Knowing the Presidents: James Buchanan

James Buchanan

Fifteenth President, 1857–1861


James Buchanan had tried for the Democratic nomination several times and finally succeeded in 1856, in large part because as Ambassador to Great Britain, he had been absent during the controversies associated with the Kansas–Nebraska Act.


At the time of James Buchanan’s election, the Union itself was at stake, as the South was now actively threatening secession with the rise of the Republican Party.

The continuing issue of slavery in the territories eventually broke the national party system into sectionalized, Northern/Republican and Southern/Democratic parties. The Whig Party eventually disappeared altogether.

Major Acts:

James Buchanan’s consistent support of the south, while also espousing Unionism, fatally compromised his attempts to reach a solution on the status of the violence in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Denied the re-nomination, and a lame duck after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan’s actions were feckless and irresponsible. For example, he called for a Constitutional Convention to protect the rights of the slave-owners just as the South began to secede.


Generally, James Buchanan is regarded as the worst American president. Though it is hard to know what he could have done during the “Secession Winter” of 1860–61 (when the Confederacy formed and broke away from the United States), his passivity condemns him.