeal to northerners and southerners, as president, Buchanan managed to alienate both sections. His one term in office was accompanied by intensifying sectional rancor over the status of slavery in Kansas and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, reaching a climax with the secession crisis immediately following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Believing secession to be illegal, Buchanan nonetheless took the view that he had no constitutional authority to prevent it. At the end of his presidential term in March 1861, happy to be relieved of the burden of the office, he retired to his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Widely criticized for his failure to put down secession, he spent a considerable amount of time defending his administration. He published his memoirs, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, in 1866. He died outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on June 1, 1868.
Haynes, Sam W. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. New York: Pearson Longman. 2006.
Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press. 1962.
Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press. 1973.