Harriet Lane, Queen Victoria, me, and an unwrinkled President Buchanan
June 1st is the birthday of Marilyn Monroe, Morgan Freeman, Heidi Klum, and Amy Schumer. This June 1st was also the 151st Anniversary of the death of President James Buchanan. His historic home, Wheatland, is just a few miles from my apartment, so I made my second trip there to pay honor to the man on this solemn occasion. I’m glad I did. Normally a guide takes you on a tour of the mansion, but, on this day, because of its significance, we had two guides, and there were also two special guests. Two very beautiful local actresses in full costume played the roles of Queen Victoria and Buchanan’s beloved niece, Harriet Lane. The ten of us on the three o’clock tour entered the room where the two actresses were sitting opposite each other, and they played out a scene for us. They reenacted the moment in Buckingham Palace when Queen Victoria asked the enormously popular Harriet to remain in England after her Uncle finished his duties as Ambassador to England and returned to the States.
Halfway through their scene, the Queen noticed the t-shirt I was wearing and directed a question to me. “Is that a picture of Harriet’s uncle on your shirt?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” I responded a little nervously, as if I was actually speaking to royalty. The “Queen” told me that she approved, and I beamed with pride that she had interrupted the scene to speak with little old me. Well, she didn’t exactly interrupt the scene, she incorporated me into the scene. Both she and the actress playing Harriet remained in character while they told me how much they liked the shirt. The “Queen” then involved me further into the scene by asking for my opinion about whether or not Harriet should remain in England or return to the States with her uncle. At that point, I really wanted to break out my phone and get a selfie with the two lovely actresses, but I don’t think they had smart phones in the Victorian era, and I didn’t want to break the magical spell of the reenactment. Where are the paparazzi when you need them?
After the tour, I wandered around Wheatland for a while, walking in the footsteps of America’s most underrated President. Some historians even claim that he was the worst President the U.S. ever had. That’s a sad situation, which I hope to rectify with a play I am writing about him and his Wheatland family.
President Buchanan was unmarried, so when he was in the White House, his niece Harriet Lane handled the social calendar, and she was the first woman that the newspapers referred to as “The First Lady.” She parlayed her popularity in Europe by being even more popular here as The First Lady. She played piano and especially enjoyed the songs of fellow Pennsylvanian, Stephen Foster. She also loved to dance, and she planned an elaborate ball at the White House when her friend the Prince of Wales made the first visit of a member of the British Royal Family to their former colonies. Many Americans, especially in the Northeast, were suffering the effects of the Panic of 1857 at the time, and President Buchanan did not think it was proper for there to be dancing in the White House while Americans were out of work and going hungry. So, he made her change her plans from a grand ball to a State Dinner. She was disappointed, but she understood. So, there was no dancing in the White House while he was President, but there was dancing in the street when he returned home to his home, Wheatland, in 1861.
I took a bus home and it went past Buchanan Park, which is just south of Franklin and Marshall College, where James Buchanan was the first President of their Board of Trustees. The place was packed with people. There were so many vendors tents that it looked like a camp grounds. I don’t know what occasion they were celebrating, because I didn’t get off the bus to find out. I was just happy to see so many hundreds of people having a good time in Buchanan Park. I only hoped that they were all somewhat aware of the historical significance of the day. James Buchanan loved the places and the people of Lancaster, and the people of Lancaster loved him right back. More than 20,000 people came to his funeral 151 years ago, even though he had requested a small simple service. A century and a half later, he is still beloved by the people of Lancaster, and they are still dancing in the street for him.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,