James Buchanan

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Buchanan, James,

1791–1868, 15th President of the United States (1857–61), b. near Mercersburg, Pa., grad. Dickinson College, 1809.

Early Career

Buchanan studied law at Lancaster, Pa., and in practice there gained a considerable reputation for his wide learning and brilliant oratory. Thus prepared, he went into state politics, then entered the national scene as Representative (1821–31), and was later minister to Russia (1832–33) and Senator (1834–45). A Federalist early in his career, he was later a conservative mainstay of the Democratic party.

He served (1845–49) as Secretary of State under President Polk and, although Polk exercised a strong personal hand in foreign affairs, Buchanan ably seconded his efforts. The quarrel with Great Britain over Oregon was settled peacefully. That with Mexico, which followed the annexation of Texas and the failure of the mission of John SlidellSlidell, John
, 1793–1871, American political leader and diplomat, b. New York City. He became a prominent lawyer and political figure in New Orleans and served as a Democrat in Congress (1843–45). In 1845, Slidell was appointed special U.S.
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, led to the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe HidalgoGuadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of,
1848, peace treaty between the United States and Mexico that ended the Mexican War. Negotiations were carried on for the United States by Nicholas P. Trist. The treaty was signed on Feb.
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Under President Pierce, Buchanan served (1853–56) as minister to Great Britain. He collaborated with Pierre SouléSoulé, Pierre
, 1801–70, American political leader and diplomat, b. Castillon, France. A lawyer, he was imprisoned for republican activities against the conservative Bourbons, but he escaped and fled (1825) to the United States.
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, minister to Spain, and John Y. MasonMason, John Young,
1799–1859, American statesman, b. Greensville co., Va. He studied law under Tapping Reeve at Litchfield, Conn., and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1819.
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, minister to France, in drawing up the Ostend ManifestoOstend Manifesto,
document drawn up in Oct., 1854, at Ostend, Belgium, by James Buchanan, American minister to Great Britain, John Y. Mason, minister to France, and Pierre Soulé, minister to Spain. William L.
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 (1854), which was promptly repudiated by the U.S. Dept. of State. His open advocacy of purchasing Cuba (which would presumably have come into the Union as a slaveholding state) won him the hatred of the abolitionists, whom he in turn despised as impractical troublemakers.


Buchanan was nominated as a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1856, with John C. BreckinridgeBreckinridge, John Cabell,
1821–75, Vice President of the United States (1857–61) and Confederate general, b. Lexington, Ky. A lawyer, Breckinridge served in the Kentucky legislature (1849–51) and in the House of Representatives (1851–55).
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 as his running mate, and he won the election over John C. FrémontFrémont, John Charles,
1813–90, American explorer, soldier, and political leader, b. Savannah, Ga. He taught mathematics to U.S. naval cadets, then became an assistant on a surveying expedition (1838–39) between the upper Mississippi River and the Missouri.
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, the candidate of the newly formed Republican party, and Millard Fillmore, candidate of the WhigWhig,
English political party. The name, originally a term of abuse first used for Scottish Presbyterians in the 17th cent., seems to have been a shortened form of whiggamor [cattle driver]. It was applied (c.
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 and Know-NothingKnow-Nothing movement,
in U.S. history. The increasing rate of immigration in the 1840s encouraged nativism. In Eastern cities where Roman Catholic immigrants especially had concentrated and were welcomed by the Democrats, local nativistic societies were formed to combat
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 parties. Buchanan did not have the majority of the popular vote, and his moderate views were disliked and mistrusted by extremists both in the North and in the South.

Although he attempted to keep the "sacred balance" between proslavery and antislavery factions, in his administration the United States plunged toward the armed strife of the Civil War. Buchanan, who disapproved of slavery as morally wrong, felt that under the Constitution slavery had to be protected where it was established and that the inhabitants of a new territory should decide whether that territory should be free or slave. He angered many in the North by renewing efforts to purchase Cuba and by favoring the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in KansasKansas
, midwestern state occupying the center of the coterminous United States. It is bordered by Missouri (E), Oklahoma (S), Colorado (W), and Nebraska (N). Facts and Figures

Area, 82,264 sq mi (213,064 sq km). Pop. (2010) 2,853,118, a 6.
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As his administration drew to a close, after the election (1860) of Abraham Lincoln to succeed him as President, Buchanan was faced with the secession of the Southern states. Very learned in constitutional law, he maintained that no state had the right to secede, but he held, on the other hand, that he had no power to coerce the erring states. He believed that the federal government was authorized to use force only in protecting federal property and in collecting customs. Therefore the question of the federal forts in Southern states became of great importance, particularly in South Carolina.

Buchanan tried desperately to keep peace and promised South Carolina congressmen that no hostile moves would be made as long as negotiations were in progress. When Major Robert Anderson moved U.S. troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort SumterFort Sumter,
fortification, built 1829–60, on a shoal at the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, S.C., and named for Gen. Thomas Sumter; scene of the opening engagement of the Civil War. Upon passing the Ordinance of Secession (Dec.
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, there was an outcry from South Carolina that the President's promise had been broken. Buchanan defended Anderson but, reluctant to act, sent supplies to Fort Sumter only belatedly. He was battered with criticism from North and South, and shortly after his administration ended, gunfire at Fort Sumter precipitated the war. John Bassett Moore edited his works (12 vol., 1909–11).


See biographies by G. T. Curtis (1883, repr. 1969) and P. S. Klein (1962, repr. 1995); E. B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Buchanan, James


Born Apr. 23, 1791, in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania; died June 1, 1868, at Wheatland, in present-day Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Statesman of the USA.

Buchanan first belonged to the Federalist Party; later he became one of the leaders of the Democratic Party. During the years 1821-31 he was a member of the House of Representatives; during 1832-33, minister to Russia; during 1834-45, a senator; and in the period 1845-49, secretary of state. Buchanan was one of the organizers of the predatory war waged by the USA against Mexico (1846-48). During the years 1853-56 he was minister to Great Britain. From 1857 to 1861, Buchanan was president of the USA. After Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of 1860, Buchanan made use of his last few months in office to strengthen the military power of the slaveholding South on the eve of the Civil War (1861-65).

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Buchanan, James

(1791–1868) fifteenth U.S. president; born near Mercersburg, Pa. Building on a successful law career, he entered politics and served as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania legislature (1815–17) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1821–31), where he went over to the Democratic Party. In 1832–33 he served as ambassador to Russia and returned to serve Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate (1834–45) until becoming a most effective secretary of state under President Polk (1845–49). After a period of retirement and as ambassador to Great Britain (1854–56), he showed a willingness to accommodate slavery that gained him the presidency in 1856 with the solid backing of the South. During his term (1857–61) he supported laws protecting slavery in the attempt to establish Kansas as a slave state; when pressed by antislavery Americans, he fell back on narrow legal defenses such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision (1857). All this split the Democratic Party, allowing Lincoln to win the election of 1860. As a "lame duck" president, Buchanan professed the government's helplessness to prevent secession and turned the problem over to his successor. He returned to his Pennsylvania estate but he did support Lincoln throughout the war.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.