James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Mercersburg in 1799, where he was given a private tutor and allowed to attend the local school. After graduating, he enrolled at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1809. That same year he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he studied law, graduating in 1812.
After getting accepted into the bar association, Buchanan started a law practice in the city of Lancaster. Once the War of 1812 started, he joined the United States Army and helped to defend the city of Baltimore, Maryland. After the war ended, he campaigned for a seat on the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and was elected in 1814 on the Federalist Party ticket.
In 1821, he campaigned for a seat on the United States House of Representatives and was successfully, serving until 1831. During his time as a representative, he conducted the impeachment proceedings of James Peck, a Missouri judge. In 1832, he was selected to serve as ambassador to Russia and in 1834 he was elected to the United States Senate.
After 11 years in the senate, he resigned to serve as President James Polk's Secretary of State. During his time there, he was largely responsible for negotiating the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which established a border in the west between the United States and Canada. In 1853, he was chosen to serve as ambassador to the United Kingdom and helped to draft the Ostend Manifesto.
In 1856, Buchanan campaigned for the presidency on the Democratic ticket. He managed to defeat his opponent, John Fremont, and began his presidency on March 4, 1857. At the time of his election, the country was polarized by the topic of slavery and on the brink of civil war. He chose to stay out of it and said that it was up to the Supreme Court to decide.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court announced that Congress had no constitutional power to disallow slavery in territories. The decision, known as the Dred Scott decision, was a victory for the south, but ignited fury in the north. Since Buchanan was from the north, he was looked on as a traitor and some, including Abraham Lincoln, accused him of conspiring with slave owners to create a nation of slavery.
Buchanan then took another controversial move by pushing the approval of a slave-supporting constitution for the state of Kansas. Even though the state's citizens had voted against it, he forced it through the House of Representatives only to have it blocked by the Senate. The move ultimately failed and Buchanan lost much of his influence over Congress as a result.
From there, his presidency and the state of the union began to decline. In 1857, a massive budget shortfall occurred and the government was forced to take out massive loans. In 1858, Republicans managed to gain a majority control of the House of Representatives, but Southern control of the Senate caused all of their bills to fail and created a huge amount of tension.
In 1860, during the Democratic National Convention, the southern states refused to nominate Stephen Douglas for president. Instead, they nominated their own candidate, John Breckenridge. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who the southern states hated even more. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by numerous other states to join the Confederate States of America. Buchanan did nothing to stop the secession and has been deeply criticized as a result.
Later that year, he replaced his cabinet with nationalists, but did little before leaving office in 1861. On his last day he remarked to Abraham Lincoln, "If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are truly a happy man." After leaving, he retired to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and died on June 1, 1868. He is remembered as being one of the worst presidents in United States history for his failure to prevent the secession of the southern states and the beginning of the US Civil War.