James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was run by the Democrats in the election of 1856, instead of their incumbent Franklin Pierce. Pierce’s popularity had been damaged by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and an ill-advised foreign policy document suggesting that the United States purchase or wrest Cuba from the Spanish (a document Buchanan, ironically, had a hand in writing).
Buchanan pledged to only serve one term and awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott case to settle the issue of slavery in the territories. Buchanan had used his influence to guide the Court’s decision, which came days into his Presidency. The Court–the majority of whose Justices were southern–ruled that Scott, a slave that had been moved by his owner into free territory, could not file suit in court because, as a slave, he was not a citizen of the United States. Slaves, therefore, had no legal rights according to the Court. In addition, the Court ruled that all acts of Congress to settle the issue of the expansion of slavery were unconstitutional. Therefore, Congress was made powerless to make any of the compromises that had, up until then, avoided all out civil war. Suspicion about the President’s hand in the case led to charges of him being controlled by Slave Power.
That accusation took great hold after Buchanan attempted to push through the incorporation of Kansas as a slave state. As outlined in the Constitution, new states had to write up their own constitution, get it approved by its residents and apply to Congress for statehood. In Kansas, two competing constitutions were written, one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery. Buchanan tried to gain support for the pro-slavery version in the House of Representatives. This put him at odds with Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas–who wanted his idea of popular sovereignty to decide–and the two fought over control for their own party. This caused a split in the party that opened the door to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Then another event caused the tension between slavery and anti-slavery forces to reach fever pitch. Radical abolitionist John Brown and his sons, already famous from their violent exploits in Bleeding Kansas, attempted to incite a slave revolt in October 1859. They orchestrated a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intending to distribute the weapons there to local slaves to revolt against their owners.
The Brown’s raid was a disaster. They were captured by United States Marines led by Robert E. Lee. The raid was used to confirm southern fears of radical abolitionists seeking to arm their slaves. With the amount of slaves held throughout the southern states, the fear of a slave insurrection was very real. Brown was tried for treason and through the trial, many abolitionist papers helped make this worse by declaring the Browns heroes. John Brown was found guilty and hanged in December of 1859, but he pushed the country even closer to civil war.
With Lincoln’s election, southern states had enough. Fearing that Lincoln and his party planned to outlaw slavery, southern states started threatening to secede again. Buchanan, in his lame duck period, said that secession was illegal. Attempts were made to negotiate with southern states to stop secession, but they didn’t work. President-elect Lincoln was also asked to help push for a national referendum on slavery, but he declined. In December, South Carolina seceded and was quickly joined by six others, forming the Confederate States of America.
With the country in shambles, Buchanan told Lincoln on the day of his inauguration in March of 1861, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his home in Pennsylvania], you are a happy man.“