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James Buchanan (1791-1868)

Image courtesy of the White House's Biography of James Buchanan page

15th President of the United States (1857-1861)

When the nation elected James Buchanan in 1856, everyone hoped he would find a way to diffuse the imminent slavery crisis. Unfortunately, Buchanan ended up only making things worse. Though he tried very hard to be a uniter, the divide between North and South was too wide for him to bridge. When the Southern states succeeded to become the Confederacy, Buchanan was conflicted on what to do and did nothing to stop them. Because of this, Buchanan is regularly ranked by scholars and historians to be one of the worst Presidents in US history.

Buchanan was a "doughface;" that is, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Because of this, he was able to quickly rise in power in the Democratic Party while remaining ambiguous on his position on slavery. In the end, it was this ambiguity that won him the presidency. However, when he supported Southern interests in the bills he passed, he alienated his Northern constituents.

When the newly-formed abolitionist Republican Party won the House in 1858, Congress reached a stalemate where no meaningful action on slavery could be taken. Any bills the Republicans passed were voted down by the Democrat-controlled Senate or vetoed by the President. This only let the slavery problem grow. When Abraham Lincoln, a Republican and ardent abolitionist, was elected President in 1860, the Southern states succeeded from the Union, deciding they'd rather leave the Union and start their own nation rather than have their slaves taken away. The Southern states began to succeed during Buchanan's lame duck period. Buchanan never took any meaningful action to stop succession of the Southern states, hoping instead that if he did nothing to stop them they would come back to the Union. Naturally, this strategy failed, and he only managed to alienate both the North and the South. By the time Lincoln took office, most of the South had already succeeded and the Civil War had begun.

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