James Buchanan has been the cellar dweller among Presidents for more than 150 years.
JB: The Balance Sheet
The asset side. Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan (1791-1868) came to the presidency in 1857 with a forty-plus-year resume of solid achievement: successful attorney, state legislator, congressman, senator, cabinet member, foreign diplomat. He was popular with his peers and short-listed for the Democratic presidential nomination for more than a decade. He was considered industrious, honest and a man of good will.
The debit side. Buchanan was a man of good will, but not of strong will. He could and did dither and waffle. In 1856 he was 65, the oldest President to date, and indeed for another century. His energy was starting to flag. In those 40-plus years on the national scene, he had made his closest friendships with southern counterparts. While he was never in favor of slavery, he was perceived to be, and likely was, sympathetic to the “peculiar institution” and believed it to be constitutionally protected. Thus the dither-waffle problem. He also made some disastrous decisions.
It is thought by some historians that Buchanan was nominated and elected in ‘56 because he was out of the country, serving as Minister to England during the turbulent four years of the Pierce Administration. He had been away from the fray, and could legitimately duck the big issues.
Harriet Lane, Devoted Niece
James Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor, brother of several sisters, and uncle/guardian/benefactor to several orphaned nieces and nephews.
Harriet Lane (1830-1903), completely orphaned before her teens, became his ward. She lived with him, was sent to the best schools and favored by his sincere paternal devotion. In turn, she adored “Nunc,” as she called him, and enjoyed the advantages he generously provided, which included spending three years in England, wining and dining in royal-ish circles as the official escort to the American Minister.
When Buchanan became President, Harriet, then in her mid-twenties, was his de facto First Lady, capably managing a glittering social scene in Washington, as it danced on the precipice of Civil War.
As niece-of, rather than wife-of President, and forty years younger than the POTUS, her influence was social and filial, rather than political or even peer – but she enjoyed his confidence. It must have been painful for her to see his previously fine reputation falter.
Although Harriet Lane was young, attractive and hugely eligible during her four years in the White House, she did not marry until after the Buchanan presidency, and indeed, not until she was 35.
Her choice was Henry Johnston, a wealthy Baltimore attorney-businessman her own age, and one she had known for many years. “Nunc,” whose health was failing by then, was thrilled at the match.
Harriet’s life as a happy matron lasted only fifteen years. Her two sons, James and Henry, died of rheumatic fever in adolescence. Then her husband died. She had outlived her siblings, her uncle, her children and her husband, and was entirely alone at fifty.
But she had inherited a considerable amount from Buchanan, and an enormous fortune from her husband. She was well fixed for life, and despite her losses, was able to live on her own happily and in great comfort.
The Statue of James Buchanan
Harriet Lane Johnston died at 73. She was a generous woman with no kin, and made several substantial bequests in her well-planned will. One of them was the sum of $100,000 (more than $1 million today) for Congress to erect a statue to the memory of her uncle, James Buchanan. The provisions specified that it was, to wit (and groan), a “statue of limitations”: Twenty years – or the monies would revert elsewhere.
Congress, used to dithering and dickering, was less than enthusiastic. There were few monuments in Washington then. The Lincoln Memorial hadn’t been built yet. There had been no monuments to Adams or Jefferson or Madison. In more than fifty years, Buchanan had never risen in anyone’s estimation. Why should a failed president be so honored? The vote in Congress reflected the country’s division or disregard, although it passed in both the Senate (51-11) and the House (217-142), mainly because they did not have to pay for it.
Architect William Gordon Beecher and sculptor Hans Schuler were commissioned and designs submitted. There was more dickering. The design and the plans were impressive – far more impressive than the Buchanan presidency, according to the congressional committee assigned to oversee the project.
Schuler planned a bronze and granite work of substantial size: Buchanan seated and loo0king “presidential.” It was a conventional “Victorian” work of art: lifelike, heroic and filled with symbolic images. Exactly what Harriet Lane had envisioned. A few appropriate words of praise would be etched.
Its location at Meridian Hill Park met the terms of the bequest, yet it was far enough away from the “historic” center of town (although the city would grow exponentially during the next century.)
Dickering and Dithering
The nineteen-teens was a troublesome time, with World War I looming and pressing problems far more important than honoring a long-dead president of dubious distinction. There were some powerful senators, like Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), who considered Buchanan downright treasonous, and argued against the project from the start. (Interestingly enough, nearly a century earlier, Congress dickered and dithered over accepting a huge bequest from James Smithson, an Englishman, and it was largely because of the yeoman efforts of John Quincy Adams that the Smithsonian Institution was even built).
But the bottom line was the expiration date for the bequest. Use it or lose it. Time was running out and Congress was loath to lose such a large amount of money. The statue was finally approved in 1918 – under the limitation wire.
It was finally formally dedicated in 1930. It remains there today, but Buchanan’s reputation has never risen.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995