Governor and president of the Tennessee Farmers' Alliance, John P. Buchanan was born in Williamson County, the son of Thomas and Rebecca Jane Shannon Buchanan. He attended common schools and joined the Confederate army late in 1864, serving as a private in Roddy's escort, which was attached to the Fourth Alabama Cavalry. In 1867 Buchanan married Frances McGill of Rutherford County; they had eight children. The war ruined his family's land, and Buchanan moved to Rutherford County, where he established a livestock farm on Manchester Pike.
Buchanan's political life was entwined with the rise of the Farmers' Alliance in Tennessee. A perennial delegate to Democratic state conventions, Buchanan won election to the Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Tennessee General Assemblies (1887-91) representing Rutherford County. In 1888 he became the first president of the Tennessee Farmers' Alliance. When the Agricultural Wheel merged with the Farmers' Alliance in 1889, Buchanan became the first president of the combined organization, the Tennessee Farmers' and Laborers' Union. He won the admiration of the state's farmers when he successfully steered a bill through the 1889 General Assembly to exempt the agents of the Agricultural Wheel and Farmers' Alliance cooperative stores from the state merchant tax.
In 1890 Buchanan became the Democratic nominee for governor after a spirited party convention in which farmers surprised their opponents by their steadfast support for the Alliance president. He won easily in the general election and opened the 1891 General Assembly with fifty-four Alliance members in the House and Senate. The “Farmer Legislature” produced no significant legislation that reflected the special interests of the agricultural sector, however. Indeed, a number of Alliance supporters began to have second thoughts as the subtreasury scheme and the demand for a third party dominated the national organization. In addition, uprisings by East Tennessee coal miners who opposed the use of convict labor in the mines marred Buchanan's administration in 1891-92. Caught between the demands of New South industrialists for immediate action to end the violence and Alliance calls for an end to convict leasing, Buchanan carried out the law but appeared weak to both sides when the unrest continued and a special legislative session of the legislature failed to end the leasing system.
In 1892 Buchanan sought the Democratic nomination for a second term, which he and his Alliance supporters claimed as their right since they had meticulously supported the party platform without insisting on implementation of the agrarian demands. The Bourbon wing of the Democratic Party, supported by the New South wing, mounted an intense campaign to stop Buchanan. By May, the Bourbon candidate, Peter Turney, was ahead. In June several important Alliance leaders, including Buchanan's friend and former campaign manager, John H. McDowell, broke with the Democratic Party and joined the People's, or Populist, Party, which had developed from the efforts of the National Farmers' Alliance. Buchanan withdrew his name from the Democratic nomination and ran as an Independent (Jeffersonian) Democrat. The Populists supported his candidacy, but Buchanan never joined the party. Buchanan lost to Turney in the general election, and the political aspirations of Tennessee farmers ended, though the Populists fielded gubernatorial candidates in the elections of 1894 and 1896.
Buchanan held no other elective offices. He died in 1930 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro.
Roger L. Hart, Redeemers, Bourbons and Populists: Tennessee, 1871-1896 (1975); Connie L. Lester, “Grassroots Reform in the Age of New South Agriculture and Bourbon Democracy: The Agricultural Wheel, The Farmers’ Alliance, and The People’s Party in Tennessee, 1885-1892” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1998)