James Buchanan: The 15th President (1857-1861)

Though he was a very respected diplomat and politician with lots of experience, James Buchanan was one of the worst presidents the United States has ever had. He served as president during the four years before the American Civil War, during which time the Southern states wanted to secede — or separate themselves — from the rest of the country. Buchanan did not want this to happen, but he also did nothing to try to stop it. Why? He said the national government had no legal power to stop the states.



BIRTH: April 23, 1791; Cove Gap, PA

DEATH: June 1, 1868; Lancaster, PA



VICE PRESIDENT: John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (1857–1861)

Early Days

Buchanan was born in a log cabin outside of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father was an emigrant from Ireland who became a prosperous merchant and farmer. The younger Buchanan went through a wild phase where at one point he got himself kicked out of nearby Dickinson College. Apparently he was so sorry about the incident that he was able to convince the school to let him back in, and he graduated with top honors in 1807. He became a lawyer in 1812.

Number One

Who is number one in the American government? Why, the president of course! See if you can finish these words that all start with the letters P-R-E-S. Use the clues to help choose from the word endings scattered around the page.

HINT: Each ending is used just once.



James Buchanan fell in love and became engaged to a girl named Anne Coleman in 1819. At one point the couple argued, and Anne broke off the engagement. While away visiting relatives, she died suddenly, apparently of suicide. Buchanan was devastated. He swore he would never marry, and he never did. He was our only bachelor president. His niece (an orphan Buchanan raised from childhood) performed the duties of the first lady during his administration.

Professional Career Before Becoming President

Like so many presidents before and after him, Buchanan was a career politician who spent years in public service before he actually became president. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1815. After a year in the legislature, he returned to practicing law.

In 1821 Buchanan began a ten-year term as a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress. He followed that up by serving as U.S. minister to Russia (1832–1833), and then was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania (1834–1845). In 1845 President James K. Polk appointed Buchanan to be his secretary of state (a largely empty job, since Polk did most of the work a secretary of state would usually do). Buchanan ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in both 1848 and 1852, losing first to Lewis Cass and then to Franklin Pierce. He served Pierce as minister to Great Britain (1853–1856), then returned home in time to win the Democratic nomination in 1856. Buchanan took office in March of 1857.

Buchanan's Presidency

There was a lot of unrest in the United States while Buchanan was president. In the territory of Kansas, people who were for and against slavery fought for control of the state. Buchanan attempted to stop the violence, but he didn't go far enough because he was afraid of using federal troops in a local squabble.

To make matters worse, the Panic of 1857 led to a long economic depression that didn't help the growing divide between Northern and Southern states over the question of slavery. Southern states began to secede from the Union during the last four months of the Buchanan administration. Buchanan did not try to keep these states in the Union. Civil war was now on the horizon.

Retirement and Death

Buchanan wrote Lincoln a note on the morning of Lincoln's inauguration that read in part: “My dear sir, If you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a happy man indeed.” After Lincoln's inauguration, Buchanan retired to his estate outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lived there quietly for seven years, and then died of pneumonia in 1868.

  1. Home
  2. Kids' Presidents
  3. Slavery and the Civil War (1850-1865)
  4. James Buchanan: The 15th President (1857-1861)
Visit other About.com sites: