The strongest traits in his own character led James Buchanan to tragedy in his love for Ann Coleman—and changed history, 40 years later
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.
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.”
Ann’s letter, reflecting upon Buchanan’s integrity, hit him in his most sensitive spot; it hurt his pride and self-respect and created a dilemma which these very elements of his character made it impossible to resolve. To quicken his attentions after this accusation would only suggest additional proof of the charge; to fail to do so would have precisely the same effect. Buchanan was angry, frustrated, and confused, yet he curbed his temper and turned for a solution to what was always his ultimate sanctuary—resignation and faith in the morrow. He answered Ann’s note politely but offered no explanation.
Matters still might have been happily resolved had not another incident occurred. This we may present in the words of a niece of the lady who unwittingly precipitated the crisis:
“Some time after the engagement had been announced, Mr. Buchanan was obliged to go out of town on a business trip. He returned in a few days and casually dropped in to see … Mrs. William Jenkins, with whose husband he was on terms of intimate friendship. With her was staying her sister, Miss Grace Hubley … a pretty and charming young lady. From this innocent call the whole trouble arose. A young lady told Miss Coleman of it and thereby excited her jealousy. She was indignant that he should visit anyone before coming to her. On the spur of the moment she penned an angry note and released him from his engagement.
“The note was handed to him while he was in the Court House. Persons who saw him receive it remarked afterward that they noticed him turn pale when he read it. Mr. Buchanan was a proud man. The large fortune of his lady was to him only another barrier to his trying to persuade her to reconsider her rejection of himself.”
The final crisis developed during the week beginning Monday, November 29. For several days thereafter Ann was so low-spirited that her mother persuaded her to go to Philadelphia, hoping that this would ease her distressed spirits. She left Lancaster on Saturday, December 4, in company with her younger sister, Sarah, to visit with their sister Margaret, wife of Judge Hemphill. A special attraction was the series of plays then being performed at the Philadelphia Theater.
After Ann left for Philadelphia, Buchanan immersed himself in business. On Monday, December 6, he succeeded in getting a settlement out of court of part of the Columbia Bridge Company case. He was at the prothonotary’s office for a considerable part of the day, entering the decisions of the arbitrators, getting signatures of the principal parties to the agreement, and winding up the details. It was a great triumph for him, which doubtless compensated his pride somewhat for the cruelly disheartening upset of his marriage plans.
Early Thursday morning, December 9, the thunderbolt struck. A special messenger from Philadelphia brought the shocking news that Ann Coleman had died suddenly at her sister’s home shortly after midnight. What happened may be related as Judge Thomas Kittera of Philadelphia, who knew the Colemans, recorded it in his diary on that fatal Thursday which was to change the course of James Buchanan’s life, and with it possibly the course of American history.
“At noon yesterday,” wrote Kittera, “I met this young lady on the street, in the vigour of health, and but a few hours after, her friends were mourning her death. She had been engaged to be married, and some unpleasant misunderstanding occurring, the match was broken off. This circumstance was preying on her mind. In the afternoon she was laboring under a fit of hysterics; in the evening she was so little indisposed that her sister visited the theatre.
“After night she was attacked with strong hysterical convulsions, which induced the family to send for physicians, who thought this would soon go off, as it did; but her pulse gradually weakened until midnight, when she died. Dr. Chapman, who spoke with Dr. Physick, says it is the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death. To affectionate parents sixty miles off, what dreadful intelligence. To a younger sister whose evening was spent in mirth and folly, what a lesson of wisdom does it teach. Beloved and admired by all who knew her, in the prime of life, with all the advantages of education, beauty, and wealth, in a moment she has been cut off.”
Judge Kittera might well have added, what crushing intelligence to her late fiancé! The news swept through Lancaster like a soul-chilling wind. One gentleman wrote of it as “the most affecting circumstance that has ever taken place here since I have been an inhabitant.”
There immediately arose the hint of suicide, though no one could produce any positive evidence of it. The hideous part was that no one apparently did know exactly what had happened, and it is entirely probable that James Buchanan lived out his whole life haunted by doubts and self-accusations on this very point. From Dr. Chapman’s own records, and the agreement of most of the later stories on this one particular, it seems certain that Ann Coleman died of an overdose of laudanum, though no one could be sure whether it was taken by instruction, by accident or by intent.
But people thought and talked even if they did not know. One Lancaster lady wrote of the public reaction against Buchanan, “I believe that her friends now look upon him as her Murderer.”
When Buchanan got the news he immediately wrote an anguished letter to Mr. Coleman requesting permission to see the corpse and to walk as a mourner, but the letter was returned to him unopened. In this note Buchanan had written: “It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it. … I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.”
As he came face to face with the bitter hatred of the Colemans and the insidious suicide rumors, Buchanan slowly began to recognize the full horror of his situation. Unable to endure solitude, and even less able to confront people on the street, he went to stay for a time at the home of his friend, Judge Walter Franklin, who was then living next door to the Coleman home. Here he tried to compose a fitting last tribute to Ann for publication in the Lancaster Journal. A printer’s devil who was sent for the copy later recalled finding Buchanan at Franklin’s, “so disturbed by grief that he was unable to write the notice,” and said that Judge Franklin finally composed it himself.
The Hemphills brought Ann Coleman’s body to Lancaster on Saturday, December n. On the Sabbath she was buried in the St. James Episcopal churchyard, in a dreary ceremony witnessed by a vast number of people. The appearance of the yard fitted the mood of the mourners. On this bleak December day the church lay half dismantled; the burying ground was littered with building materials for the new church structure then in progress. It was suggestive of the wreckage of the life of this poor girl, and of the distraction of him who had loved her.
Buchanan tried to get a grip on himself and go back to work, but soon found this task impossible. A contemporary reported what he had to face.
“After Mr. Buchanan was denied his requests” she wrote, “he secluded himself for a few days and then sallied forth as bold as ever. It is now thought that this affair will lessen his Consequence in Lancaster as he is the whole conversation of the town.” After a brief exposure to this, he fled—no one knows where—but probably to the home of his parents in Mercersburg.
Buchanan eventually returned, prepared to walk the stony path which lay ahead. Although he now had bitter and powerful enemies, his friends came loyally to his support and obtained for him a nomination to Congress in 1820, largely in order to give him a change of scene. From this time forth, politics absorbed his whole life. While at first it was chiefly a distraction, an escape, a vindication in his home community, politics at length became his chosen profession, in place of the law.
Marriage he purposely shunned throughout the remainder of his life, though there were many who had hopes of leading him to the altar. To such, Buchanan had a standard reply: “Marry he could not, for his affections were buried in the grave.” Not only his remorse but also the fact that he preserved Ann Coleman’s letters throughout his life suggest that he never fully recovered from the crushing effect of her death.
In many respects, Buchanan’s experience with Ann Coleman was symbolic and typical of his whole life. It represented the cup of his fondest ambition, turned bitter at the very moment of fulfillment through no evident fault of his own. Thus it was, too, in the pattern of his political career, whose final failure was capped by war.
In 1861, as in 1819, James Buchanan became the central figure in an emotional storm which became only the more violent when he applied to it the strongest traits of his own character: self-respect, self-restraint, and a hyperconscientious devotion to civic duty. This picture of a man, driven by the deepest and finest elements of his own nature, to actions which inevitably must lead him to personal misfortune—this portrays human tragedy in its most classic sense.