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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
Ann Caroline Coleman was the outstanding “catch” of Lancaster in 1819. It was for that reason, perhaps, that she was still unmarried at 23. Her wealth and social position were enough to awe the timid; her father’s protective care created a shield against the overzealous. She was by all accounts a slim, black-haired beauty with dark, lustrous eyes. Proud, gentle, full of sensibility, lovely in person, tender and affectionate, intelligent and thoughtful--these were characterizations of her by her friends. Others noted that she was inclined to be high-strung, impetuous and occasionally giddy.
Under ordinary circumstances it might have been considered presumptuous for a young unknown of no particular family background to pay court to the beautiful daughter of the town’s chief citizen, and it seems as if father Coleman inclined to this view. But the circumstances were not quite ordinary. By 1819 Buchanan had built a fine reputation in politics and in the law. He had served as a prosecuting attorney and as a state assemblyman. He had gained wide praise for his successful defense of Judge Walter Franklin before the bar of the Pennsylvania Senate in two successive impeachment trials. His able arguments had brought him not only prestige but a greatly increased practice to which he applied the Hopkins training with regard to fees. After all, what client would not be partial to a lawyer to whom the presiding judge owed his place on the bench? In 1819 Buchanan was making $8,000 a year from his practice, a fortune in that day.
He and Ann became engaged sometime in the summer of 1819. Father Coleman, now 71 years old, undoubtedly examined this development with his customary thoroughness. It is very likely that, as a trustee of Dickinson College, he pondered the advisability of marrying his daughter to a young man who had been once dismissed and twice under faculty discipline there. As a careful businessman he may have been dismayed by Buchanan’s loss of a property to his friend Rogers on an 1816 election bet. As an ambitious father he may well have hoped for a better match than this grandson of the Buchanans who had been the neighbors of his early youth in Ireland. That father Coleman was actively hostile to Buchanan we do not know; but we do know that he was not a man to ease the path of a suitor for his daughter’s hand.
The autumn of 1819 was a nightmare to men of property and to the lawyers who handled it. By August the delirium of the panic had reached its peak and Buchanan was frantically busy. Except for a brief trip to see his parents in Mercersburg, he spent most of his time on a suit involving the continued existence of the Columbia Bridge Company, a large speculative enterprise in which many Lancastrians had a financial interest. The case involved William Jenkins’ bank and had ramifications in Philadelphia which required Buchanan’s presence there from time to time.
In addition to this, the political scene was in an uproar, and the local Federalist party which had long dominated the town was falling apart. Buchanan, one of the younger Federalist leaders, jumped into the fray as a speaker and committee worker before the coming election. Furthermore, the Missouri question was at this very moment inflaming the country. During the week of November 23, Buchanan served with James Hopkins and William Jenkins as a committee to prepare official resolutions of instruction for the district congressmen on the question of slavery in Missouri.
With these preoccupations, Buchanan apparently did not spend very much time in his courtship during October and November, 1819. Always conscientious, he consumed his time in business, apparently to the neglect of Ann Coleman, without pausing to recognize the possible implications of his activity. The town did otherwise, drawing conclusions from what it outwardly observed and creating gossip to fit the circumstances, for after his engagement to Ann Coleman, the young man became a major subject of local conversation.
As the teacups clinked, talk inevitably drifted to this topic, and with increasing regularity centered upon three observations about Buchanan: that he was tremendously ambitious to make money; that he was more affable and friendly to many young ladies than he ought to be as one betrothed; and finally, that he had been something less than an ardent suitor of Ann Coleman in recent weeks. Gossip welded these separately plausible statements together into a conclusion which was as simple and deadly as it was unfair and untrue—that Buchanan’s interest was not in Ann Coleman at all; it was only in her father’s fortune.
Sometime in November Ann began to worry about this gossip, which inevitably found its way into the Coleman household. Her parents did nothing to ease her mind on the subject. Gradually she began to believe, as one of her friends expressed it, “that Mr. Buchanan did not treat her with that affection that she expected from the man she would marry, and in consequence of his coolness she wrote him a note telling him that she thought it was not regard for her that was his object, but her riches.”