Saturday, January 8, 2011

President Buchanan and Lara

Mr. James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States, and he was the president right before the Civil War started, which was not a very nice time to be president.  In those days, everybody was mad at everybody else, and there was all kinds of snarking about whether people should have slaves or not.  And then some states said they didn't want to be part of the U.S. anymore, and they started going off and making their own country.  So in the end, President Buchanan got called one of the worst presidents in history, but in some ways it wasn't his fault, because he did the best he could.

The very log cabin where he was born

Anyway, Mr. Buchanan was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791.  He was the last president to be born in the 18th century, and he was the only president we have ever had so far from Pennsylvania.  Mr. Buchanan grew up to be a lawyer and state politician.  Then he got elected to the House of Representatives and later the Senate.  Also he served as Minister to Russia, Secretary of State, and Minister to the United Kingdom.  He could have been on the Supreme Court, but he said no when President Pierce wanted to appoint him.

Whenever Mr. Buchanan was in Pennsylvania, he lived in a big, brick house called Wheatland.  And he had a dog there who was a 170-pound Newfoundland named Lara.  You would think that a dog named "Lara" was a girl dog, but Mr. Buchanan's Lara was a boy dog.  I don't know why anybody would name a boy dog "Lara," but maybe it was sort of like in that song "A Boy Named Sue."

Back in those days, not many people had Newfies because the breed had only been around for about 50 years.  A picture of Lara was published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, so that everybody could see what this dog looked liked.  It was not a photographic type of picture, though.  It was one of those drawing types of pictures.  Anyway, Mr. Leslie wrote, "Prominent [on his estate] is Mr. Buchanan's Newfoundland dog Lara; remarkable for his immense tail and his attachment to his master."

When Lara went to live in the White House with President Buchanan, he became a big celebrity.  He was especially famous for his habit of lying around without moving for long periods of time, with one eye open and one eye closed.

Miss Harriet Lane
President Buchanan never married, so he did not have a wife who could be the First Lady.  That's why his niece, Harriet Lane, acted as the First Lady instead.  Mr. Buchanan had taken care of Harriet ever since she became an orphan at age 11.  She was in her 20's when her uncle got elected president, and everyone thought she did a very good job of being hostess in the White House, even though it was a difficult time because of all the arguing and stuff, which meant that whenever there was a dinner party, she had to be very careful not to let people sit together who were going to throw food at each other.

The U.S. Consul in South Hampton, England, gave Miss Harriet a little toy terrier named Punch.  This dog was so small that people said it would fit under a quart-sized bowl.  So in the White House there was a great big dog, Lara, and a little tiny dog, Punch.  I also read that President Buchanan had an elephant and an eagle.  I don't think he had them at the White House, but I could be wrong about this.

Well, that's all I know about Mr. Buchanan's pets, but I learned some interesting things about his private life that I am now going to tell you.  First of all, like I said before, Mr. Buchanan never got married.  When he was a young man, he was engaged to a lady from a nice family, and her name was Ann Coleman.  But Mr. Buchanan did not spend a lot of time with Miss Ann because he was always busy being a lawyer and a politician and with traveling and stuff.  Then one time when he came back to town, he went to visit another woman before he visited Miss Ann, so she got mad and told him she didn't want to marry him after all.

Then a few weeks later, Miss Ann died in kind of a strange way, which the doctor said was "hysteria," but he said he had never seen anyone die from hysteria.  Some people think maybe Miss Ann committed suicide by taking too much laudanum, which is a medicine that is made from opium.  Anyway, Miss Ann's parents blamed Mr. Buchanan and wouldn't even let him come to the funeral, and he told everyone that his heart was broken, and he said he would never marry anyone ever.

William Rufus King
Later on, Mr. Buchanan had a very close friend named William Rufus King.  Mr. King was a senator from Alabama, and then he got to be the Vice-President when Franklin Pierce was President.  Anyway, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. King lived together for fifteen years, so people think they were probably gay.  At the time, Mr. King got called things like "Aunt Fancy" or "Miss Nancy" or "Mrs. Buchanan."  And the two men were called "Siamese twins," which was slang that people used back then for gays and lesbians.

The letters that the two men wrote to each other were burned when they died, which is what they asked their families to do, so there is no real proof that they were gay, but it seems like maybe they were.  Which means that President Buchanan might have been the first gay president of the United States!

Well, after he served one term, Mr. Buchanan did not run again because by then the Democratic party was all split up and fighting, and nobody much liked Mr. Buchanan anymore.  So Mr. Buchanan went back to live at Wheatland, where I hope he had some more dogs to keep him company in his old age.  He died on June 1, 1868, at the age of 77.


  1. Wow...a 170lb dog...that's like really really big!! I think "Punch" would be more my size to play with. My mom read us today's blog and she didn't know that Pres. Buchanan was thought to be "gay." I kind of think that word might mean something else than being happy - that's ok there's alot of words I don't understand. Mom said she wishes today that people's private lives could remain just that - PRIVATE! She went on and on, but I have NO idea what she was ranting about. I also hope when Pres. B went back to Wheatland, he had lots of pets...and even one or two cats!
    Love, Dodi