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English 11 AP – 1st

19 December 2017

James Buchanan

Buchanan’s presidency had a drastically negative impact on the United States. He
was elected in 1856 to be the fifteenth president of the United States (Baker, James Buchanan 1), and has since been
considered to be among the worst of the presidents the country has ever had
(Baker, James Buchanan 5). His
actions, and more importantly inactions, have had a drastic impact both during
and after the Civil War. Jean H. Baker wrote the biography James Buchanan to analyze the life and presidency of the president,
and why it is now considered to be a failure among historians (Baker, James Buchanan 4). Buchanan deserves the
poor reputation that he has because he made many critical mistakes and the
United States was almost irreparably destroyed under his leadership.

2. Shaping Influences

Buchanan’s early political career was shaped
with many successes, while his personal life was largely insignificant.
However, the issues that were developing during his political career had a
large effect on his presidency and the future of the country. External factors
had a crucial impact in Buchanan’s overall failure as president.

early life had a small impact on his career. He was born to Irish parents in
1791, three years after the Constitution was adopted, and was raised in
Pennsylvania (Baker, James Buchanan
9-10). He was the eldest surviving child in a large family, and because he was
an excellent student in school, he was able to attend a local college and
graduate with honors (Baker, James
Buchanan 11). After graduating, he became a lawyer to make money (there was
no need to attend law school or pass a bar exam at the time), and he was
extremely successful in this occupation and quickly became one of the best
lawyers in the state. (Baker, James
Buchanan 13). At one point, he was engaged to a woman named Ann Coleman,
but they never married—Buchanan remained a bachelor for his entire life (Baker,
James Buchanan 19). Altogether,
Buchanan’s early life did not impact his presidential actions much, although
his success as a lawyer did help him begin his political career.

political career made him one of the best candidates for the presidency. He
began as a member of the state legislature while continuing to serve as a
lawyer, and was then elected to be a Representative for Pennsylvania several
years later ( Staff). He served as the minister to Russia under
President Andrew Jackson ( Staff); the term “ambassador” was not
used until much later (Baker, James
Buchanan 57). Before being elected as president, he had served in both
houses of Congress, as a Secretary of State, and as a diplomat to several
countries, and in that time, he had played a role in both the Mexican-American
War and a border dispute with Britain in Oregon (The Editors of Encyclopædia
Britannica, “James Buchanan)). Buchanan was more experienced in politics than
most other presidents, and this was the main reason that he was elected as
president over his competitors, Republican John Fremont and Know-Nothing
Millard Fillmore ( Staff).

1856, Buchanan ran for president and won with 45% of the popular vote and 174 of
296 total electoral votes (Baker, James
Buchanan 72). At the time, the issue of slavery was one of the main
policies that was widely disagreed upon; Southerners requires slavery to
support their economies, while Northerners held the opinion that slavery was
illegal and should be abolished across the United States ( Staff).
In addition, there was an ongoing disagreement on whether or not slavery should
exist in any new states, such as Kansas ( Staff).  As a Democrat, Buchanan believed that states
should decide the issue of slavery rather than the federal government
( Staff),

(The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica, “Election of 1856”)

and thus believed that the

Northern support for the
Republican Party was dangerous (Baker, James
Buchanan 72). At the time, Congress was attempting to ensure that an even
number of slave states and free states existed in the country so that neither
would gain an advantage in Senate. Although Buchanan stated that he believed
that slavery was wrong and evil, both politically and morally, he believed that
the abolition of it across the United States would be even worse for the
country as a whole (Baker, James Buchanan
30). Thus, when running for president, Buchanan’s stance was against the
federal government interfering in the laws of slavery. This reaction was widely
supported by conservatives at the time, although it later led to many problems.

Buchanan’s upbringing and early political career in foreign relations made him
appear to be a reliable president to the people, and so he was elected to be
the President of the United States. At the same time, conflict between the
North and the South was quickly becoming more severe. Together, these factors contributed
to the bad decisions Buchanan made during his term as the president.

3. Work

Throughout his time as President of the United
States, James Buchanan took many actions, many of which had negative for the
country as a whole. Buchanan’s actions were destructive to the country and
harmful for the future of the United States.

most significant reason that President Buchanan is not favored among all of the
presidents is his inaction when the South announced its secession. Buchanan did
not present clear stances in regards to slavery or secession. In his
autobiography, he states that when the South was “led to believe they would be
allowed to depart in peace,” he “warned them against this delusion” (Buchanan
86). Furthermore, he wrote that “resistance to lawful authority … cannot fail
in the end to prove disastrous” (Buchanan 48). He did not believe that the
Southern states could secede without Congressional approval, but also stated
that he did not have any power to stop their departure ( Staff). In
his time as President, he did not make significant attempts to stop the South
from seceding, nearly ignoring the issue altogether, saying that there was no
relation between “the federal government and South Carolina” (The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica, “James Buchanan)). Eventually he sent a ship to
reinforce the Fort Sumter in the South, but when the ship was fired upon, it
turned back and was unable to acquire reinforcements in time (The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica, “James Buchanan)). The actions he took were not enough
to secure the forts which would have prevented, or at least quickly ended, the
civil war that started just six weeks after the end of his presidency (Buchanan
205). Additionally, as war became a certainty, the president hoped to retire
before it started; he told Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White
House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”
Buchanan’s refusal to deal with the issue of slavery was his greatest failure
as president and the main reason his presidency is always ranked among the

also wanted to expand the United States during his presidency. While ignoring the
secession of the Southern states, he called for the country to annex not only
the West Coast of the present-day United States, but also Mexico, Cuba, and
parts of Central America (Baker, James
Buchanan 37). He especially wanted Cuba, and refused to compromise (Baker, James Buchanan 78-79), even offering to
pay Spain $100 million or use violence to obtain the island (Baker, James Buchanan 64-65). In his
autobiography, he attempts to justify using military powers in the Gulf of
Mexico without Congressional approval by stating that he was opposing the
monarchies of Europe from infringing on America (Buchanan 261-262).
Furthermore, he states that his decision “received the unqualified and
enthusiastic approbation of the American people.” (Buchanan 162). He believed
that he had made the right decision in trying to expand the boundaries of the
United States and nearly coming into conflict with major European powers while
the threat of the Civil War loomed over the nation. Buchanan’s quest for more
land risked the outcome of the Civil War.

was one effect now seen positively which was caused, at least partially, by
Buchanan’s presidency: the downfall of the Democratic Party. After Buchanan’s
retirement, Abraham Lincoln became the President of the United States (Baker,
“Learning from Buchanan”). After him, the party was split into Northern and
Southern divisions ( Staff), and only 20 years after him did another
Democrat become President (Kelly). By that time, the Civil War had ended and the
country had largely returned to a normal state. Arguably, the failures of
Buchanan’s presidency were helpful because they allowed for the war to end
fairly quickly without more interference from others who did not want to deal
with the war but wanted to remain president.

actions as president were seen as being bad, especially after he had retired.
While his failures did lead to better presidents being elected during the Civil
War and the Reconstruction, overall, Buchanan was not a good president and did
not have many merits.

4. Critique

Buchanan was a president who led a life that will live in infamy. His decisions
were a large part of the cause of the Civil War, and were so bad that he is now
considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history. Buchanan’s
inability to fulfill his duties as president and negligence toward the welfare
of the United States is a lesson which should not be repeated by any president.

4.1 Lack of Compromise

(“Civil War Secession

Buchanan’s refusal to
compromise was one of the reasons he was a horrible president.  He refused to consider the opposing side’s
argument, and was adamant that only his view was correct.  His refusal to consider allowing free states
to enter the United States of America was a view that was met with much
controversy, as his plan to allow Kansas to choose to be a slave state could
have tipped the scales in their favor. This is one of the instances where
Buchanan’s refusal to look at the bigger picture led to him being a poor
president. If he had looked at the bigger picture, he would have seen that
allowing Kansas to be a free state would have appeased the North and prevented
further polarization between the political parties. He could have kept the
treaty that had been made years ago, and by doing so, lessened the chance of a
rebellion in the South ( Staff). Instead, his unshakable view on the
issues of states’ rights harmed the unity of the nation, making the secession
more likely to happen. He took the side of the pro-slavery government, writing
in his autobiography, “the pro-slavery party in the Territory sustained the
Government in all its branches which had been established over it by Congress”
(Buchanan 29), referring to his belief that the pro-slavery government was the
legitimate one and the other one was a fraud. His refusal to consider the
earlier decisions which had avoided a war between the North and the South was
one of his biggest failures; his hardheadedness led the unity of the country to
collapse. As historian Jean Baker stated, Buchanan’s decisions in Kansas “had
split the last remaining national organization in the United States” (Baker,
“Learning from Buchanan”) Buchanan’s administration had divided the federal
government, which was the only thing keeping the country whole, and by doing
that, he made himself be recognized as the worst president by many later

4.2 Goals of Expansion

addition to causing strife between the two main regions of the United States at
the time, Buchanan also ignored the issue of secession, focusing instead on
annexing more land; this was one of the worst decisions that could be made at
the time. He believed that the United States had a claim to the entirety of North
America, including Central America, and even compared preventing Americans from
taking land to commanding the Niagra to stop flowing (Baker, James Buchanan 35).
He refused to understand that the more pressing issue of southern secession
remained a threat to the country. Jean Baker stated that Buchanan’s focus on
expansion “was granting the future Confederate States of America precious time
to organize and prepare for war,” which was still avoidable (Baker, James
Buchanan 144). While it is true that many people, including presidents,
have goals for their life and their career, more pressing issues may need to
take priority. Buchanan refused to admit that the secession of the country was
more pressing, and worked to conquer land in North America (Baker, “Learning
from Buchanan”). In doing so, he nearly started wars with multiple European
countries right before the start of the Civil War ( Staff), which
could have led to the devastation of the entire United States of America. Even
after the Civil War had ended, he failed to recognize that acquiring land
should not have been his priority; he even ended his autobiography saying that
because Mexico was not annexed by the United States, “The righteous claims of
American citizens have therefore been indefinitely postponed” (Buchanan 286).
Buchanan’s refusal to set priorities was one of his greatest downfalls.

4.3 Political Party Shift

Perhaps the only silver lining to Buchanan
being a failure of a president was that the Democratic Party remained out of
the White House for two decades, allowing for the Reconstruction to take place.
After Buchanan’s term had ended, the Democrat Party split into two factions,
each with a different presidential candidate (The Editors of Encyclopædia
Britannica, “James Buchanan)). This guaranteed that Lincoln would win, as all
of the Democrats’ votes would be split between the two candidates, and neither
of them would gain a victory. Even after Lincoln’s death and the readmission of
the Southern states, the Democratic Party was associated with Buchanan’s
failure. By the time it came back into power, it had started to become the more
liberal party it is today, while the Republicans, now the Grand Old Party,
became the more conservative political party in the United States by comparison
(Wolchover). Although Buchanan’s prediction, “history will vindicate my memory
from every aspersion” (Pennsylvania State Parks) did not come true, Buchanan
can be credited with the destruction of the last major party to support slavery
in America. So, Buchanan’s failure was important for the United States to move
to the future with neither major political party believing that slavery should
be reinstated.

terrible ideas caused many issues in the United States during and immediately
after his presidency, causing the Civil War and nearly causing others, although
they did eventually allow for the abolition of slavery and the passage of some
rights for African Americans. Overall, however, James Buchanan was a failure of
a president despite his experience in politics.

5. Conclusion

James Buchanan is now regarded as the model for
what a good president should not do. Although he had more experience than
nearly every other president in the history of the United States, he managed to
be one of the worst presidents because he could not deal with compromises for
the better of the country. In his presidency, his inaction when the Southern
states seceded led to the United States being a destroyed nation. Additionally,
if the European countries he was taking land from had tried to attack the
United States in response, it would have irreversibly destroyed the nation. The
only benefit from his presidency, bringing the Republican Party into power, was
due to his failures as the head of the nation. Buchanan’s hardheadedness and
refusal to act in the best interests of the country resulted in his failure at
being a good president and had long-lasting negative impacts.


Works Cited

Baker, Jean H. James Buchanan.
Kindle ed., Times Books, 2004.

