America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

By Kenneth M. Stampp | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
James Buchanan: President-elect

Rarely has an American President entered the White House as superbly trained for his responsibilities as James Buchanan. Born in 1791 near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, the son of a Scotch-Irish farmer and small merchant, Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College, read law, and in 1812 opened an office in Lancaster, launching what proved to be a highly successful and lucrative legal practice. Two years later he entered politics as a Federalist and served two terms in the state legislature. In 1820 he was elected to the first of five successive terms in the House of Representatives, and during the political realignments of those years he became a Jacksonian Democrat. In 1831, President Jackson appointed him American minister to Russia, a post he resigned in 1833 to enter the United States Senate, where he remained for more than a decade. After his career as a legislator Buchanan gained valuable administrative experience as President Polk's Secretary of State, and additional diplomatic experience under Pierce as American minister to Great Britain. He was sixty-five at the time of his election to the presidency, a shrewd veteran of four decades in state and national politics and a respected elder statesman.

Throughout his public life Buchanan had been a loyal party man, and on most policy issues he had become a firm believer in the principles of Jacksonian Democracy. Unlike Jackson, he was not a dynamic and charismatic leader, nor was he one of the truly gifted politicians of his own day, the peer of Benton, Douglas, or Seward. Always cautious and conservative, short on imagination and wit, he had been a diligent, knowledgeable, and competent legislator, but he had not won distinction as an orator or skilled debater, or as the author of important legislation. In his diplomatic career he was remembered for his complicity in 1854

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