Birth - Death
1791 - 1868
Head of State, Ambassador
As the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan has gone down in history for his repeated failure to prevent fissures between southern and northern states from leading to the American Civil War. It was a failure of leadership that led public opinion to turn despite his lustrous career in politics and diplomacy.
Buchanan was born and raised in the state of Pennsylvania, having studied law and admitted to the bar in 1812. Shortly thereafter he successfully ran for the Federalist Party to become a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1814. After serving two years in that post, he successfully ran for the U.S. Congress and retained his seat from 1814-1831. He served a term as Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary.
From 1832 to 1834, Buchanan served as Minister to Russia. He then returned to the U.S. and successfully ran as a Democratic Party member for the U.S. Senate. He remained in that post until 1845 when he was named Secretary of State by President James Polk until 1849. Between 1853 and 1856, he served as Minister to the Court of St. James (Great Britain).
This was quite the successful and varied political and diplomatic career to prepare him for the Presidency of the United States. He was selected by the Democratic Party as their nominee in 1856 and was elected to that position beginning in 1857. Immediately upon election he declared that his principle aim was to destroy the seeds of animosity between the southern and northern states.
The issue between the two regions revolved around slavery and taxation. With the former, Buchanan had hoped that the Supreme Court would put an end to the issue of slavery, but in 1857 the court ruled that Congress had no constitutional authority to exclude slavery, thereby dealing an early blow to Buchanan’s promise. The issue would subsequently play out in a battle for the admission of the state of Kansas to the union – this turned into a fight between the pro- and anti-slavery camps. The determining vote on admission in the Senate was Stephen Douglas, an anti-slavery Democrat who wanted to give authority to the settlers of the state to decide the issue, whereas Buchanan wanted to appease the pro-slavery camp. Douglas won and Kansas would remain a territory until 1861 when it entered the union as a slave-free state.
Sectional strife continued in both the country and Democratic Party. This was compounded by a tariff policy which was opposed by the southern states because it taxed their richest export, cotton. The recession of 1857 also diminished Buchanan’s popularity. The remainder of Buchanan’s term was characterized by inaction on the growing tension and divide in the country.
During the election of 1860, Buchanan was warned about the increasing threat of secessionist states in the south and was advised to send federal troops to protect federal property. Buchanan refused to do this, and he remained inactive on the issue. Disunion reached a boiling point, and Lincoln and his Republican Party handily won the Presidency that year. In the interim, Buchanan argued for non-interference by the north on the issue of slavery, thereby adding fuel to the fire. On one end he was lambasted by the north on this position, and on the other end by the south on his refusal to let it secede. The Civil War erupted two months after his retirement as President.
For a long time, James Buchanan had a close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King. They lived together from 1840-1853 until King’s death, and they regularly attended public events together. Neither individual publicly stated their homosexuality, as was the norm of the time. Their compatriots and subsequent biographers both make note of the closeness of the two men. The intimate letters between the two confirm a romantic relationship.
To what extent may James Buchanan’s homosexual tendency have affected his position on the north-south divide? William Rufus King was a southern gentleman, and Buchanan’s biographers have noted his tendency to adopt King’s manners and romantic view of southern culture. King passed away from tuberculosis four years before Buchanan’s presidency. It is just as likely that Buchanan was a pacifist eager to please both sides of the conflict, thereby enabling the situation to veer to the extreme in the absence of leadership.