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James Buchanan Jr. (/bjuːˈkćnən/; April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th president of the United States (1857–61), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. Historians fault him for his failure to address the issue of slavery and the secession of the southern states, bringing the nation to the brink of civil war. A member of the Democratic Party, he was the 17th United States Secretary of State and had served in the Senate and House of Representatives before becoming president.
Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to parents of Ulster Scots descent. He became a prominent lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, Buchanan won election to the United States House of Representatives, eventually becoming aligned with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. After serving as Jackson's Minister to Russia, Buchanan won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State. During Buchanan's tenure as Secretary of State, the United States grew immensely with the conclusion of the Oregon Treaty and victory in the Mexican-American War. From 1853 to 1856, during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Buchanan served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. A major contender for his party's presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Buchanan finally won his party's nomination in 1856, defeating Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and his running mate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 election.
Shortly after his election, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he fully endorsed as president. He allied with the South in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the process, he alienated both Republican abolitionists and Northern Democrats, most of whom supported the principle of popular sovereignty in determining a new state's slaveholding status. He was often called a "doughface," a Northerner with Southern sympathies, and he fought with Douglas, the leader of the popular sovereignty faction, for control of the Democratic Party. In the midst of the growing sectional crisis, the Panic of 1857 struck the nation. Buchanan indicated in his 1857 inaugural address that he would not seek a second term, and he kept his word and did not run for re-election in the 1860 presidential election. After his party splintered, largely along geographic lines, Buchanan supported Vice President Breckinridge over Douglas, who won the support of most Northern Democrats. Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln, running on a platform of keeping slavery out of all Western territories, defeated both Democrats and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell to win the election. In response, seven southern states declared their secession from the Union, eventually leading to the American Civil War. Buchanan's view was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal, and he did not confront the new polity militarily. Buchanan supported the United States during the Civil War and publicly defended himself against charges that he was responsible for the war. He died in 1868 at age 77. He is the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor.
Buchanan aspired to be a president who would rank in history with George Washington. His inability to address the sharply divided pro-slavery and anti-slavery partisans with a unifying principle on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. Historians who participated in a 2006 survey voted his failure to deal with secession as the worst presidential mistake ever made. As of 2018, he is the most recent Democrat elected to succeed a Democratic president who did not die in office.