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Who is James Buchanan?

The White House, home of the president of the United States.
When Lincoln followed Buchanan as the 16th president, several more southern states seceded.
James Buchanan's sympathies were pro-slavery when he was elected President.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2014
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When James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the US died in 1868, he was reported to say the day before his death that history would one day vindicate him. So far, few historians have stepped up to this challenge because of Buchanan’s failures in office. In fact, he is considered to be one of the worst presidents to serve in office, and few of his decisions are regarded as anything but weak or unintelligent. During his time in office from 1857-1861, state secession began in earnest, and Buchanan did little to try and stop it.

James Buchanan is what people of his time called a “doughface,” a northerner, born in Pennsylvania in 1791, with strong Southern leanings. He supported slavery and states rights and refused to act when several Southern states seceded. He claimed that the states had no legal right to do so, but on the other hand, the Federal government had no legal right to stop states leaving the Union. His inaction would require the cleanup job of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction in order to reunify the US states.

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Prior to serving as President, James Buchanan held numerous political offices. As a member of the Federalist Party, he was first elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he served from 1814-1820. He served later as chairman of the US House Committee on the Judiciary, and from 1832-1834 was appointed Minister to Russia. By then the Federalist Party had few remaining members, and James Buchanan became a Democrat. He served as a Democratic US Senator from 1834-45, and then as Secretary of State to President Polk from 1845-1849.

When elected President, it was clear that Buchanan’s sympathies were pro-slavery. He characterized the treatment of slaves as kind and humane, viewing the owning of slaves as a philanthropic gesture. Two years into his term, Republicans won house and senate majority and deadlocked virtually every major decision Buchanan tried to make. He responded by vetoing all bills Republicans tried to pass.

This would have been a bad enough presidential record, but became more so when James Buchanan showed no clear direction in acting against state secession. Seven states left the Union prior to Buchanan leaving office, and although Buchanan did some backpedaling to fill his cabinet with nationalists, his sympathies perhaps created a climate in which states felt they could leave. He also came down on the side of allowing territories to have slaves, feeling the question of whether slavery should be allowed in territories shouldn’t be addressed until the territory applied for state status.

President James Buchanan served one term in office, and seemed quite relieved to leave the Presidency and retire to his estate, Wheatland. He spent the remainder of his life managing his estate, and published his memoirs Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion. He was the first president to publish memoirs and also the first unmarried president. He never married and unproven suppositions exist regarding his close personal friendship with Senator William Rufus King. Buchanan hoped vainly, on the day before his death, that history would prove his greatness as president. Given his actions and pro-slavery stance, this is unlikely to occur ever, and historians, regardless of political leanings view Buchanan as a disastrous choice to lead the US.

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