This American President’s Amazing Actions Regarding Slavery Will Surprise You

A cartoon making fun of Buchanan’s compromises to the South on slavery.

Buchanan in Politics

James Buchanan was born in Pennsylvania in 1791 and began his political career in 1814 when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party.  His party has essentially collapsed by 1820, so the following year; he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican-Federalist and served five consecutive terms until 1831.

He became the United States Minister to Russia in January 1832 and served in that role until August 1833. Buchanan moved up the ladder in 1834 when he became a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania in 1834; a role he maintained until 1845. He resigned to become President James K. Polk’s Secretary of State and was minister to England in 1853. Buchanan ran for the Presidency and defeated John C. Fremont to become the 15th President of the U.S. in 1857.

Buchanan & Slavery

Although he was apparently morally opposed to slavery, Buchanan was also an avid believer in state’s rights. So when it came to the issue of slavery, he believed that each state should decide whether to allow it or not. In March 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court found that no black man or woman, regardless of whether they were free or a slave, was allowed claim U.S. Citizenship in the infamous Dred Scott case. As a result, no black man or woman could petition the court for their freedom.

Abolitionists were outraged by the decision which only served to heighten tensions between North and South. While Buchanan apparently freed slaves on a regular basis, he influenced the Supreme Court’s decision. The president only served to exacerbate tensions by accepting the Lecompton Constitution. In fact, Buchanan supported the document which would have enabled Kansas to continue allowing slavery. However, the Senate blocked the move which meant that Kansas joined the Union as a free state.

Buchanan’s inability to handle the tensions between North and South mark him down as one of the worst presidents of all time. Although he believed that states didn’t have the right to secede, he effectively washed his hands of the affair by claiming the Federal Government could do nothing about it.

Intriguingly, Buchanan joined the ranks of the ex-presidents who tried to undermine Abraham Lincoln when he became President. Along with Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren and James Tyler, Buchanan was a proponent of keeping the Union together at all costs, and they saw Lincoln’s presidency as a threat to that state of affairs. They urged Lincoln to accept a compromise on slavery; the most common one was to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean.

During the 1864 presidential campaign, Buchanan, Fillmore, and Pierce supported George McClellan against Lincoln. Buchanan spent the rest of his life trying to defend himself from blame for the brutal Civil War. Some people even called it Buchanan’s War. The ex-president received death threats on a regular basis and from October 1862 onward; he tried to defend himself by writing letters in newspapers and also his memoir which was published in 1866. On June 1, 1868, he died from respiratory failure. He was the only President never to marry and carried much of the blame for the Civil War. While he should be applauded for freeing slaves, his presidency is looked upon as a disaster.


  • Caesar Rodney

    Buchanan never married and had no offspring.

    • KeithE4Phx

      Buchanan was gay, and not exactly in the closet. He’d had a long relationship with William R. King, a fellow Senator in the 1840s and later Franklin Pierce’s VP. King died in 1853. They had lived together for several years, and were always seen together socially.

      Accounts of the time stated that the two men had a “peculiar friendship,” the terms “gay” and “homosexual” having not been invented yet. One President — IIRC it was either John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson — called them “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” and “Buchanan and his wife.”