Introduction and Early Life
James Buchanan Jr. is often considered the worst president in American history and usually ranks at the dead bottom of polls to rank the U.S. presidents. It is easy to understand why. At the same time, the situation Buchanan was in would be dire for any president no matter his ability. By the time he would leave office, (no president since Andrew Jackson had won two terms) the United States had broken into civil war and Buchanan's Democratic Party was falling apart. Buchanan ended that had been decades of Democratic dominance in the White House. One of the most politically successful men in the history of the United States would be one of the most unsuccessful at the highest office in the nation.
James Buchanan, like several American presidents of early history, was born in a log cabin to businessman and farmer James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer. Originally from Cove Gap in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, the Buchanans moved to Mercersburg where their home would later become the James Buchanan Hotel. The younger Buchanan attended village academy (later Old Stone Academy) and later Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1809 and was admitted to the bar in 1812. A Federalist, Buchanan was opposed to the War of 1812, but eventually fought in it after the British invaded Maryland. This makes Buchanan the only man to become president with military experience, but did not become an officer. In 1819, suspicions rose that Buchanan was having an affair with another woman and was cheating on his fiancee. This was false, but before the truth came out, Buchanan's fiancee, Anna Coleman, died (likely suicide). Other suspicions included Buchanan being a homosexual. The overwhelmed Buchanan never married. He entered Congress as a Federalist, but the party fell apart so he joined the Democrats.
One of Buchanan’s major political positions was ambassador to Britain from 1853 to 1856. This position came to him after losing the 1852 Democratic nomination race for Franklin Pierce. When elected, Pierce appointed Buchanan to be the British ambassador. During that time, he helped draft the Ostend Manifesto. The memorandum suggested purchasing the Spanish colony of Cuba. If the Spanish, who were dealing with a national bankruptcy, refused then the final part of the Manifesto suggested taking the island militarily. This last part was against what Buchanan suggested, but the work of others. Nevertheless, it was still published and was huge blunder that hurt the Pierce administration and Manifest Destiny. By 1856 though, Buchanan had rebuilt himself as an acceptable Democratic candidate.
Trial of the Century
Hurt by the debacle in Kansas, the Democrats walked into their 1856 convention in Cincinnati, Ohio gravely wounded. Buchanan was recognized as the alternative to President Pierce, but neither candidate could count on a majority of delegates immediately as smaller candidates including Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Lewis Cass held delegations loyal to themselves. By the time of the fourteenth ballot, Pierce’s support was withering away, so he decided to have his remaining delegates back Senator Stephen A. Douglas in an attempt to stop the nomination of Buchanan. However, after the next few ballots it was clear to Douglas that the majority supported Buchanan. Buchanan won on the seventeenth ballot. The new Republican Party nominated former Senator John C. Fremont of California on the eleventh ballot. With little satisfaction in both parties, a new third party entered the race. The American Party, a party of die-hard Whigs, nominated former President Millard Fillmore. In the end, Buchanan won with 174 electoral votes and 45.3 percent of the popular vote. Fremont won 114 electoral votes and 33.1 percent of the popular vote. Fillmore, who was supported by people that would have supported Fremont, won 8 electoral votes (all from Maryland) and 21.6 percent of the popular vote. Buchanan had won (largely because he won Pennsylvania and had some northern appeal), but in the popular vote he lacked a majority and took a low percentage.
Almost immediately after Buchanan's election, the Supreme Court made a very controversial decision in the case of Dred Scott. Scott was a slave who was taken up to the northern free state of Illinois and territory of Wisconsin by his owner. When returning to his home state of Missouri, Scott started arguing with his owner that he was free because he was taken north of the Missouri Compromise line into free states. A Missouri circuit court granted Dred Scott and his wife their freedom back in 1850. However, the Missouri Supreme Court argued in favor of the owner (who was dead) two years later. Scott now appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Just a few days before the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford, Buchanan made his inaugural address where he declared that the court was about to decide “at what point of time” the people of a territory could decide for or against slavery. No matter what decision came, Buchanan hoped it would finally put an end to the rising tension of the slavery debate. Abolitionists had actually guided this case to the Supreme Court as a kind of “test case”. There was a problem with their thinking. Chief Justice Roger Taney was a southerner as were four other associate justices. They saw the case as an opportunity to end the debate in their favor. On March 6 the court ruled 7-2 against Scott.
