U.S. President James Buchanan regularly bought slaves with his own money in Washington, D.C. and quietly freed them in Pennsylvania

James Buchanan was the fifteenth President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861. Many historians consider his presidency a failure since his efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South were fruitless and he is best-remembered as the only president from Pennsylvania and the only one who remained single for his entire presidency.

Born into a wealthy family on April 23rd, 1791, in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, Buchanan attended Dickinson College and graduated in 1809. He started his long political career in 1814 when he was 23-years-old and was elected as a member of the Federalist Party to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.


James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States





Six years later, Buchanan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served five consecutive terms until 1831. The next year, President Andrew Jackson appointed Buchanan the U.S. ambassador to Russia and when he returned to the United States, where he won a seat in Senate as a Democrat.


He resigned from the Senate in 1845 to serve as James K. Polk’s secretary of state, and in 1853, President Franklin Pierce made him minister to England. After years of serving the country in many different positions, Buchanan finally got the Democratic nomination for President and successfully defeated John C. Fremont, thus becoming the 15th president of the United States.



United States’ pro-slavery and antislavery factions at the time were the main issue which Buchanan faced at the beginning of his presidency. He endorsed the southern position and believed that slavery was a matter for each state to decide if they would allow it.

It seems that Buchanan morally opposed to slavery and he tried to show that he was against slavery. He regularly bought slaves with his money in Washington D.C and took them back to Pennsylvania to set them free. However, he never confronted the issue during his presidency and his efforts to restore peace and harmony in the United States eventually led to civil war.

Shortly after his inauguration, the new president faced the first problem when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision, essentially stating that the Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories, stating that African-Americans were not citizens and had no right to sue for their freedom. Reportedly, Buchanan influenced the court’s ruling and angered the Northerners who protested against the Dred Scott decision.


President Buchanan and his Cabinet From left to right: Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, James Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Joseph Holt and Jeremiah S. Black, (c. 1859)


Buchanan in his later years


Buchanan even deepened the crisis when he accepted and supported the Lecompton Constitution written by proslavery supporters. According to the Lecompton Constitution, Kansas would have secured the continuation of slavery and would have become a slave state but it was blocked by the Senate, and Kansas joined the Union as a free state.

In the next period of Buchanan’s presidency, the crises continued to escalate, and the country was about to be torn apart. The president believed that the states didn’t have the right to secede, but on the other hand, he also claimed that there was nothing that the Federal Government could do to prevent it.

As the Civil War approached, it was clear that Buchanan would not seek reelection as he didn’t manage to prevent the secession and he only deepened the slavery crises. Upon leaving Washington, he reportedly told Lincoln, “Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”


                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012