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In 1839 President Martin Van Buren offered him the Attorney-General office, but Buchanan felt he would be more effective remaining in the Senate. He ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1844, losing to James Polk.
Rather than simply going home, Buchanan worked hard to help the Polk campaign win the state of Pennsylvania and as a result, Polk made Buchanan his Secretary of State. Buchanan, a politically astute believer of compromise, seemed like a good choice for the position, but he would frequently upstage President Polk in matters of foreign policy. Polk once wrote that if he "could yield the government to his [Buchanan's] hands...he would be cheerful and satisfied."
In 1848 Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Lewis Cass, and Cass lost the race to Taylor, a Whig, so there was no room in the Administration for Buchanan. He retired to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he worked on his recently purchased estate, Wheatland. Over the years the future president had "acquired" a family due to the death of his sisters. Miss Harriet Lane, and later James Buchanan Henry both lived with Mr. Buchanan. From Wheatland Buchanan opposed the Wilmot Proviso and supported the Compromise of 1850.
Once again the Pennsylvania Democrat tried for the Democratic nomination for President in 1852. Franklin Pierce, who won the nomination and became President in November tapped Buchanan to be Minister to Great Britain. It turned out to be an excellent role for Buchanan, not only for its social prestige but because it kept the next President out of American politics for the next 4 tumultuous years, but not out of controversy. He penned the Ostend Manifesto, which put forth a proposal to buy Cuba from Spain, and take it by force if Spain refused to sell.
At the 1856 Democratic National Convention "Bleeding Kansas" boiled over. Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas had both alienated large portions of the electorate over the issue while Buchanan had been in England. The divided party, meeting in Cincinnati, selected Buchanan by acclamation on the 17th ballot, after Pierce and Douglas withdrew. In November, against Republican John C. Fremont and Free-soil candidate Millard Fillmore, Buchanan only received 49% percent of the vote but won the election, running on a "Save the Union" platform. Ulysses S. Grant claimed in his memoirs to have voted for Buchanan because he knew if Fremont was elected it meant the South would secede. "Besides," Grant continued, "I knew Frémont as an officer." Buchanan combined a sweep of the South with key mid-Atlantic states and the West to win. Fremont won in the northeast, but did well in all non-slave states.
Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled on the Dred Scott case. The ruling said that taking a slave to a free state did not make the slave a free man, easing tension in the South but pro-abolition Northerners hostile. Buchanan had played a major role in the outcome of the decision, wanting the court to define the role of Congress in slavery. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not legislate territorial rules, only approve or disapprove state constitutions. The ruling made the Missouri Compromise illegal.
The South took great satisfaction in Scott. It gave them the right to travel freely throughout the United States with slaves, without risking the loss of their property. The North was furious because much of the abolitionists gains over the last 30 years were wiped out. For example, the ruling meant that the Underground Railroad's movement of slaves to Canada did not free them, at least in the mind of the United States. They were now exiled.
Dred Scott was also quickly overshadowed by the ongoing war in Kansas. Free-soilers (now Republicans) easily outnumbered the pro-slavery faction, but they had foolishly stayed away from the polls in some areas and given control of the constitutional convention to "border ruffians." The result was the Lecompton Constitution, a pro-slavery document.
Free-soilers learned their lesson. When the territorial legislature was chosen, the free-soilers voted. When Territorial Governor Robert Walker, a pro-Union Mississippian threw out questionable returns the legislature ended up being free-soil and the South loudly protested. Still, the pro-slave Lecompton Constitution made it to the Senate, backed by Buchanan. He had succumbed to the threats of Southern senators to secede, and felt that getting a constitution through the Senate would end the fight in Kansas, which was his goal. All Lecompton would do was bring the Kansas fight to Washington.
Senator Steven Douglas felt Lecompton violated "popular sovereignty." Up for reelection as Senator from Illinois and with his eye on the Presidency in 1860, Douglas broke with his fellow Democrat Buchanan and denounced the Lecompton Constitution. In an attempt to get Douglas back in the fold, Buchanan reminded him of Andy Jackson's method of ruining fellow politicians. Douglas replied to an angry Buchanan, "...General Jackson is dead."
At the start of 1858, Buchanan demonstrated the power of the Presidency. He began firing Douglas supporters from the federal government in droves, then promised those jobs to anyone who would come out against Douglas. He had mail to the Senator destroyed or searched, giving some of it to newspapers.
Suddenly "Douglas Democrats" were combining with Republicans trying to block Lecompton. Although Buchanan got the constitution through the Senate, the free-soilers in Kansas put an end to Lecompton in a popular vote. But the power structure in the Senate changed after the elections of 1858 and the Douglas Democrats sided with the Republicans to stall Buchanan's political agenda.
Unwilling to support Douglas's bid for the Presidency in 1860, Buchanan threw his support behind his vice-president John Breckinridge, a moderate from Kentucky. Unfortunately, the convention broke over the platform and Breckinridge supporters walked out, eventually holding their own convention. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November, Buchanan's mission became one of preserving as much of the Union as possible. He accepted that the Deep South would withdraw but worked to keep the Upper South in the Union.
Between November, 1860 and March, 1861, this became increasingly stressful for Buchanan. Most of his Cabinet ended resigning over pro-abolition or pro-Slavery issues or the lack of support for the U. S. troops in Fort Sumter. He had to threaten John B. Floyd with an investigation before he resigned as Secretary of War. Buchanan's plan for these four months was simply to hold as much of the country together to turn over to Abraham Lincoln.
To this end he got a great deal of assistance from an unexpected source: Jefferson Davis. The provisional President of the Confederacy did not want war and used the excuse of waiting until Lincoln was President before ordering an attack on either Fort Pickens or Fort Sumter. On March 4, 1861, with the country on the brink of The Civil War, Buchanan turned our Nation's helm over to Abraham Lincoln and retired to Wheatland.
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James Buchanan was last changed on - March 24, 2006
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