Never has a such a serious judicial blunder been made. A major precedent had actually been established before American independence in Somersett v. Stewart. The 1772 decision had been made by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in favor of the slave James Somersett who had escaped from his owner in England. When recaptured, he was put in chains aboard a ship that would sail to the colony of Jamaica. Before the ship left, Somersett was brought before the Court of King’s Bench in the name of habeas corpus. Since there was actually no slave law in England, Somersett was released since no statute existed. This case influenced legal arguments in the United States and had grown within southern jurisprudence. The Somersett case was a principle for the Missouri circuit court’s decision to free Dred Scott and his wife. Politically, Dred Scott v. Sanford was an outright disaster. Rather than lower tension, as Buchanan and the Supreme Court hoped, people on both sides flamed at this decision and the worst passions of the pro-slavery and anti-slavery debate were brought out. Northerners were especially angry that Taney, who acknowledged that he had no jurisdiction in the case, wrote the controversial majority statement that said slaves were not free even when in a free territory and thus the Missouri Compromise was illegal. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act had set aside the late Henry Clay’s signature compromise three years earlier, it was the symbolism in Taney’s statement that hit most people.
The Country Divides
“I believe this government cannot endure, half slave and half free.” - Abraham Lincoln, 1858 debate with Stephen A. Douglas
From there on, Buchanan’s presidency went in a downward spiral. His support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made him appear to be a traitor to the north. While federal troops were now in Kansas leading to an end of the violence, many people on both sides were refusing to cooperate with them. In the spring of 1857, pro-slavery settlers tried to force a state constitution that endorsed slavery in the town of Lecompton. In the Senate, Douglas proposed a state referendum to let popular sovereignty decide slavery in Kansas. The Lecompton Constitution was overwhelmingly rejected in the referendum by a vote of 10,226 to 138. After all, there were only 200 slaves in all of Kansas anyway. The pro-slavery constitution was also rejected in the House of Representatives. While the referendum may have avoided an earlier civil war, the Democratic Party was now torn apart. With the price of slaves rising and an economic panic hitting the nation in 1857 as a result of state banks overextending their credit, southern Democrats argued that the 1807 law banning the slave trade should be repealed. This was blocked, but there was some smuggling of slaves in West Africa to the southern states.
Not forgetting about his controversial work as an ambassador, Buchanan attempted to steer the country into buying Cuba again. Spain was asking for a high $150 million and the Republicans successfully blocked the plan. The 1858 midterms brought more Republicans into Congress. The moderate Democrat Douglas was in danger in Illinois, but won the Senate election against the rising Republican star Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln gained national attention during the Illinois election for his debates with Douglas, clearly showing that the nation wanted an alternative. While Lincoln enjoyed popular outlook in the north, Buchanan’s popularity continued to rapidly plummet. Southerners continued to press the point of allowing the slave trade in the Vicksburg Commercial Convention of 1859. At the convention, a motion was approved resolving that “all laws, state or federal, prohibiting the African slave trade, ought to be repealed.” In October 1859, radical abolitionist activist John Brown led a group of men to incite a slave rebellion in Harpers Ferry, Virginia by taking control of a federal armory. The revolt failed and Brown was executed by U.S. Marines, but southerners continued to grow worried. Was John Brown the face of the abolitionist north?
Slavery and states’ rights were now the most important issues in the presidential election of 1860. Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Senator Douglas and the Republicans nominated Lincoln. In this national rematch, Lincoln won the presidency and it would only be a matter of months before the south lost their ally in the President’s Mansion. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union on December 20, 1860. Buchanan did not do anything to stop secession. With the union falling apart, Democratic Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed a last-ditch compromise to save the United States, but Republicans found it unacceptable. In a matter of weeks, six more states left the union and eight more states became border states. On February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America was born and it elected Jefferson Davis as their president. By then, most of Buchanan's Cabinet had resigned and joined them. One month later his presidency ended. Had Buchanan taken a more forceful approach, the story could have been much different. On his last day in office he told Lincoln in the carriage ride to the President’s Mansion during the inauguration, "If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are truly a happy man."
Legacy and Later Life
Poor James Buchanan may always be remembered as the worst president in American history. He tried to do what he thought was right, but his presidency was a disaster. Blamed by his critics for starting the Civil War, Buchanan claimed that it was because Lincoln was elected that secession began. He supported the north in the Civil War, but limited his justification to preserving the union. Most of Buchanan’s retirement was spent defending his lack of action to prevent the Civil War. He received angry letters and images were produced of Buchanan with ink red eyes and the word “TRAITOR” on his forehead.
As the Civil War went on, the Senate even proposed a resolution of condemnation against him, which failed. Newspapers made claims that he was secretly working with the Confederacy. Buchanan went further on the defensive by writing his memoirs, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, that were published in 1866. Cabinet members of his administration, five of which continued to serve under Lincoln, refused to defend their former boss. On June 1, 1868, James Buchanan died of respiratory failure at the age of 77.