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James Buchanan, Our 15th President (ASI for Mar-Apr. 09)

            James Buchanan was born to a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in 1791 and graduated from Dickinson College in 1809. He became a lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he later built a country home named Wheatland. He was elected five times to the U.S. House of Representatives and served a decade in the Senate.

            Buchanan fell in love with and became engaged to Ann Coleman. However, she died suddenly and he remained a bachelor all his life. His niece Harriet Lane served as his White House hostess and First Lady.

            When James Knox Polk became President, he appointed Buchanan as secretary of state. Buchanan was instrumental in resolving two major foreign problems: the Oregon boundary claim and the dispute with Mexico over Texas. Buchanan wanted the Presidential nomination in 1852 but lost it to Franklin Pierce on the 49th ballot.

            In 1853 Pierce appointed Buchanan as U.S. envoy to Britain. This meant that Buchanan did not become involved in the many sectional disputes of the U.S. His record of compromise on slavery issues gave him the Democratic nomination for President in 1856. He had two opponents and won the electoral votes but not the popular vote.

            The most important issue of his presidency was the growing division between the North and the South over slavery. Buchanan defended the rights of states but he believed in the Union and sought to prevent secession. He believed that he could preserve the Union by a policy of compromise and conciliation. Buchanan denied the right of states to secede but believed that the federal government had no legal right to stop them. He tried for compromise with the secessionist leaders.

            In 1860 the Democratic Party split into northern and southern groups and each nominated its own candidate for President. The allowed the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to be elected, causing many southern states to advocate secession.

            Buchanan sent a merchant ship, the “Star of the West,” to take reinforcements to Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and then sat back, waiting for March 4, 1861, when he could turn the whole thing over to Lincoln. He is quoted as writing to Lincoln, “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house (White House) as I am in leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in this country.”

            Buchanan died at Wheatland on June 1, 1868