“What is right and what is practical are two different things.”
James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, was born in Pennsylvania, the son of a storeowner. He learned to add sums and keep books in his father’s store. Throughout his life, he kept strict financial accounts. He also valued obeying the law. These characteristics were both strengths and weaknesses.
Buchanan served over 40 years in public office before becoming President. He served in both the U.S. House and Senate and was minister to Russia and Great Britain. He also served as secretary of state under President James K. Polk. Most of his assignments took Buchanan abroad and he missed much of the fighting over slavery. When he became President, he was ill-prepared to handle the slavery conflict here at home. He served only one term and was happy to leave the White House.
- James Buchanan was born in 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania.
- Buchanan was the only President never to marry or have children. People sent him animals to keep him company: a large dog, two bald eagles, and a herd of elephants.
- Buchanan’s niece played the role of First Lady; the White House hosted lively parties during Buchanan’s presidency.
- Buchanan had only been President for two days when the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott ruling, which said that slavery would be legal in all new territories and that a slave owner could keep his current slaves even if he moved to a “free” state.
- Both the North and the South were angry about slavery. Buchanan wanted to avoid war and keep the Union intact, but nothing he did seemed to make either party happy.
- During Buchanan’s last few months of office, several Southern states seceded (left) the Union. Buchanan wasn’t happy but he didn’t think he could force the Southern states to stay.
Questions and Answers
Question: Did Buchanan believe in slavery?
Answer: Buchanan personally didn’t like slavery and often bought slaves to set them free. However, he believed the Constitution allowed slavery. He thought the government didn’t have the power to end its practice. Perhaps he had seen the controversy Franklin Pierce had stirred up during his Presidency and was trying to avoid a similar disaster.
Visit the Miller Center to learn more.
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