The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
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James Buchanan

Title: James Buchanan
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As U.S. secretary of state, James Buchanan, later president, was an important advisor to President James K. Polk during the Mexican-American War. Perhaps Buchanan's most important accomplishment was negotiating a peaceful settlement regarding Britain's claim to Oregon Territory. Mexico had hoped that a protracted straggle over Oregon would keep the United States from invading Mexican territory. Resolving the Oregon issue allowed the United States to focus its war efforts on Mexico.

Born near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791, James Buchanan received much of his education from Dickinson College. Graduating in 1809, he chose a law career. He quickly became known as an excellent speaker and one of the best lawyers in the state. Buchanan's personal life was completely shattered when Ann Coleman, his young bride-to-be, died suddenly. (He never married.)

Having always enjoyed debate, Buchanan was drawn to politics and became a member of the state government in 1814. A popular state leader, he was elected to the House of Representatives from 1821 to 1831 and the Senate from 1834 to 1835. Always a believer in compromise, Buchanan opposed the spread of slavery, but believed it should be tolerated where it already existed.

Although he had hoped to be the Democratic candidate for president, Buchanan fully supported the nomination of James K. Polk, who then appointed Buchanan secretary of state. Buchanan's communication and diplomatic skills helped present Polk's decisions to the U.S. public. Buchanan's tireless and creative efforts at negotiating a settlement with Great Britain over Oregon helped Polk's cause regarding Mexico: by not going to war over Oregon, Congress was more willing to approve money and manpower for a war against Mexico.

Always a courteous diplomat, Buchanan frequently addressed Mexico in a considerate manner regarding the annexation of Texas. He instructed U.S. minister John Slidell to focus on acquiring New Mexico and California in return for unpaid debts, and not to discuss the issue of the Texas boundary, when he visited Mexico City in 1845. Some historians speculate that this may have been a delaying tactic to derail the José Joaquín de Herrera administration, which was seeking a peaceful settlement with the United States. (Herrera was overthrown the last day of the year by Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, a more likely candidate with whom to incite war.) In fact, Slidell was summarily rejected by Herrera, and negotiations stalled.

Buchanan closely advised Polk on a number of issues, such as Polk's restatement of the Monroe Doctrine to discourage British interest in occupying California. He alienated Polk when he maintained that early versions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not offer enough compensation to Mexico. Buchanan was keenly interested in Central America and Cuba and offered Spain $120 million for Cuba in 1848.

After a brief retirement, Buchanan became a foreign minister for President Franklin Pierce and continued in his efforts to purchase Cuba. Buchanan defeated candidate John C. Frémont to become the fifteenth president of the United States from 1856 to 1861. Buchanan supported the Dred Scott decision and in Kansas the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, which increased sectional friction. Buchanan retired to his estate in Pennsylvania, where he died at the age of 77 on June 1, 1868.

Mark Crawford


Further Reading
Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. II. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958; Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995.
 

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