James Buchanan: Tired Ol’ Buck

James Buchanan was nearly seventy in 1861, a time when 75 was a ripe old age.

The Election of 1856

When James Buchanan (1791-1868) was elected in 1856, he was a) the last President born in the 18th century; b) had a good reputation and resume of accomplishment, and c) was a loyal Pennsylvania Democrat from a “free” state, but one who was personally sympathetic toward many of the southern issues.

A successful lawyer, state legislator, congressman, senator, cabinet member and diplomat, “Buck” had been shortlisted as a Democratic presidential candidate for a dozen years. But  as a popular and successful Ambassador to Great Britain during the Pierce Administration (1853-57)  he was out of the country for four very turbulent years.

Since it was a fact of political life that a “southerner” could never win the nomination let alone the election, the Democrats needed to look elsewhere. A Pennsylvanian, whose closest friends and colleagues were from the south, seemed a good move. The fact that he was already past sixty-five and his energies were showing the signs of age was not a concern. Buchanan pledged to serve a single term.

John C. Fremont, first Republican Presidential candidate.

The 25-year-old Whig party was sectional, and never a cohesive group. As the 40s and 50s became more and more embroiled by slavery, states’ rights and (gasp) secession, it fragmented completely by 1856. A new Republican party more organized in their goals and philosophies fielded its first presidential candidate, General John C. Fremont, in 1856. They made a strong showing and were poised for the next go-round.

If winning the Presidency in 1856 was a thrill for James Buchanan, the thrall dissipated rapidly. Three days after his inauguration, the infamous Dred Scott Decision was handed down by the Supreme Court, inflaming the slavery issue into a near-conflagration. Nearly every month brought another crisis or problem or headache to a man who desired peace for everyone and easier days for himself.

left to right: Howell Cobb (GA), John Floyd (VA) and Jacob Thompson (MS)

He had tried to balance his cabinet with men he had known for years, including three southerners who would cause him more grief than nearly anything else: Georgia’s Howell Cobb (Treasury), Virginia’s John Floyd (War) and Mississippi’s Jacob Thompson (Interior). By the time Buchanan finally took steps and demanded resignations, they had wreaked enormous (and likely treasonous) damage on the country.

His beloved Democratic party was hopelessly and bitterly split.

The Election of 1860

As the turbulent decade groaned to an end, Buchanan longed to turn the Presidency over to his successor, whoever he might be. There were four candidates. The Democrats had split their choice between Buchanan’s VP, John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, and Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. A fourth candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, was an old southern Whig, hoping to “save” the Union. Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer with little national reputation was the only Republican candidate.

It was no surprise when the lone Republican won. Nor was it a surprise when South Carolina, arguably the most rambunctious state of all, voted to secede.

Buchanan finally had to face the problem he long dreaded. He had to take action, and he was not a man of action. He was undoubtedly a man of good will, but not of strong will. Rumors abounded that he was ill. Other rumors abounded that he was not only healthy, but sleeping well and eating heartily. Then there were rumors that all he did was weep and pray. With so many of his close friends deserting him for the new confederacy, he had no confidantes, and had lost whatever was left of his own confidence. His seventy years had caught up with him. He was tired – and old.

Despite a brilliant social scene that troubled winter, hosted by Buchanan’s charming and competent young niece Harriet Lane, the capital, and indeed the country, was “dancing on the precipice.” The beleaguered president’s main goal was to hold the frazzled pieces of the Union together – until the new president took office.

The Welcomed Exit

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President.

Buchanan and Lincoln had never met, nor did they share any more than a handful of acquaintances. Lincoln had taken great pains as president-elect, to duck and waffle almost as much as his predecessor. But Lincoln, at 52, was not a man to duck and waffle as part of his persona. His aim was to let the sitting president act as he saw fit, and then, once Lincoln was in office, he could assess the situation better.

The Lincoln Cottage (White House photo)

When Lincoln arrived in Washington prior to his inauguration, he was overwhelmed by the number of callers, well-wishers, office-seekers, advisors, potential advisors, and government officials of varying importance. Nevertheless, he found time to pay a courtesy call on President Buchanan, and the two men spent a cordial hour in conversation. Buchanan advised his successor of the salient crises that had arisen in previous weeks, including the problems of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. But he had no recommendations.

One piece of excellent advice he could offer however, was to encourage the POTUS-to-be to make use of a delightful cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, three miles outside the city. He said that the house provided a cooler venue, and was sufficiently distant from the boggy area that made the city disease-prone in hot weather. Lincoln did not use it that first summer of his presidency; but for three years afterwards, he found it to be a wonderful respite from Washington heat, miasma – and the usual hordes of visitors.

Then, in an oft-quoted remark, as Lincoln was leaving, the tired (and soon to be re-tired) old POTUS said, “If you are as happy entering the White House as I shall feel at returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”

He meant every word of it.


Baker, Jean – James Buchanan – Times Books – 2004

Leech, Margaret – Reville In Washington – New York review Books Classic (reprint) – 2011

Pinsker, Matthew – Lincoln’s Sanctuary: The Soldier’s Home – Oxford University Press – 2003



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2 Responses to James Buchanan: Tired Ol’ Buck

  1. rickmarschall says:

    That Buchanan allowed… oversaw… did not halt the transfer of arms and logistical materiel and raw materials and contingency plans to know Secession planners, was as close to treason as a president could get. That ought to be part of Buchanan’s story.

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