Category: History From The House

“Finer Than the Best Monongahela”: President Buchanan’s Drinking Habits

glasses of whiskey at Wheatland
Glasses of “old Monongahela” on Mr. Buchanan’s library desk at Wheatland.

When visitors tour President James Buchanan’s Wheatland, many notice the quantity of bottles once containing alcohol that are scattered around Buchanan’s dining areas, parlors, and particularly his private office. An unopened 1827 bottle of Madeira wine from Mr. Buchanan’s collection still sits on a table in his office, one floor above the home’s original wine cellar. Occasionally, a visitor will sheepishly inquire, “Did President Buchanan drink a lot?” The answer to this is that a) Americans in the mid-nineteenth century drank a lot (in 1830, 9.5 gallons of distilled spirits per year!) and b) James Buchanan probably drank more than most of them.

For most early Americans over the age of 15, alcohol consumption was part of daily life. Continuous imbibing built up a tolerance; Americans were probably not walking around visibly drunk despite their breakfast whiskey, morning and afternoon “tea breaks” of distilled spirits, and “strengthening” nightcaps. The colonial era relationship with alcohol continued well into the nineteenth century. When James Buchanan was born in 1791, he was born into the era of heaviest drinking in the nation’s history.

An original 1827 bottle of Madeira from Buchanan's private collection.
An original 1827 bottle of Madeira from Buchanan’s private collection.

James Buchanan was a man of his time. He had a preference for Madeira wine, sherry, and rye whiskey (born in Central Pennsylvania, Buchanan was raised on “Old Monongahela” Rye). Buchanan was also an avid wine collector, accumulating quite a stock of Madeira in his Wheatland wine cellar. In fact, he loved Madeira so much that, when given an assignment at Dickinson College to chart an imaginary ship’s course, young Buchanan chose a route from Boston to Madeira, an island he frequently “visited” from Carlisle taverns when he was a student. When he was a Senator, Buchanan bought his whiskey weekly, in 10-gallon quantities, from Jacob Baer, a well-known whiskey merchant in Washington, D.C. Baer’s whiskey was affectionately known as “Old J. B. Whiskey” and our own J. B. was delighted by the fact that his initials matched his own. According to his biographer, Philip Klein, Buchanan considered Baer’s whiskey to be “finer than the best Monongahela.”

One of the best sources on President Buchanan’s drinking habits is John W. Forney, a journalist and politician from Lancaster County who was Buchanan’s one-time political manager and eventual political rival. In his Philadelphia-based newspaper, the Press, Forney wrote in detail of Buchanan’s taste for alcohol, “The Madeira and sherry that he had consumed would fill more than one old cellar, and the rye whiskey that he has ‘punished’ would make Jacob Baer’s heart glad.” Forney also remarked on Buchanan’s ability to drink large quantities of liquor without appearing drunk. After observing Buchanan drink two bottles of cognac and wash it down with rye whiskey, he wrote, “There was no headache, no faltering steps, no flushed cheek. Oh, no! All was as cool, calm and cautious and watchful as in the beginning.” By the time he was writing these accounts, Forney was a Republican and was biased against Buchanan. Still, he was probably not wrong. Forney knew a thing or two about drinking himself.

Although he could handle his liquor superficially, Buchanan’s drinking was not without consequences. Later in life, Buchanan suffered from excruciating gout, brought on by a diet of rich foods and lots of alcohol. It is not known to what extent Buchanan’s drinking may have impaired his judgment. At least one scholar speculates that heavy drinking may have affected the President’s judgment during the Utah War period. By the end of his life, Buchanan had to seriously cut back on his alcohol consumption as it made the flare-ups of gout more severe. Still, he never turned down a good filet of beef with Miss Hetty’s Madeira wine mushroom sauce.


This is an entry from History from the House:

 A 200-year-old house once occupied by an American president has a lot of stories to tell. From an office in Wheatland’s former kitchen space, Museum Educator Stephanie Townrow digs up quirky, fascinating, and sometimes puzzling stories that reveal the hidden histories within President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. She invites readers to explore his home, meet his “little family,” and learn about the tumultuous political climate that surrounded his presidency.


The Tragic Tale of Dick the Canary

Wild canaries from Madeira.
“Wild canaries from Madeira” from Canaries: Their Rearing and Management, by “An Amateur.” The Girl’s Own Paper. January 29, 1898.

During President James Buchanan’s twenty years residing at Wheatland, he kept several animals (domesticated and otherwise) on the property. Buchanan’s beloved 170-pound Newfoundland, Lara, was a frequent presence at Wheatland and remains among the largest dogs to ever occupy the White House. Less traditional pets at Wheatland included two Sierra Nevada eagles. The eagles were presented to Mr. Buchanan by friends in California, and he kept them in a cage on the back lawn. Thankfully, when the King of Siam offered President Buchanan a herd of elephants, Buchanan had left office before King Mongut’s offer letter arrived to the White House. Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, politely declined the generous gift.

Among Wheatland’s diverse selection of pets were Mr. Buchanan’s canaries. Canaries were a surprisingly popular pet in the Victorian Era. They were brought to Spain from an archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa (called, appropriately, the “Canary Islands”) in the fifteenth century and originally limited to royal and aristocratic households. Canaries became a desirable pet for families across all social strata in Europe and America by the early-nineteenth century.

Buchanan, James. Letter to Harriet Lane Johnston, 6 June 1863.
James Buchanan Family Papers, LancasterHistory.org.

Ever the classic Victorian gentleman, James Buchanan kept at least two caged canaries in the parlor at Wheatland. One of them was named Dick. Why do we know this name? On June 6, 1863, two years after his presidency, Buchanan penned his usual update to his beloved niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, who was living in Baltimore with her family at the time. In the first paragraph of the letter, Buchanan discloses the unhappy news that “Dick the Canary Bird has been killed + taken from the cage by an owl or some other ‘varmint.’” Considering the letter’s date, it is unsurprising that the windows of Wheatland may have been left open to allow a breeze to enter the home. Historical weather data indicates that, on June 7, 1863 (the following day), the temperature in Harrisburg reached 92˚F. What is surprising, however, is the idea that a bird of prey could swoop in through an open window and attack a caged songbird. Apparently, it happens more often than you’d think. We do not know the name of the other canary, nor do we know its fate, but one must assume that the tragic incident motivated Wheatland’s domestic staff to move the canary cage a little further away from the open windows.


This is an entry from History from the House:

 A 200-year-old house once occupied by an American president has a lot of stories to tell. From an office in Wheatland’s former kitchen space, Museum Educator Stephanie Townrow digs up quirky, fascinating, and sometimes puzzling stories that reveal the hidden histories within President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. She invites readers to explore his home, meet his “little family,” and learn about the tumultuous political climate that surrounded his presidency.