James Buchanan.



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James Buchanan.


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James Buchanan.

James Buchanan.


James Buchanan (1791-1868), 15th president of the United States (1857-1861). He was a prominent figure in American political life for nearly half a century, holding
some of the nation's highest offices. As president he played a role in the split that developed in his own Democratic Party. The split allowed the election of Republican
Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.
Buchanan tried to conciliate the Southern states to keep them from seceding from the federal Union over the issue of slavery. He failed, and his term in office was
followed by the Civil War between the North and the South. He has been criticized ever since for not taking a more active stand against secession. However, although
Buchanan was not a heroic figure, his policy of compromise was not unreasonable. Most presidents before him had taken the same approach, and even his decisive
successor, Lincoln, tried conciliation as long as he could. Buchanan hoped that his policy would at least prevent the border states--the northern tier of slave
states--from seceding. It is perhaps to his credit that, indeed, the states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri and the western part of Virginia (which split off
as the state of West Virginia) did not join the Southern cause.



Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791, near Mercersburg in south-central Pennsylvania. He was the son of James Buchanan, a well-to-do businessman, and Elizabeth
Speer Buchanan. He attended school in Mercersburg, and in 1807 he entered Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He graduated two years later and began the
study of law. In 1812 Buchanan was admitted to practice. Before long, he was a prosperous lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
During this period, Buchanan fell in love and became engaged to be married. However, his fiancee, Ann Coleman, died suddenly after breaking off the engagement, and
he remained a bachelor all his life.

A State and Federal Legislator
Buchanan held his first public office at the age of 23, when he was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. He also served as a volunteer in the defense of
Baltimore, Maryland, against the British during the War of 1812.
In 1818 Buchanan ran as a Federalist Party candidate for U.S. congressman. He was defeated in his first attempt, but two years later he won the election. When the
Federalist Party disintegrated in the 1820s, Buchanan became a supporter of General Andrew Jackson and a leader in the political faction that became the Democratic
Party. Relations between the two men became strained, however, during the election of 1824. Jackson received the most popular votes in the presidential election that
year, but, because no candidate got a majority, the election was decided by the House of Representatives. House supporters of candidate Henry Clay shifted their votes
to John Quincy Adams, which gave Adams enough votes to defeat Jackson. Later, Jackson charged that Clay had entered into a "corrupt bargain" with Adams and that
Buchanan had been involved in it.


Diplomat to Russia

Buchanan was such an efficient organizer of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania that the grievance against him was soon forgotten. After ten years in the House of
Representatives, Buchanan planned to retire from politics, but Jackson, who had been elected president in 1828, persuaded him to accept the post of U.S. diplomatic
representative to Russia in 1831. Buchanan served at Saint Petersburg (then the Russian capital) from 1832 to 1833. During that time he negotiated a valuable
commercial treaty with Russia.


United States Senator

After returning to the United States in 1833, Buchanan was elected to the U.S. Senate (the upper chamber of the Congress of the United States) by the Pennsylvania
legislature. He told the legislators that it was "the only public position I desire to occupy." He became a leading spokesman for the Democratic Party in the Senate and
consistently supported the policies of Jackson and, later, of President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren offered him an appointment as U.S. attorney general in 1839, but
Buchanan refused. Instead he remained in the Senate where, after 1841, he opposed the Whig Party administrations of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.
At this time, Buchanan took his stand on slavery, the most controversial issue of the day. He maintained that slavery was morally wrong, but he also believed that the
federal government had an obligation to protect it in the Southern states where it already existed. In this view he differed from the abolitionists, who demanded an end
to slavery and whom he despised as fanatics. Buchanan tolerated the existence of slavery on the grounds that the Constitution of the United States permitted it.
Therefore, he argued, it was the duty of the federal government to protect the institution of slavery wherever it existed in the country.


Secretary of State

In the election year of 1844, Buchanan hoped to receive the Democratic nomination for president. He was disappointed when James Knox Polk was nominated instead,
but he supported Polk in his successful campaign. After taking office, Polk appointed Buchanan as secretary of state. Buchanan had been reelected to the Senate, but
he resigned to accept the new post in 1845. Buchanan made significant contributions to U.S. foreign affairs, particularly with regard to two major problems facing the
country: the Oregon boundary claim and the dispute with Mexico over Texas.


Oregon Boundary Claim

An agreement between the United States and Britain, the Convention of 1818, had provided for joint occupation of the Oregon country. Within a few years, however,
many Americans began to demand that the U.S. government claim all of the territory north to the latitude of 54º40', even if it meant war with Britain. One of Polk's
most effective campaign slogans had been "54-40 or fight!" Buchanan showed diplomatic skill in negotiating a compromise treaty that gave the United States most of
the territory south of 49º north latitude.


Texas Question

In the dispute with Mexico, Buchanan carried out the president's orders that the U.S. envoy to Mexico take a firm stand. Buchanan wrote the instructions for the envoy,

John Slidell. Slidell was instructed to insist that Mexico recognize the annexation of its former province, Texas, and that it pay certain long-standing claims of United
States citizens. As payment for the claims, Slidell was told to press for the Mexican territory lying between Texas and the Pacific Ocean. ...

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