a president called “aunt fancy” -- 7/22/24

Today's selection-- from The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson. Though he had stellar credentials, President James Buchanan was a problem for the Democratic Party:

“A Democrat for nearly four decades, Buchanan had always been a problematic candidate in the eyes of the electorate, but this had nothing to do with his political competence. On paper, at least, he had one of the most illustrious records of any politician anywhere. From the age of twenty-three, when he won a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, he had won eleven straight elections, which moved him firmly into the heart of federal politics. James K. Polk made him secretary of state; Franklin Pierce selected him as his vice presidential running mate, though Buchanan declined the opportunity. Buchanan was tall, handsome, blond, and apparently never had to shave. He did have one conspicuous imperfection: a misalignment of his eyes that caused his gaze to diverge in an alarming fashion. To compensate, he would tip his head forward and to the side with one eye focused on his listener, thereby imparting a look of skepticism or keen interest. One Sunday Edmund Ruffin spotted Buchanan on Pennsylvania Avenue in the midst of one of the president's solo walks through Washington. ‘As we first passed,’ Ruffin wrote in his diary, ‘he had one eye shut, (as is his frequent habit,) and with the other he stared at me as if he thought he knew me.’

“Otherwise, Buchanan seemed to be an ideal catch for any woman, but therein lay the problem: He had no particular interest in being caught. Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor, a phenomenon American voters could not quite grasp. His one brush with marriage had occurred in 1819 when he became engaged to a young woman named Ann Coleman. She broke it off, complaining that he spent too much time attending to his public activities and not enough to her. Invariably, broken engagements raised public speculation. Coleman fled to Philadelphia both to recover her emotional health and to restore her social standing, but she died soon after her arrival, at twenty-three years of age, her demise attributed to ‘hysterical convulsions.’ Speculation further intensified when it became known that her father would not allow Buchanan to attend the funeral. The mystery of it all gave rise to questions as to whether Coleman might have killed herself or overdosed on some kind of sleep elixir, like laudanum, or had committed that worst of public sins, gotten pregnant out of wedlock, for clearly something had caused her father's callous treatment of Buchanan.

Portrait c. 1850–1868

“Buchanan had remained single ever since. Newspapers called him ‘Aunt Fancy.’ For years when he was in Washington he roomed with a fellow senator, William R. King of Alabama, himself an accomplished politician. The pair was so close both in public and in private that newspapers described them as a married couple, with Buchanan the husband, Senator King his wife. The death of King in 1853 left Buchanan bereft and alone.

“During the 1856 presidential election the Democratic Party wrestled with the problem of his bachelorhood and came up with a solution. Introducing him at the party's 1856 national convention, a fellow Pennsylvania Democrat announced, ‘Ever since James Buchanan was a marrying man, he has been wedded to THE CONSTITUTION, and in Pennsylvania we do not allow bigamy.’ Which prompted some wags to note that this particular wife was rather old. Others likened him to a spinster. Even Polk said that he ‘sometimes acts like an old maid.’ There was something fusty about him. A popular term of the day, ‘old fogey,’ seemed to apply. The press came to refer to him routinely as the ‘Old Public Functionary,’ or OPF for short.

“None of this seemed to bother Buchanan, who on occasion even referred to himself as OPF, but his situation often left him feeling isolated. Upon occupying the White House, he recruited his vivacious niece, Harriet Lane, to come live there as his companion and social hostess, a role she embraced wholeheartedly.

“From the start of his political career Buchanan had demonstrated a pronounced affinity for Southerners and the South, despite having lived his whole life in Pennsylvania, where he owned a three-story, seventeen-room mansion called Wheatland situated on twenty-two acres of plantation-like grounds outside Lancaster. In the political vernacular of the time, this made Buchanan a ‘dough face,’ someone who seems outwardly to be one thing but is actually another. The South returned the affection: In the 1856 presidential election, Buchanan won almost universal support from the slaveholding states, with only Maryland choosing to stray. Four of Buchanan's cabinet members were wealthy Southern planters. A fifth, Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey, was from Connecticut, but he, too, was a doughface, a Northerner who embraced the Southern states' rights doctrine. For Buchanan the cabinet served as more than an advisory body. Without a wife and children he was lonely, as he himself acknowledged; his cabinet members, especially Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, a Georgian who once owned a thousand enslaved Blacks, were his personal companions, his friends, his family. This closeness had the effect of limiting his ability to view the political landscape with any degree of impartiality and caused him to act in ways that skirted the line between mere favoritism and treason. 

“As Senator Seward noted in a letter to his wife, Frances, ‘The White House is abandoned to the seceders. They eat, drink, and sleep with him.’”

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Erik Larson


The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War




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