President James Buchanan: Career Politician

James Buchanan had more political experience than most presidents. He had served in Congress for 20 years and was President Polk’s secretary of state. He was more effective socializing in small groups rather than making public speeches, however.


Portrait of James Buchanan

As the only president who never married, he asked his niece Harriet Lane to be White House hostess. She ably presided over dinners with Buchanan’s cabinet members whom he thought of as his family.

President Buchanan was a Northerner who thought the Constitution supported slavery. Before his inauguration he convinced a Supreme Court Justice to vote pro-slavery in the Dred Scott case. The case decided that slaves taken to the North for a period of time were still slaves if their owners brought them back to a slave state.

Buchanan responded to the vote on secession in South Carolina by saying that while secession was wrong, the Constitution gave him no power to tell states what to do. He thought he could preserve the Union by making concessions to the South, but he only succeeded in angering anti-slavery and pro-Union voters.

Eager to let someone else deal with the country’s problems, Buchanan refused to run for a second term. He also refused to back Stephen Douglas in the presidential election. By causing a rift within the Democratic Party, he ensured that Abraham Lincoln would be elected.

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