James Buchanan (1791-68)

Figure 1.--Buchanan purchased an estate in rural Lancaster County for $9,000 (1848). He shortened the original name of "The Wheatlands" to Wheatland, and lived there both before and and after his term as president. Here an artist has added some peole which gives us an idea of fashions, we think in the 1850s.

James Buchanan was the 15th president of the United States. He groped for compromise as the South advanced toward secession. Tall, stately, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan was the only President who never married. Presiding over a rapidly dividing Nation, Buchanan grasped inadequately the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor did he appreciate how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split; the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans. Buchanan is judged by many historians as the worse presudent in American history. Because of his failed policies and refusal to even prepare for military action, the United States came perioously close to breaking up. The consequences of this to the 20th century are unimmaginable.


James' father was James Buchanan, Sr. He emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland (1783). Donegal is in Ulster (northern Ireland), but unlike the rest of Ulster had a more mixed Catholic-Protestant population. Most Irish emigrants at the time were Protestants. The Catholic Irish did not begin emigrating to Protestant North American until the desperate days of the Potato Famine (1840s). James' father emigrated just as American became independent. James Sr. became a successful merchant and farmer. He married Elizabeth Speer from Lancaster County (1788). She was a Well-read intelligent woman from a well-to-do family.


James was one in a longline of log-cabin presidents. This would become a point of pride among these presidents and commonly featured in their electioneering. It sharply contrasted with British political figures who commonly in the 19th century came from well-established families. James was born in a log cabin on a farm near Cove Gap, Pennsylvania (1791). His early childhood was spent at the family's frontier trading post in nearby Stony Batter, Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvia at the time was part of the western frontier. James Sr. suceeded as a farmer and merchant and moved the family 5 miles to the then small town of Mercersburg. James as the family prospered grew up in a relatively comfortable environment in contrast to his much younger successor. He was a healthy, active boy. James was the second of eleven children. He was raised with four sisters and three brothers. We have not yet collected any additional information on his childhood or the clothes he wore as a boy.


James' mother played an important role in her son's education. He was also privately tutored. His first school was the Old Stone Academy. He entered Dickinson College (1807) and graduated (q809). He studied law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar (1812). He was a gifted as a debater and a very knowledgeable legal scholar. Again this is in sharp contrast to his successor, the much younger Abraham Lincoln, another log-cabin president, who had virtualy no formal education.

War of 1812

Buchanan after finishing his education served briefly in the War of 1812.

Engagement (1819)

Buchanan asked Ann Coleman to marry him (1819). She was attracted to Buchanan and wanted to marry. Her family did not, however, approve of the marriage. And a series of incidents involving Buchanan and the family led Coleman to break off the engagement. What followed is a historical mystery. Family support was very important at the time. A week after breaking off the engagement, Ann unexpectedly died. The circumstances are shrouded in mystery. As she was a healthy young woman, many historians believe that she committed suiside. This is something the family would have hushed up. Buchanan never attempted marriage again. He is the only president to remain a life-long bachelor.

Political Career

Buchanan proved an adroit politician. He not only served in Congress, but held important administrative posts. He ran for Congress and was elected five times to the House of Representatives. He then accepted appointed as American ambassador to Russia. Whe he returned home he ran for an was elected to the Senate andc was reelected after his first term. President Polk appointed him Secretary of State.

Ambasador to Great Britain

President Pierce wanted a second term. One way of ensuring this was eliminating potential sompetitors. One of those was James Buchanan. Buchanan was nominated by the importabnt Pennsylvania delegation at the 1852 convention. And though he did not win, he presented a formidable challenge to President Pierce. Thus Pierce decided to remove him from active politics by nominating him to the prestigious post viof ambassador to Great Britain (53). Pierce calculated that safely enconsanded accross the Atlantic that Buchanan could not effectively mount a political challenge. At the time without even Trans-Atlantic cables, America and Europe were isolated to a significant degree that is difficult to imagine today. Buchanan was a strong believer in American expansion. He helped draft the Ostend Manifesto, an indication that the United States wabnted Cuba, despite Spainish plans. Problems developed with Britain over American adventurism in Central America, threatening a possible naval war. The outbreak of the dreadful Crimean War so affected British public opinion that there was little support for a war with America. Buchanan had hoped to have some success in shifting British policy to be more acceptive of American expansionism. Frustrated, he wrote Pierce and requested to be creplaced. Ironically being removed from American politics when the acrimonious debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act occurred, proved to be a great advantage to Bucanan. Pierce's support fot\r the Act essentially made his renomination impossible. Buchanan believed that both secession and federal interference with slavery in the states was unconstitutional. This and the fact he was untained by the Kansas-Nebraska made him the perfect compromise candidate. The Abolitionist Movement was making considerable progress in generating anti-slavery sentiment in the north. Even so, most Americans wanted to preserve the Union even if it meant the continuation of slavery.

