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James Buchanan: Straddling the Fence on Slavery

Buchanan tried to appease both the North and the South in the slavery issue.

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James Buchanan was the 15th president of the United States. He was born on April 23, 1791 to an Irish immigrant in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. Like many of his predecessors, he attended college – in this case, Dickinson College in Carlisle – and then studied law. In 1812, he was admitted to the bar and opened his own practice in Lancaster.

Buchanan’s political career began when he started serving in the Pennsylvania legislature from 1814 to 1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. Four years later, in 1820, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and spent the next ten years in that capacity. In 1831, President Andrew Jackson appointed the young politician as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, where he succeeded in negotiating with the country for a trade and maritime agreement.

A scandal arose after Buchanan, in 1819, broke his engagement to Ann Coleman, who suddenly died soon after. Gossips suspected the young woman had killed herself over the grief. When he later took office as president, he became the first to do so unmarried.

After working in Europe, Buchanan returned home in 1834 and was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate. When President James Polk appointed him to the position of U.S. secretary of state, he resigned his Senate position. During this time the United States grew; it annexed Texas and then obtained California as well as most of the Southwest after the Mexican-American War. The Oregon Territory also became part of the U.S. after negotiations with Great Britain.

Buchanan was personally against the institution of slavery but still felt it was each state’s decision on whether to allow it. In 1846, he supported the Southerners and blocked the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any territory obtained from Mexico during the War. He then backed the Compromise of 1850, which allowed new western territories to decide whether they wanted to allow slavery.

President Franklin Pierce appointed Buchanan as the minister to Great Britain in 1853. Pierce loss his popularity after signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which ultimately led to the extreme fighting between Kansans who disagreed on the issue of slavery, resulting in the state nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” Because of this act, the Democrats chose not to nominate him for the next presidential election and, in 1856, chose Buchanan instead.

As president, Buchanan tried to appease both sides of the slavery issue by appointing a cabinet that consisted of both Northerners and Southerners. The Dred Scott decision, which said the government did not have the power to regulate slavery, was handed down by the Supreme Court two days after the new president was sworn in. This decision increased tensions between the two factions.

John Brown, a leader for the abolitionists, led an unsuccessful uprising by raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia) in Oct. 1859. When he was hanged for treason, the aggression between the North and South intensified immensely.

Buchanan, keeping his campaign promise, did not run for reelection in 1860, and Abraham Lincoln was voted as the next president of the United States. Southerners did not take kindly to Lincoln’s victory, and South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860.  By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas had also seceded and formed the Confederate States of America.

The Civil War began barely a month later, on April 12, 1861, as Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Buchanan had returned to his home, where he died on June 1, 1868 at the age of 77.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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