Prior to President Joe Biden taking office, there had only been one other president from Pennsylvania. He is remembered as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history.
Former President James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States, was born in Cove Gap near Mercersburg in 1791. He graduated from Dickinson College and served as a lawyer and politician in Pennsylvania, explains Matthew Pinsker, professor of history at Dickinson.
Buchanan began his political career as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He later held the positions of U.S. Representative, Minister to Russia, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Minister to England before becoming president in 1857.
“He was probably better prepared and more experienced than almost anybody else (at least in the early years of the country) who became president,” said Pinsker.
His experience serving overseas was partly what helped him get elected. “He was removed from some of the controversies of the 1850s, and that helped him become the Democratic nominee for president,” Pinsker said.
Pinsker explains that Buchanan took office “in an era that was even more polarized than ours” as states were divided over the future of slavery.
“They had hopes that they could avoid any kind of widespread violence, but while Buchanan was president, everything he tried to do seemed to make things worse,” said Pinsker.
Buchanan sided with southern states that supported slavery, Pinsker says. He alienated fellow Democrats, leading to an eventual split in the party, and he also further angered Republicans.
In the winter of 1860, during the final months of Buchanan’s presidency, southern states began seceding from the Union.
Additionally during Buchanan’s presidency, “there were all kinds of other issues related to foreign policy and other domestic issues,” including the financial Panic of 1857, says Pinsker, “and he got blamed for almost all of it.”
After his single term in office, Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his home in Lancaster County.
He wrote a memoir — the first published presidential memoir according to LancasterHistory — trying to defend his legacy, but ultimately he went down in history as one of the nation’s worst presidents, his legacy one of inaction and secession.