Election of 1856

The Compromise of 1850 was clearly beginning to fall apart by the campign of 1856. The popularity of Taylor (1848) and the unpopularity of Scott (1852) had desguised the increasingly sectional divide in American politics. The escalating violence in Kansas underscored the danger to the nation inherent in the slavery issue. The two established parties were proving incapable of addressing the issue. The Whigs had unraveled leading to the formation of a new party completely opposed to the expansion of slavery. The Democrats remained together only by pandering to Southern slave interests. President Pierce failed to garner enthusiam for his renomination. James Buchanan had been a leading contender for the nomination in 1852 and emerged as the front runner at the Cincinnati Democratic convention (June 1856). Like Pierce, his lack of involvement in the heated issues, especially slavery, was a major asset. It took 17 ballots, but Buchanan was nominated unanimously. The Democratic platform supported the Compromise of 1850, opposed any Federal limitations interference in slavery, and came out for the transcontinental railroad. The new Republican Party emerged as a union of anti-slavery Whigs and Free Soil Democrats. It was a sectional party with no support in the South and very little in the Border States. The Republicans nominated John Fremont who made a name for himself in California during the Mexican War. The Republicans were initially a single-issue party. They were opposed to the expansion of slavery. They sharply criticised President Pierce for not acting forcefully to stop the violence in Kansas. The Know-Nothing Party emerged as another single issue party. They were opposed to immigration and Catholocism. (Irish immigrants in the 1840s had substantially expanded the Cathoic population in America.) The Republicans campaigned on the slogan party in the candidate was "Free Speech, Free Press, Free soil, Free Men, Fremont and Victory!" The Democrats warned that the South would not accept a Republican victory and would secede. They also incorrectly charged that Fremont was Catholic. The South voted in a bloc for Buchanan who also carried most of the border states as well as northern states like Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It is unclear to what extent the vote was a refeendum on slavery in the north or northern concern over Southern scecession. Buchanan won with 174 electoral votes. Fremont ammased 174 votes, a respectanle showing for a new party. Former President Filmore only carried Maryland with 8 electoral votes, but over 20 percent of the popular vote.


President Buchanan when he assumed office thought the growing sectional rift was still manageable. He conceived a policy of maintaining a sectional balance in government appointments and using a lawyerly effort to use constitutional law to prevent a rift. The Supreme Court at the time of Buchanan's election was considering a case which would decide the constitutionality of thevmost incendiary issue--restricting slavery in the territories. Two of the justices had spoke to President-elect Buchanan as to the forth coming Court decession. Buchanan at his Inaugural thus described the territorial question as "happily, a matter of but little practical importance" since the Supreme Court would settle it "speedily and finally." The Court presided over by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney did precisely that 2 days later. The Court found in the Dread Scott decision that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights in the territories. Slaves were considered as property and thus Congress could not regulate slavery in the territories. Rather than settling the issue, the Court by invalidated the Compromise of 1850 threw the devisive issue os slavery in the territories wide open. The South was overjoyed with the decession. The North was appaulled. Fighting was intensifying in Kansas. Buchanan's answer was to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state. This proved difficult as there were two territoal governments claiming authority. Republican and northern Democrats in Congress blocked Buchanan's efforts. The Republicans gained ground in the 1858 Congressional elections, obtaining a plurality in the House of Representatives. Southern influence in the Senate and Presidential vetos brought gridlock to the Federal Government. What Nuchanan had not expected was that the sectional discord broke the Democratic Party in two. Each region of the Party elected a separate candidate. his destroyed the last remaining tie binding North and South together. Split like this, the Party could not hope to defeat the rising Republican Party in the 1860 presidential election. Southern radicals began pushing for secession in state legislatures. President Buchanan's policy of constitutional law proved a complete failure. His reaction to threats of secession was inaction. He rejected the legal right of states to secede from the Union, but was not prepared to use the power of the Federal Government to forcibly hold the states in the Union. He vainly hoped for compromise, but Southern leaders were no longer willing to compromise. Many were now committed to secession. The growing sectional crisis was breiefly releaved by the visit of a Japanese delegation to Washington led by samurai. This completed rhe opening to Japan begun by President Filmore and Commodore Perry. The Japanese created a brief sensation in Washington and would soon embasrk on their own civil war. In the final months of his presidency, Buchanan began to take a stronger position to the Southern secessionists. When Southerners resigned their cabinet posts to return south, Buchanan appointed northeners to replace them. He also decided to keep Federal troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and dispatched the Star of the West to reinforce the garrison. The ship was fired on by South Carolina militias positions and prevented from reaching the Fort (January 9, 1861). This was Buchanan's only real effort to resist secession. For 3 months he did next to nothing, and most disasterously, made no effort to prepare militarily before turning the presidency over to Abraham Lincoln (March 1861).

