James Buchanan

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

James Buchanan

After the very sad four White House years of Franklin Pierce, that of former 15th President James Buchanan (1791-1868), with the help of his niece/hostess Harriet Lane (1830-1903), began with an inaugural ball described as follows by Christine Sadler in her 1963 America’s First Ladies:

“Five thousand revelers danced the night away in a specially built structure and between the reels they consumed ‘twelve hundred gallons of ice cream plus four hundred gallons of oysters, five hundred quarts of chicken salad, five hundred quarts of jelly, sixty saddles of mutton, and thousands of dollars worth of wine. ‘ All this in addition to a four-foot cake featuring the thirty-one states of the about-to-be-dissolved union.”

Harriet Lane

(With respect to Miss Lane, more later!)

Buchanan was born April 23rd, 1791, into prosperity in Pennsylvania, his father being a very successful store owner. He began practicing law in 1812 and became so good at it that, by the time he was 30, he was earning today’s equivalent of 220 thousand dollars a year.

Very cautious and low key in personality, he approached life as a game of chess and shrewdly assessed all angles before making any move while sustaining the sweetest, most charming one on one personality in terms of eye contact, ironic as he was near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other and was always cocking his head in the direction of anyone whom he engaged in conversation.

Buchanan was elected to the State Legislature in 1814 and Congress in 1821. Not being very good at public speaking, Buchanan focused his talent on behind the scenes committee work, slyly working his way through the treacherous labyrinths of state and national politics and its changing winds. Beginning as a Federalist in Congress, he made the safe leap to the Democratic party in 1831 during Andrew Jackson’s administration and was appointed Minister to Russia in 1832 where he served for two years before heading back to run successfully for the first of three-terms as Senator.

Buchanan would serve as Secretary of State for President Polk and as Minister to England for his predecessor Pierce, with whom he shared a rather wary rivalry as fellow Democrats but like-minded in their belief that the federal government had no business interfering with the rights of slaveholders in the South though personally detesting slavery as an institution.

By the time Buchanan assumed the Presidency for his one term in 1857, the country was split horribly and very dangerously on the slavery issue and his cautious neutrality made his Presidency a lame duck one. Details of its failures can be read about in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Back to his niece, Harriet Lane. What little good her Uncle James accomplished at 1600 Penn­sylvania Avenue may have been partly due to her charm, beauty, wit and savory smarts as his First Lady . As hostess, she brought a level of culture and fine arts to the social gatherings on a level comparable to that of Jackie Kennedy while similarly advocating worthwhile causes, a noteworthy one being the living conditions of Native Americans on the crowded reservations.

After she and her uncle left the White House, Harriet married a wealthy Baltimore banker Henry Johnston at 36 in 1866 while the President retired to his large estate Wheatland where he died in 1868 at 77.

The Lanes had two sons but, by 1885, Harriet had not only lost her uncle but also her husband and both sons. After her own death in 1903, the will bequeathed generous amounts of wealth to, among other charities, establish a boy’s school and children’s hospital while her collection of paintings were donated to the Smithsonian.


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