Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

James Buchanan was the last President born in the eighteenth century, on April 23, 1791. Although he was born in a log cabin, his origins were far from humble. His father, for whom he was named, had emigrated from Ireland a decade before, married Elizabeth Speer, and became a successful merchant in rural Pennsylvania, settling near Mercersberg in the southern part of the state. The Buchanans eventually had eleven children, James being the second of them and the eldest son.

Young James attended school in the Mercersberg area, but his father's business triumphs and his mother's interest in education dictated better opportunities for the boy. At age sixteen, he entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, seventy miles from home. A spirited presence on campus, James managed to avoid two near expulsions from the school over disciplinary matters. After two years, he graduated with honors and then promptly began law studies. In 1813, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and began practicing in Lancaster. Soon after, he answered a call to arms for the War of 1812, but his regiment saw no action. Returning to the Lancaster area, he resumed his law career and displayed a legal talent that enabled him to quickly amass a substantial fortune.

Political Triumph and Personal Tragedy

Soon after the War of 1812, Buchanan—only twenty-three years old—won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party. Though he maintained his law practice, he served in the legislature from 1814 until 1819.

Toward the end of his time in the legislature, Buchanan fell in love with Ann Caroline Coleman. In those days, Ann's father was quite wealthy, his fortune having been built in the Pennsylvania iron trade. The young woman's family opposed the match with Buchanan, however. Some claimed that he was only interested in her money, but Buchanan's legal skills were so great that before he became thirty, he was worth over $250,000—a sizable fortune in 1819. Local gossips then claimed that Buchanan was seeing another woman, and a distraught Ann Coleman sent him a letter breaking off the engagement. A few days later she died. The Coleman family turned its grief and guilt on the young lawyer and forbade him to attend the funeral. The experience severely shook Buchanan; he vowed he would not marry another, and he never became seriously involved with any other woman for the rest of his life, though he carried on many flirtations. He would be the nation's first and only bachelor President.

After Ann Coleman's tragic death, Buchanan sought refuge in his work. He aimed for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and managed to overcome local ill will toward him regarding the Coleman matter to win the 1820 election for the post. He served in Congress from 1821 until 1831.

In Congress, he quickly made a name for himself as a notable constitutional lawyer, serving on the House Judiciary Committee. During this time, Buchanan's Federalist Party was dying, and the young congressman found himself drawn to the biggest political star of the day, Andrew Jackson. The charismatic hero of the Battle of New Orleans had been assembling a formidable political coalition that would evolve into the Democratic Party. Buchanan supported the fledgling movement, quickly becoming its leader in Pennsylvania. The young congressman got on Jackson's bad side in 1824, however, when "Old Hickory" thought that Buchanan was part of the "corrupt bargain" that had cost him the White House. (See Jackson biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.) Despite Jackson's feelings toward him, Buchanan remained a loyal supporter. In 1828, with Buchanan's strong effort, Pennsylvania helped Jackson win the presidential election. Shortly after Jackson's re-election in 1832, the President appointed Buchanan envoy to Russia.

James Buchanan was well suited to the foreign posting. The two nations had been unable to negotiate a trade treaty, and Buchanan's legal skill enabled him to push the agreement through. Returning from St. Petersburg in 1833, he won a U.S. Senate seat. Tall and distinguished in appearance, with graying hair and an odd habit of tilting his head almost sideways, Buchanan looked every bit the part of a nineteenth-century politician.

The Rise of the Slavery Issue

By the time Buchanan returned to Washington as a senator, slavery had become an important issue in American politics. He objected to slavery personally but viewed the abolitionist movement as a group of meddling troublemakers and as a greater threat to the Union than the institution of slavery. He claimed that the Constitution upheld the right of Southerners to own slaves and saw it as America's duty to protect slavery in the South. Throughout his political career, Buchanan remained largely sympathetic to Southern interests on slavery-related issues.

Chasing the Presidency

With his diplomatic experience, Buchanan also became involved with foreign policy in the Senate, eventually chairing the Foreign Relations Committee. By the end of his terms in the Senate, he was one of the most powerful senators in Congress. Buchanan fervently hoped for the White House in 1844, but the Democratic nomination went to James Knox Polk of Tennessee. After his election to the presidency, Polk named Buchanan as his secretary of state. Although Buchanan opposed Polk's demand on England for the farthest northern boundary of Oregon, he prepared the legal brief backing that claim. Buchanan advocated a compromise and worked assiduously and finally successfully to fashion an agreement between President Polk and the British. During the Mexican War, Buchanan's view of how much territory the United States should annex shifted with military fortunes, but he ultimately supported the final peace treaty. The war made heroes of its victorious generals, and one of them, Zachary Taylor, running as a Whig, won the presidential election of 1848.

With Taylor and the Whigs in charge, Buchanan returned home to Pennsylvania. He plotted to gain the 1852 Democratic nomination. Standing in his way was Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a pugnacious and extremely able young politician from Illinois. Despite looking like a character out of Dickens—five feet four in height with a stumpy body topped by a massive bulldog-like head that gave him the nickname the "Little Giant"—Douglas was a superior political talent with tremendous public speaking skills. Buchanan and Douglas fought furiously for the nomination all the way through the convention in Baltimore and, in doing so, doomed each other's cause. Thirty-four ballots resolved nothing; no candidate could amass the required two-thirds majority of the delegates. Finally, the Democrats turned to a compromise candidate, a little-known New Englander who offended no one, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. On the forty-eighth ballot, Pierce wrapped up the nomination, denying Buchanan the White House yet again. For the rest of Douglas's life, Buchanan would despise him.

Like Polk, Pierce sought to include the stately, talented Buchanan in his administration, naming the Pennsylvanian to the critical post of minister to England. It would prove to be a lucky break for Buchanan, keeping him in politics while giving him distance from the troubled Pierce administration. Most importantly, the overseas post enabled Buchanan to be unblemished by the political bloodshed that resulted from the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Minister Buchanan was not completely free of controversy, however. His attempt to concoct a plan to buy or conquer Cuba in order to expand lands suitable for plantation agriculture using slaves failed when the Ostend Manifesto was made public. His part in the affair enraged antislavery forces, who felt that he wanted to perpetuate slavery and was willing to use force against Spain to do so. (See Pierce biography, Foreign Affairs section, for details.) Proslavery Southerners, however, viewed Buchanan in a favorable political light—as one of their own. Now popularly known as "Old Buck," the sixty-five-year-old Buchanan knew that 1856 would be his last chance at the presidential prize.