James Buchanan, Jr. (/bjuːˈkænən/; April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th President of the United States (1857–1861), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. He represented Pennsylvania in the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate, then served as Minister to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. He was named Secretary of State under President James K. Polk, and is to date the last former Secretary of State to serve as President of the United States. After turning down an offer to sit on the Supreme Court, President Franklin Pierce appointed him minister to the Court of St. James's, in which capacity he helped draft the Ostend Manifesto.
Buchanan was nominated by the Democratic Party in the 1856 Presidential election. Throughout most of Pierce's term, he was stationed in London as a minister to the Court of St. James's and therefore was not caught up in the crossfire of sectional politics that dominated the country. His subsequent election victory took place in a three-man race with John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore. As President, he was often called a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, who battled with Stephen A. Douglas for control of the Democratic Party. Buchanan's efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South alienated both sides, and the Southern states declared their secession in the prologue to the American Civil War. Buchanan's view of record was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal. Buchanan, an attorney, was noted for his mantra, "I acknowledge no master but the law."
By the time he left office, popular opinion was against him, and the Democratic Party had split. Buchanan had once aspired to a presidency that would rank in history with that of George Washington. However, his inability to identify a ground for peace or address the sharply divided pro-slavery and anti-slavery partisans with a unifying principle on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. Historians in both 2006 and 2009 voted his failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made.
He is, to date, the only president from Pennsylvania and the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor. He was also the last president born in the 18th century.
By Dean Hanley
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