James Buchanan: George Washington Fanboy

Was President Buchanan a patriot? Although his presidency is widely criticized, there is little doubt that Buchanan devoted much of his life to serving his country. He famously remarked, as things were heating up in South Carolina in 1861, that “whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that at least I meant well for my country.” Buchanan was a career-long public servant, and a citizen soldier who served during the War of 1812. Some of the clearest evidence of Buchanan’s passion for the country is illustrated through his relationship with the “Father of His Country,” George Washington.

George Peter Alexander Healy, <i>James Buchanan</i>, 1859 (National Portrait Gallery)

Gilbert Stuart, <i>George Washington</i>, 1797 (White House)
left: George Peter Alexander Healy, James Buchanan, 1859 (National Portrait Gallery); right: Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1797 (White House)

James Buchanan was the last American president to be born during George Washington’s lifetime. Buchanan was born in April 1791, and Washington passed in December 1799. James Buchanan came of age during a period of great patriotism, and celebration of our new nation. Much of his early education came from his mother, Elizabeth Speer Buchanan, who considered Washington her personal hero ever since she encountered him (or at least, encountered the idea of him, since there is no evidence of an actual encounter) while he was staying nearby her Pennsylvania home during the Whiskey Rebellion. As many Americans did following Washington’s death, Mrs. Buchanan named a son after him – George Washington Buchanan, who passed away in 1831 at the age of 24.

Given his patriotic upbringing, it is no wonder James Buchanan became a bona fide “Washington fanboy.” He spoke more than once on the record in Congress about General Washington, frequently in service of trying to get a Washington Monument built. (Sadly, the motion was tabled during Buchanan’s time in Congress, and the cornerstone to the Washington Monument was not laid until 1848. It was not completed until 1884, 16 years after Buchanan’s death.) Buchanan believed that Washington “was chiefly instrumental in converting the chaos of the old Confederation into the most perfect fabric of human wisdom – the Federal Constitution.” Particularly given his own presidential aspirations, one may also suppose that Buchanan’s admiration of Washington stemmed in part from the precedents he set as our nation’s first precedent – Buchanan said that “[Washington’s] conduct as President of the United States was characterized by such wisdom and virtue that, after the strictest examination, it is now admitted to be the most proper guide.”

Thomas P. Rossiter, Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, 1861Thomas P. Rossiter, Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, 1861 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

As president, Buchanan made several visits to General Washington’s Mount Vernon home. In October 1860, he accompanied Prince Albert Edward (heir to the British throne, later King Edward VII) on the first royal visit to Mount Vernon. Given that the 1860 visit was the first time a member of the British royal family visited America, it was significant that President Buchanan brought the Prince of Wales to Mount Vernon to reflect on Washington’s legacy and to pay their respects at his tomb. An important painting by Thomas P. Rossiter recording this historic visit remains on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

As was fitting for Americans beginning with our nation’s founding, President Buchanan observed and celebrated Independence Day. Although Independence Day has only been an official holiday since 1941, it has been observed by almost every US president in one way or another. During his time as president, Buchanan observed Independence Day in the Executive Mansion, receiving and entertaining guests in a public reception in the State Dining Room, in the precedent established by Thomas Jefferson. Although it’s not in the written record, one can imagine Buchanan likely used the occasion to make a few remarks about George Washington.

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.

From History From The House