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


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
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
UK Border Control
Arts and Entertainment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Office Administrator - Full or Part Time

£14600 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 2003 the company...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Content Marketing Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing, Google certi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn