James Buchanan, Jr., was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap (now Buchanan's Birthplace State Park), Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 1791, to James Buchanan, Sr. He was a well-to-do businessman, merchant, and farmer, and married Elizabeth Speer, a literate and smart woman. His parents were both of Scots-Irish descent, the father having emigrated from Donegal, Ireland in 1783. He was the second of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. Buchanan had six sisters and four brothers, only one of whom lived past 1840
In 1797, the family moved to nearby Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Expelled at one point for poor behavior, after pleading for a second chance, James Buchanan graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. A dedicated Federalist, he initially opposed the War of 1812 because he believed it was an unnecessary conflict. When the British invaded neighboring Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit and served in the defense of Baltimore. An active Freemason, he was the Master of Masonic Lodge #43 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Becoming a successful attorney, he advanced from state legislator to national figure, including membership in both houses of Congress, ambassadorships, and a cabinet post. The ambitious Buchanan had his sights on the presidency for many years before he actually attained the office. He tried for the White House in 1844, 1848, and 1852 before finally achieving his goal in 1856.
By 1856, the debates over slavery had reached an unprecedented emotional intensity, with abolitionists and proslavery forces alike openly advocating violence and at times resorting to it. A number of abolitionists had been murdered in Kansas, and a radical abolitionist named John Brown had, in retaliation, massacred five settlers loosely affiliated with the proslavery party. Southerners were enraged while many in the North lauded Brown as a hero. In this environment, Buchanan asserted that slavery should be a matter for individual states and territories to decide for themselves. This approach gained him Southern support. His opponent, Senator John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate, argued that the federal government should prevent slavery from spreading into the new western territories. Shortly before the campaign, Buchanan expressed his fears about the task ahead: "Before many years the abolitionists will bring war upon this land," he said. "It may come during the next presidential term." Buchanan won the election, and many hoped that his experience would help the nation avert war.
Two days after Buchanan's inauguration, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Dred Scott case. Influenced by the new President, who was sympathetic to Southern interests, the Supreme Court ruled that because slaves—and even former slaves—were not citizens, they had no right to sue for their freedom in a U.S. court of law. Furthermore, the Court declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which banned slavery in the portion of the Louisiana Purchase above 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. Republicans denounced the decision and vowed to repudiate it. America had become a nation with a sharply divided political system: the Republicans, exclusively Northern and antislavery, and the Democrats, dominantly Southerners and their Northern allies who defended slavery and states' rights.
Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.
When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government reached a stalemate. Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the Presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern "fire-eaters" advocated secession.
President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise. Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was far away. Buchanan reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office. In March 1861 he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland--where he died seven years later--leaving his successor to resolve the frightful issue facing the Nation.