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When James Buchanan—America’s 15th president—took office, the country was ready to explode over the issue of slavery. Buchanan thought he could avert civil war. Instead, his every action (and inaction) made it inevitable.
James Buchanan should have been prepared to be president. He had served as a congressman, a senator, a cabinet member, and an ambassador. He certainly wanted the job. He sought the office four times.
But when he finally achieved his ambition in 1856 and became the fifteenth president of the United States, his impressive resume did him little good. When he left office in 1861, the country was on the brink of civil war.
James Buchanan was born in a log cabin on April 23, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. His Irish-born father, James Senior, lived the classic early 19th-century immigrant story: he worked hard, lived frugally, and prospered. He and his American-born wife, Elizabeth, had great ambitions for their son, James Junior, and with the exception of a few stumbles—like getting kicked out of college for drunkenness—he didn’t disappoint them.
Pursuing a legal career, young James moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he took a strong interest in local affairs. Elected to Congress in 1820 as a Federalist, he switched his allegiance to the newly-formed Democratic Party in 1824, becoming a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson.
He supported states’ rights, a strict reading of the Constitution, and was sympathetic to Southern interests, including, of course, slavery. Northerners with such inclinations were known by their political opponents as “doughfaces,” men who were overly deferential to Southern grievances. Buchanan was more than happy to return the insult. He despised Northern abolitionists who, he believed, threatened the stability of the Union with their “extremist” views.
In 1844, he took his first run at the Democratic presidential nomination. He lost to former Tennessee governor James Polk. In 1848, he lost to Michigan Senator Lewis Cass. In 1852, he lost yet again, this time to New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. In 1856, the stars finally aligned. Buchanan won the Democratic nomination and then the presidency by defeating legendary explorer and abolitionist John Frémont of the newly-formed, anti-slavery Republican Party.
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