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James Buchanan

What Number President was He?


James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States (1857-1861), held office in the lead-up to the American Civil War. He is distinguished as the sole President elected from Pennsylvania and the only one to remain a lifelong bachelor.

Tall and dignified, characterized by his formal demeanor and the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan stands out as the lone President who never entered into marriage.

Guiding a nation rapidly fragmenting, Buchanan struggled to fully grasp the political dynamics of the era. Relying on constitutional principles to bridge the widening divide over slavery, he failed to comprehend that the North wouldn't accept constitutional arguments favoring the South. Moreover, he couldn't foresee the way sectionalism was reshaping political parties: the Democrats were splitting while the Whigs faced dissolution, making way for the emergence of the Republicans.

Born into a prosperous Pennsylvania family in 1791, Buchanan, an alumnus of Dickinson College, excelled as a debater and gained mastery in the field of law.

He secured five terms in the House of Representatives and, following a stint as Minister to Russia, enjoyed a decade-long tenure in the Senate. Serving as Secretary of State under Polk and as Minister to Great Britain under Pierce, his diplomatic experiences abroad contributed to his selection as the Democratic nominee in 1856, having kept him clear of intense domestic conflicts.

As President-elect, Buchanan believed that the crisis could be resolved by maintaining a balanced representation in his appointments, while persuading the populace to respect constitutional law as interpreted by the Supreme Court. He was aware that the Court was deliberating the legality of restricting slavery in territories, and two justices had hinted at their decision to him.

Thus, in his Inaugural Address, Buchanan referred to the territorial dispute as "happily, a matter of but little practical importance," as he anticipated the Supreme Court's swift and definitive resolution of it.

Yet, just two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the Dred Scott decision, asserting that Congress lacked constitutional authority to deprive individuals of their property rights in slaves within the territories. While Southerners rejoiced, the decision ignited outrage in the North.

Buchanan endeavored to quell turmoil in Kansas by advocating for the territory's admission as a slave state. Despite his exertion of Presidential authority for this purpose, he further antagonized Republicans and alienated his own party members. Kansas, however, remained a territory.

When Republicans clinched a majority in the House in 1858, their significant legislation either faced southern vetoes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government ground to a halt.

As sectional tensions escalated in 1860, the Democratic Party splintered into northern and southern factions, each nominating its own Presidential candidate. With the Republicans putting forth Abraham Lincoln, his election was virtually assured, despite his absence from most southern ballots. Rather than embracing a Republican administration, fervent southern secessionists advocated breaking away.

President Buchanan, disheartened and indecisive, denied states the legal right to secede but asserted that the Federal Government had no legal authority to prevent it. He held out hope for compromise, yet secessionist leaders remained uninterested in such resolutions.

Buchanan eventually adopted a more assertive approach. In the face of Cabinet resignations, he appointed northerners and dispatched the Star of the West to provide reinforcements to Fort Sumter. However, by January 9, 1861, the vessel was far removed.

Buchanan then reverted to a stance of inaction, a stance that endured until his departure from office. In March 1861, he retreated to his Pennsylvania residence, Wheatland, where he remained until his passing seven years later. His successor was left with the daunting task of confronting the monumental issue confronting the nation.

James Buchanan

To avoid entangling alliances has been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its wisdom no one will attempt to dispute.

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