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“Curtis’s Life of James Buchanan.” The Literary World 14 (August 25, 1883): 267-268.


We had not supposed it possible that two such really interesting volumes could be made out of the life of James Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States, was at the helm when the storm of Secession burst, and his seamanship was not equal to the emergency. Many men might have met the demands of the crisis no better. We shall not here enter into the disputed question of the patriotic purposes of Mr. Buchanan and his political integrity, a question on both sides of which much has been said, and warmly said, except to remark that the impression on this point left by Mr. Curtis’s work is altogether favorable to Mr. Buchanan’s fame. We shall confine our remarks to the effect of the work as the portraiture of a man; and we will say in one word at the outset, that it presents to the view a very true and pure and lovely personal character and life. Political considerations aside, they are a character and life that emphatically deserve to be held up to the widest notice, and to be kept in everlasting remembrance. Among all the Presidents of the United States not now living, we do not recall one whose traits present a more pleasing picture than Mr. Buchanan’s. It is a good deal to say, but we say it deliberately and heartily.

Mr. Buchanan was in the habit of keeping all his papers. He accumulated an enormous mass of correspondence, either in its original forms or in copies. “He rarely held an important conversation,” says his biographer, “or was engaged in a critical transaction, without writing down an account of it with his own hand immediately afterward.” Between his retirement from the presidency and his death he collected his papers with care, together with the public documents connected with them. In his will he appointed the late Mr. Wm. B. Reed of Philadelphia as his biographer. Mr. Reed being prevented from serving, the work of writing his life was entrusted to the late Judge Cadwallader, also of Philadelphia, and also a personal friend. Judge Cadwallader died before he could perform the task. Mr. Curtis was then selected by Mr. Buchanan’s executor. To Mr. Buchanan’s own voluminous papers were added those from Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston and other members of the family, and out of these superabundant materials Mr. Curtis – who is not Mr. George William Curtis, the reader will please notice – has composed these two handsome volumes.

The work is especially rich in correspondence. Mr. Buchanan’s own letters are inserted in great profusion, and there are not wanting letters addressed to him by a wide circle of kinsfolk and public associates. Mr. Buchanan’s own letters are not more important for the light they shed upon the motives and lines of his political action than they are remarkable as the exposition of a calm, dignified, judicious, affectionate, and well-balanced nature. The letters to his famous niece, Harriet Lane, now Mrs. Johnston, are particularly in point in this respect. Mr. Curtis is right in comparing them favorably with the best specimens of correspondence in the English language. They are full of the humanities, instinct with lofty sentiments, alive with tender feeling. A selection from these letters would make an admirable volume by themselves.

Mr. Buchanan was born as long ago as 1791. Before his death he was somewhat irreverently nicknamed as “the Old Public Functionary.” It has been forgotten, perhaps, that he was “old” enough to have served as a volunteer in the War of 1812, and an “old” enough “public functionary” to have been sent as Untied States Minister to Russia by President Jackson, as successor of John Randolph of Roanoke, in 1831. He entered the Pennsylvania Legislature at the early age of twenty-three, and his life thereafter remained public and political to the end.

Mr. Buchanan served as United States Minister to England as well as to Russia, returning from London in 1856 to be nominated and elected to the presidency. Some of the more interesting chapters in his biography are those which relate to his official residence at the courts of Czar and Queen. His letters home during those periods are models of graphic, natural, unaffected narrative; and present vivid pictures of high life abroad. His wise reserve toward circumstances of a delicate and private nature is not more noticeable than is his agreeable frankness about the thousand and one little incidents and experiences which it properly pleases us to know.

An amusing feature of Mr. Buchanan’s introduction to the English court was the difficulty about court dress. Secretary of State Marcy had issued a circular directing ambassadors at European courts to appear in the simple dress of an American citizen. According to Queen Victoria’s notions, and those who had charge of the etiquette of her receptions, this would not do at all. “The dress of an American citizen” was simply the dress of the upper servants in the dining-halls and drawing-rooms of the palace. It was a question with Mr. Buchanan, therefore, whether he would make himself ridiculous by putting on gold lace and embroidery, or stand by his democratic dignity in black broadcloth, white waistcoat, and that heavy white neckcloth which is so familiar an object in all his portraits. He finally decided on the latter, but consented to compromise with the whims of royalty by buckling on “a very plain black-handled and black-hilted sword” to dangle about his heels. With this concession her Majesty and her Majesty’s ministers were satisfied.

One of the more entertaining chapters is that in the first volume on Harriet Lane, Mr. Buchanan’s niece; and the freedom with which has been surrendered to publicity the thinly-veiled history, in letters, of all the various suitors of this estimable lady, and their suits, speaks well for her good nature and indifference to curiosity.

The private life shared by Mr. Buchanan and this niece, and his ever-watchful care over her and his tender solicitude for her welfare and happiness, form one of the most pleasing passages in American domestic annals.

But Mr. Buchanan’s life had its stormy passages as well, and pure as was his character, and upright as we may credit his motives with being, he did not escape painful struggles, bitter attacks, and contemptible calumnies. The charge that he carried off pictures and curios belonging to the White House was a specimen of the ridiculous censures to which he was exposed.

Toward the grave animadversions cast upon Mr. Buchanan’s political character, Mr. Curtis takes an emphatically defensory attitude, although stating in his preface that he was never personally known to him, disclaiming most warmly all mere eulogistic intent, and affirming in the strongest terms his own entire independence and candor. His well-known democratic sympathies fit him, however, to see Mr. Buchanan’s side in the controversy in the clearest light, and of the earnestness of effectiveness of his apology there can be no question.

One thing is certain: No one can read these volumes and not rise from them with a profound respect, not to say admiration, for James Buchanan as a man, and a kindlier feeling toward him as a statesman.