- 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
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.