Future President James Buchanan is born in Cove Gap near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, on this day in 1791. Buchanan, remembered mostly for his administration’s corruption and his failure to solve the country’s crisis over slavery, also inspired salacious gossip abut his love life over the course of his career.
The son of wealthy Scottish and Irish immigrant parents, Buchanan became a successful lawyer and entered politics with his election to the Pennsylvania state legislature as a Federalist in 1814. When the Federalist Party later collapsed, he joined Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party and was elected to Congress in 1820. He served five terms in the House of Representatives until 1831, served as President Jackson’s minister to Russia in 1832 and returned to the U.S. to win a Senate seat in 1833. Buchanan also served as James Polk’s secretary of state from 1845 to 1849 and as Franklin Pierce’s minister to Great Britain from 1853 to 1855 before running for the presidency. His overseas duties enabled him to avoid becoming embroiled in the domestic conflict over slavery. That isolation, which ended when he was elected president in 1856, contributed to the failure of his administration.
Buchanan’s ignorance of slavery’s divisive role in American domestic politics became apparent soon after he entered the White House. He actively pressured the Supreme Court to rule in the 1857 Dred Scott case that Congress had no right to outlaw slavery, mistakenly believing that Americans would take the court’s decision as the final word and the debate would end. In addition, Buchanan’s expansionist foreign policy, his mishandling of the 1857 economic depression and his failure to curb rampant corruption within his administration revealed him to be inept and out of touch. His passivity toward southern states who threatened to leave the union alienated half of his own Democratic Party and allowed a united Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln to win the presidential election of 1860.
Buchanan’s personal life was also rife with turmoil and controversy. In his late 20s, Buchanan became engaged to a woman, Anne Coleman, whose wealthy father accused him of gold-digging and opposed the marriage. Some historians claim that Buchanan then began an affair with another woman. When Anne discovered the affair, she broke off the engagement and died shortly thereafter, either from illness brought on by her despair or suicide. Her family blamed Buchanan for Anne’s death and refused to allow him to attend her funeral. Buchanan thereafter remained a confirmed bachelor–the only president who never married–but was at one point linked in the press with Dolley Madison’s niece. Rumors also circulated that Buchanan was gay. While a member of Congress, he forged a close relationship with William Rufus King, a North Carolina senator and Franklin Pierce’s future vice president. For a time, the two men shared lodgings in Washington and were referred to as Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy, though a sexual relationship has never been substantiated. King died of tuberculosis eight months into Pierce’s term and four years before Buchanan entered the White House.
After serving one disastrous term, Buchanan retired to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1861. In 1866, he published his memoirs, in which he blamed abolitionists for causing the civil war. He died in 1868.