This biography on the life of the
former president James Buchanan reflects, in detail, the life and actions that
he took and the results of those actions. It begins with his childhood and
explains how he climbed his way to be the President of the United States, but
became a failure in the eyes of the people by the end of his term, and was
viewed to be even worse after President Lincoln ended the Civil War. The book
details the actions that James Buchanan took and the way they harmed the
country as a whole and is a useful source. It does present a partly skewed
view, as it focusses largely on his shortcomings and failures, but it describes
all of his actions in detail. While biased, this book does provide a useful
insight into the life of President James Buchanan.

Baker, Jean H. “Learning from Buchanan.” The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2011,, Accessed 22
Nov. 2017.

This article is a reflection on
the presidency of James Buchanan and the mistakes he made as president. It also
mentions the ways in which people should decide who to vote for president,
because the most qualified person may not be the best. It is largely reliable, and
it gives many details with a 21st century perspective into the
actions of the former president, so it is useful, especially for the critique,
because it connects James Buchanan to current times, and relates him to our
current state of affairs. However, it focusses mainly on his early political
career and mistakes as president; there is little focus on his personal life.
Thus, this source is reliable, but not comprehensive for the entirety of James
Buchanan’s life.

Buchanan, James. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. Wellesley
College Library, PDF ed., D. Appelton and Co., 1866, mrbuchanansadmin1866buch.

This autobiography, written by
James Buchanan after Lincoln’s death, is a reflection on his actions as the
president when the United States was heading to war. He writes about how he
made attempts to stop the war, but was not successful, and why he should not be
blamed for the start of the Civil War. He uses it to explain his choices and
contrast them with Lincoln’s. Being an autobiography, this book gives an
insight into Buchanan’s thoughts about his presidency. It also provides the
justifications he gave for his actions, which were not seen as being very beneficial
for the United States, especially after Lincoln had ended the Civil War. The
source is obviously biased, as it comes from someone who wants to present
himself in the best possible light to the people. It is also fairly old, so it
does not reflect on the long-term impacts of Buchanan’s presidency.
Nevertheless, it is useful because it was written by Buchanan himself and
presents the opposite side of the argument.

“Civil War Secession Map.” Cobble
Learning, 08/Secession-Map.jpg,
Accessed 2 December 2017. Staff. “James Buchanan.”,
A+E Networks, 2009,, Accessed
22 Nov. 2017.

This source gives a good overall
summary of the different parts of James Buchanan’s life, including many details
from his early life and his career as a lawyer and politician. However, there
is not much in-depth detail about his presidency; although it is covered, it is
not expanded upon greatly. It is from a fairly reliable website that is known
for providing useful summaries on historical topics. It is not very recent, as
it was published in 2009, but it is likely that not much has been discovered
since then about a historical person who lived in the 19th century. Overall,
the source is fairly reliable and can be used for this research project.

Kelly, Martin. “Chart of the Presidents
and Vice Presidents.” ThoughtCo., 3 Nov. 2017,, Accessed 26
Nov. 2017.

Pennsylvania State Parks. “A
Pennsylvania Recreational Guide for Buchanan’s Birthplace.” A Pennsylvania
Recreational Guide for Buchanan’s Birthplace, 2017. Pennsylvania Department of
Conservation and Natural Resources, public/documents/document/dcnr_20029708.pdf,
Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica.
“Election of 1856.” Encyclopædia
Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,, Accessed 24 Nov.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “James
Buchanan.” Encyclopædia Britannica,
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Sept. 2017,,
Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

This entry from Encyclopædia
Britannica’s online website summarizes all of Buchanan’s life with a focus on
his presidency, starting with the election. Although the ideas are summarized,
there are many specific examples used to exemplify those ideas, and these can
be cited as information in this essay. In addition, there are a few important
quotes from Buchanan that are not found in other internet sources. Encyclopædia
Britannica is known to be a one of the most reputable general encyclopedias,
having information on a wide range of topics in many different fields. The
encyclopedia article is also checked by many historians and editors to ensure
that the information presented is correct and the article is a reliable source.
While it does not provide a lot of detailed explanations of Buchanan’s actions,
it does provide the examples of specific actions he took and some of the exact
words he said in regards to his presidency.  Overall, this is a reliable source and can be
used as a reference for this essay.

Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Did the
Democratic and Republican Parties Switch Platforms?” LiveScience, Purch,
24 Sept. 2012,,
Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.

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