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.

Moving Toward Civil War: The Presidency of Franklin Pierce

As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.

Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.

He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.

Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.