Most of the precipitating factors that led to the American Civil War occurred while James Buchanan sat as the 15th President of the United States. In 1857, only two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that slaves were not citizens able to sue in court. Whether he could have prevented war is forever debatable, but most historians agree Buchanan could have done more. Born in Pennsylvania but sympathetic to the Southern states, he remained bewildered and indecisive right up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

President James Buchanan

James Buchanan had long desired the presidency and ran for that office four times before finally being elected in 1856. After a year as president, he decided not to run for reelection. A Democrat trying desperately to maintain the support of his party, he instead witnessed its fracture over sectional differences between North and South. By the election of 1860, the Democratic Party divided into three factions and opened the door to victory for Abraham Lincoln.

Sectional Strife during the Buchanan Administration

All efforts to settle sectional differences peacefully crumbled during the Buchanan administration. Along with the Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in part of the Louisiana Purchase, as unconstitutional. This left the nation with no legal remedy to resolve the South's desire to expand slavery as the nation grew and the North's desire (especially that of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party) to keep it contained within the states where it already existed. An abolitionist named John Brown led a bloody effort to foment a slave rebellion in 1859 and violent civil war had already erupted in the new state of Kansas. During all of these events, Buchanan seemed a helpless spectator, with no clear policy other than a vague support of the Southern argument.

President Buchanan's Response to Secession

Buchanan believed slavery was a matter for the states to decide and that the federal government had no constitutional authority to intervene in the institution. When Southern states began seceding from the Union in December 1860 and January 1861, an already politically weakened Buchanan was very much a lame-duck president. Rather than take forceful action against the rebellious states, as did Andrew Jackson before him or Abraham Lincoln afterwards, Buchanan huddled in the White House and did nothing. This emboldened Southern militancy and ensured that Lincoln's already impossible task of peacefully restoring the Union would be a bloody one.

Buchanan and the Election of 1860

Buchanan had only been president a year when he decided not to run for reelection. Running up to the election of 1860, he did not help matters by supporting his vice-president, John C. Breckinridge, for the Democratic nomination for president. A Southerner, Breckinridge opposed Stephen Douglas, a candidate favored by Northern Democrats. So distressed over events, Buchanan told Lincoln on Inauguration Day, 1861, "My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his hometown in Pennsylvania], you are a happy man indeed."