Civil War

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. It has been extensively studied in American history, but except for military scholars little noted outside the United States. The Civil War, however, had profound consequences for world history that were not immediately apparent in 1865. The losses and disruption of the war was staggering. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war America has fought--including World War II. This was in part because military tactics had not yet adjusted to the increasing leathality of weaponry. The South was devestated and the economic and social impacts were felt well into the 20th century. The industrial expansion of the north, however, was strongly promoted by the War. We do not know, however, of a major fashion change associated with the war. Military styled outfits such as Zouave outfits were popular, but lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. In a general way it also divides the period when long pants were common to the later era when knee pants grew in importance.


Buchann is arguably the worst president in American history. It cannot be said that he did not attempt to preserve the Union. He did, but it failed. It can be said that he was not prepared to preserve the Union through civil war. Most historians see Buchanan as vascilating and indesive. This is perhaps not the best description. Buchanan was reasonably consistent in his policies. He sought to hold the Union togethet by placating the slave holding South and in his final months in office was not going to use force to hold the seceeeding states in the Union. Some historians have stressed his efforts to prevent both secession and civil war. But political readers are not judged by their sanctity, but by their successes and failure. The indesoutable historical fact is that no other American president presented his successor with a more daunting challenge than Buchanan. Because of his failed policies and even more his refusal to even prepare for military action, the United States came periously close to breaking up. The consequences of this to the 20th century are unimmaginable. There were many far less capable presidents than Buchanan, there were none that more disasterously failed a presidents.

Final Years

Buchanan left Washington and returned to his Pennsylvania home--Wheatland. He played no further role in public policy. He published his memoirs after the Civil war (1866). The book is defensive and apologetic in tone, emphasizing his desire to avoid conflict. He does not address what the consequences would have been of hos policy of not usoing force to preserve the Union. The country by this time had passed Buchanan by having gone through the greatest crisis of the Reoublic. Few copies sold. He died with little public notice (1868).

Personal Life

Buchanan was the only American president never to marry. He had no children. He did, however, lead an active social life. He was certainly a good host. When England's Prince of Wales came to visit in the fall of 1860, so many guests came with him, it's said the President slept in the hallway!

First Lady: Harriet Lane (1830-1903)

Unique among First Ladies, Harriet Lane acted as hostess for the only President who never married: James Buchanan, her favorite uncle and her guardian after she was orphaned at the age of eleven. And of all the ladies of the White House, few achieved such great success in deeply troubled times as this polished young woman in her twenties.

In the rich farming country of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, her family had prospered as merchants. Her uncle supervised her sound education in private school, completed by two years at the Visitation Convent in Georgetown. By this time, "Nunc" was Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had promised, "in the best manner." In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty.

In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light hair almost golden. In manner she enlivened social gatherings with a captivating mixture of spontaneity and poise. After the sadness of the Pierce administration, the capital eagerly welcomed its new "Democratic Queen" in 1857. Harriet Lane filled the White House with gaiety and flowers, and guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity.

As sectional tensions increased, she worked out seating arrangements for her weekly formal dinner parties with special care, to give dignitaries their proper precedence and still keep political foes apart. Her tact did not falter, but her task became impossible--as did her uncle's. Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office and thankfully returned with his niece to his spacious country home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous beaux, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome." Buchanan often warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions," and she waited until she was almost 36 to marry. She chose, with her uncle's approval, Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker. Within the next 18 years she faced one sorrow after another: the loss of her uncle, her two fine young sons, and her husband.

Thereafter she decided to live in Washington, among friends made during years of happiness. She had acquired a sizable art collection, largely of European works, which she bequeathed to the government. Accepted after her death in 1903, it inspired an official of the Smithsonian Institution to call her "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts." In addition, she had dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It became an outstanding pediatric facility, and its national reputation is a fitting memorial to the young lady who presided at the White House with such dignity and charm. The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children today.

Lane Children

Hariet Lane married Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker after her White House years (1863). She had two boys, both of whom died young.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 5:00 AM 9/26/2016