Although James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in April 1791 he
came from a rich family. His Irish father James married Elizabeth Speer and was
a successful merchant in Pennsylvania.
James was the second of eleven siblings. His schooling was in
Mercersburg. He was guided by his father’s success story and his mother’s
penchant for education. When 16 years, he entered Dickinson College where he
invariably got involved over disciplinary problems. He graduated with honours
and opted for law. In 1813 he joined the bar and quickly became successful.
When only 23 years old, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House
of Representatives on a Federalist ticket. Without giving up his legal practice
he served in the legislature for 5 years. At about this time he fell in love
with rich Ann Caroline but because of her family’s opposition a
misunderstanding arose and she broke up with him. Later she died and James
promised never to marry again – a promise that he kept.
Buchanan was elected to the Congress from 1821 to 1831. In the
Congress he earned a name as a constitutional lawyer. His party was in the
doldrums but he got attracted to the star of the era – Andrew Jackson. The
hero of the battle of New Orleans was cobbling together a new Democratic party.
Buchanan became its leader in Pennsylvania. Jackson as President sent Buchanan
as envoy to Russia. His skills enabled the two countries to agree to trade
treaty. He returned in 1833 and won his way to the Senate. Tall and
distinguished, he looked every bit a classic 19th century politician.
When Buchanan came back to Washington the slavery issued raised
its ugly head. Buchanan did not like slavery but he did not contribute to the
idea that this idea should be forced on others. It posed a greater threat to the
integration of the nation. He pointed to the constitution to establish the point
that the Southerners had the right to own slaves.
Buchanan was one of the most powerful members of the Senate and he
hoped for the top presidential post in 1844. But the nomination went in favour
of James Knox Polk. The next President was Zachary Taylor running on a Whig
ticket. This made Buchanan return to his home in Pennsylvania. In the next round
he again fought for nomination locking horns with Stephen A Douglas. It was a
tight situation from which the party extricated itself by turning to a
compromise candidate – Franklin Pierce. Once more the White House eluded
In 1856 the 65 year old Buchanan knew that the time had come for
his last bid for the top post. What helped him was the fact that the disastrous
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 made both the President Pierce and his old rival
Stephen Douglas unpopular. The raging issue at that time was slavery. Things
came to such a pass that Buchanan admitted that although he had longed for the
crown for so many years now he was reluctant to wear it because he could see
that war was imminent.
Buchanan appointed moderates to his cabinet to cool the heat. For
the time being he succeeded. The Kansas elections half way through Buchanan’s
term greatly jeopardized his position. With the threat of Civil War he could not
follow a strong aggressive foreign policy.
His last years in Pennsylvania were comfortable but rightly or
wrongly he was blamed for the war. He was termed ‘Judas’ and his
portrait had to be removed to save it from vandals. His niece acted as hostess.
He was very generous and supported many families around him. He retired and
hardly saw anybody but close friends until his death in 1868.