- Historic Sites
The Lost Love Of A Bachelor President
The strongest traits in his own character led James Buchanan to tragedy in his love for Ann Coleman—and changed history, 40 years later
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
One of the strangest mysteries in American history is the story of Ann Caroline Coleman and James Buchanan, a tale of blighted romance which ended with the tragic death of the lady and a pledge of lifetime bachelorhood by the future President. Although dozens of people circulated conflicting versions of this pathetic affair during Buchanan’s lifetime, none of those who were in a position to know the truth ever publicly divulged it. Buchanan himself never spoke of the matter except on one occasion, forty years later, when a particularly inane newspaper article on the subject provoked him to the curt pronouncement that its author ought to be soundly horsewhipped.
The one key which might have unlocked the riddle was a packet of letters which young Buchanan had received from his fiancée in 1819, the year of her death. These he tied in pink ribbon, preserved during his life, and in his latter years endorsed with instructions that his executors should burn them without reading. Their fate is revealed by the original wrapper, still on file at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, bearing Buchanan’s directions in his own handwriting, and beneath this the endorsement of the executors stating that they had placed the letters in the fire.
Although the original key seems now irretrievably lost, some new evidence has come to light which makes worth while another effort to re-create the course of these long-forgotten events. Anyone who pauses to consider the implications of this episode must instinctively frame the question: how different might have been the course of American history had James Buchanan married Ann Coleman and devoted his life to rural domesticity and the practice of law?
The setting for this mystery was the little town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the early years of the Nineteenth Century. In those days Lancaster was a proud community still conscious of the fact that it had recently been capital of the commonwealth and a center of its social life. The wealthiest families of the city comprised two groups, the ironmasters and the lawyers, who between them set the tone of society and of politics. It was James Buchanan’s fate to become involved, with far-reaching consequences, in the affairs of four of these families: Coleman, Jacobs, Hopkins and Jenkins.
Robert Coleman, Ann’s father, had come to America from Ireland as a youth of sixteen. He went to work as a laborer at the Hopewell iron forge, later became a clerk for James Old, famous ironmaster of Reading, Pennsylvania, and capped his fortune by marrying Old’s daughter. He soon came into possession of several of the finest iron properties in the East, accumulated great wealth, and entered actively into civic affairs. As a self-made man, he was conscious of his wealth and always suspicious that others had designs on it; as a member of the newly rich, he was sensitive about social prestige.
In 1809, the same year that James Buchanan came to Lancaster, Robert Coleman also moved to the city where he established his family in a large brick mansion on East King Street, just half a block from the courthouse on the square. The Colemans at this time had five grown sons and four daughters. The eldest daughter. Margaret, had already married Judge Joseph Hemphill of Philadelphia, commonly known as “Single Speech Hemphill” because his maiden speech in the 7th Congress proved also to be his swan song. The other three girls--Ann, thirteen; Harriet, nine; and Sarah, seven--lived with their parents in the King Street house.
Robert Coleman’s brother-in-law was Cyrus Jacobs, and the Coleman children were thus first cousins of the Jacobs children, who became Buchanan’s link with Ann Coleman. Cyrus Jacobs, Jr., came to study law in Buchanan’s office; his sister, Eliza Jacobs, became the sweetheart of Buchanan’s law partner, Molton C. Rogers.
James Hopkins, head of the third family connected with the Coleman tragedy, was the outstanding lawyer at the Lancaster bar, widely renowned for the high price of his services. James Buchanan began to study law in his office, just half a block from the Coleman home, in the fall of 1809 and became a favored protégé of the old gentleman. The town soon began to think of Buchanan as a minor edition of Hopkins.
Finally, there was the Jenkins family. William Jenkins, president of the Farmers Bank and a prominent Lancaster lawyer, became one of Buchanan’s intimate friends. He frequently invited Buchanan to associate with him in legal cases, and employed him on several occasions to purchase property. Jenkins lived on South Duke Street between the Coleman home and Buchanan’s rooms, and just a few doors from each. It was Jenkins, incidentally, who later built Wheatland, the home Buchanan was to make famous.
It was into the lives of these families that James Buchanan stepped in the autumn of 1809. Ann Coleman was just thirteen years old as this handsome, fair-haired, seventeen-year-old six-footer began his daily treks past her home from Hopkins’ office to the court-house. Little by little, Buchanan worked his way into the confidence of Lancaster society, and at length was admitted to its most exclusive echelon, the iron circle. By 1816 he had come far enough up the social ladder to be named as one of three managers for a high-society ball, and shortly thereafter he was admitted to the local Masonic Lodge, the final accolade of social approval.