Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in film and literature. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or removed from major mountains. Here’s a look at some facts about our 15th president, James Buchanan.
1. HE WAS THE ONLY PRESIDENT WHO WAS A LIFELONG BACHELOR.
In 1819, 28-year-old Buchanan, then an attorney who had already served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was engaged to Ann Coleman. The romance wasn’t exactly like something out of a storybook. Buchanan’s busy schedule kept the two apart for long stretches of time, and rumors swirled that Buchanan was seeing another woman. Ann also worried that her fiancé was more interested in her father’s fortune than her.
The ill-fated romance had a tragic end. After Buchanan returned from a trip and was rumored to have visited another woman, Ann broke off the engagement with a letter, sank into a depression, and died just a few days later on December 8, 1819. Doctors initially indicated the cause of death was “hysterical convulsions,” while others claimed she overdosed on laudanum, a tincture of opium sometimes used to treat insomnia. Coleman’s father refused to allow Buchanan to attend the funeral, and Buchanan later wrote to him, “I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.”
2. HIS SEXUALITY REMAINS AN OPEN QUESTION.
Buchanan entered Congress in 1821, became a senator in 1834, and during this time struck up a friendship with Alabama Senator William Rufus King. The two lived together at Mrs. Ironsides’ Boarding House on Tenth and F Streets in Washington, D.C. This kind of roommate arrangement wasn’t uncommon for young congressional newcomers, but since Buchanan and King were both older and were independently wealthy, the fact that they roomed together for more than 10 years and remained inseparable the remainder of their lives incited vicious gossip. Andrew Jackson referred to King and Buchanan, respectively, as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy,” and a newspaper described the relationship as a “conspicuous intimacy.”
After King departed for France in 1844, Buchanan wrote to a friend, “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” Evidence suggests that after Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election, his niece, Harriet Lane, and King’s niece, Catherine Ellis, destroyed letters from their correspondence. Historians and writers have also speculated Buchanan may have been asexual, as his volumes of papers and letters never mentioned love, lust, women, romance, or physical attractions to either sex.
3. HE WAS CALLED A “DOUGHFACE” FOR HIS VIEWS ON SLAVERY AND ABOLITION.
Buchanan’s view on slavery were more or less that if left undisturbed the institution would eventually go away. He was likely personally opposed to slavery but believed it was a matter for states to decide and that it was protected under the Constitution. These fence-straddling views landed him the nickname “doughface” because he was a Northerner who adhered to Southern principles.
4. HE SUFFERED FROM POOR VISION.
Multiple portraits showed the six-foot Buchanan almost always cocking his head to the left, as a defect in one of his eyes made him tilt his head “in a perpetual attitude of courteous deference and attentive interest.” Ophthalmologists today believe he may have suffered from exodeviation, a form of wandering eye.
5. HE DRANK A LOT, BUT WASN'T A DRUNK.
Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Buchanan “takes his wine like a true man,” and there were plenty of anecdotes to support that notion. Historian Mark Will-Weber writes that Buchanan’s contemporaries were wowed by his ability to consume vast amounts of wine and whiskey. He once drank 16 toasts on the Fourth of July while a student at Dickinson College in 1808; he had a well-stocked wine cellar famed for its vintages; he would drink two or three bottles in a single sitting sandwiched in between glasses of cognac and rye; he would purchase 10 gallon casks of whiskey on Sundays from distiller Jacob Baer.
After his inauguration in 1857 Buchanan told his liquor merchants the champagne bottles, delivered in pints, were far too small. The press commented on his “resisting power against the fumes of intoxicating drinks,” while others tried and failed to keep up: “More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his…example gathered an early fall.”
6. HE'S CONSIDERED ONE OF THE WORST U.S. PRESIDENTS FOR SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE CIVIL WAR.
Though he was elected at a time of considerable strife and division, Buchanan thought the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in the Dred Scott case would ease his burden. He was so confident that in his inaugural address he predicted the looming states’ rights and slavery questions would be “a matter of but little practical importance.”
As you may remember from history class, that wasn’t the case. The court’s ruling that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive slaveholders of their property rights in the territories angered Northerners, which led to the Democratic Party splintering into Northern and Southern wings. Buchanan urged Congress to admit Kansas as a slaveholding state, but Republicans balked and Kansas remained a territory. After Abraham Lincoln secured the Republican nomination in the 1860 presidential race, Buchanan argued that states had no right to secede but admitted the government couldn’t stop them. He lamented, in his final message to Congress, the abolitionists in the North who stirred up distrust in the South.
On January 5, 1861, Buchanan sent the ship The Star of the West to Fort Sumter, S.C. with supplies and reinforcements, but it was fired upon by the freshly seceded state, which claimed eminent domain over federal property. Buchanan failed to retaliate or apologize for the action and left office with the country in disarray. Buchanan dipped out of Washington, D.C. on March 4, 1861, telling the newly elected Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland (his estate in Pennsylvania), you are a happy man.”