James Buchanan

15th president - 1857-1861

 

Born: 17 April, 1791.

Died: 1 June, 1868.

Party: Democratic.

Religion: Presbyterian.

Age upon taking office: 65.

Height: 6ft.

Married to: n/a.

Children: None.

Nickname: "Old Buck".

Vice-President: John C Breckinridge.

Ran against: John C Frémont; Millard Fillmore.

Pierce's successor is another regular nominee for the title of worst ever president. A wealthy lawyer from Pennsylvania, he was tall, smart, eloquent and decent – but failed entirely to rise to the great political challenges of his time. After 40 unremarkable years in politics (which he may have entered as a distraction from a failed romance), he came to power largely on the basis that, having been out of the country as ambassador to the UK since 1853, he was untainted by the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. Once elected, he was plainly out of his depth. He underestimated the long-term threat posed by the new Republican party, and he failed to understand that constitutional arguments about the rights of states would not close the widening rift over slavery because the Northern states would not accept them.

When the Supreme Court's notorious Dred Scott ruling established that slavery could not be legislated out of existence, even in the newly emerging territories, Buchanan felt confirmed in his view that the controversy was all but settled. ("May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end...?" he had said in his inaugural address, a few days earlier.) He could not have been more wrong.

He tried to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state, but succeeded only in enraging the Republicans and alienating many in his own party. His support for a draft of the Kansas constitution (eventually rejected by Congress) that allowed slavery was further evidence of how out of touch he was.

Further evidence of Buchanan's inadequacy can be found in his lack of response to the financial panic of 1857 (caused by the failure of the Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati); and in the fact that, while scrupulously honest himself, he presided over an administration that was notoriously corrupt.

In 1858, the Republicans won a plurality in the House, and the Federal Government reached a stalemate. By 1860, factional infighting had reached such a level that the Democratic party split, with both northern and southern branches nominating presidential candidates. This made victory for Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans a foregone conclusion – even though hardline southern states were determined to secede from the Union rather than accept a Republican administration.

Lincoln duly won, and, in Buchanan's final months, seven southern states withdrew to form the Confederate States of America. As they began to seize federal property, Buchanan had no idea how to respond. He denied the states' legal right to secede but also held that the Federal Government could not legally prevent them from doing so. He therefore did little beyond hoping for the best, effectively leaving Fort Sumter in Charleston to mercy of the Confederates.

He handed over power in March 1861, and spent the remaining seven years of his life in obscure retirement in Wheatland, his Pennsylvania home.

In his own words

"My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed." (To Abraham Lincoln.)

"I believe [slavery] to be a great political evil and a great moral evil... But, while I entertain these opinions, I know it is an evil at present without a remedy... one of those moral evils from which it is impossible to escape without the introduction of evils infinitely greater."

In others' words

"There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity." Thaddeus Stevens

Minutiae

His head was almost invariably cocked to the left. This was the result of an unusual sight disorder, in which one eye was short-sighted and the other long-sighted.

James Buchanan was the only US president who never married. Harriet Lane, his niece, acted as his First Lady.

Although his failure to marry probably resulted from the heartbreaking failure of a brief engagement (in his twenties, to Anne Coleman), rumour-mongers in Washington were quick to suggest another explanation, referring to Buchanan and his close friend William Rufus King as "Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy".

He enjoyed playing cards and drinking whiskey, but never seemed to get drunk.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence