James Buchanan with HamJames Buchanan with Ham

15th PRESIDENT

NAME: James Buchanan. He was named after his father.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: An imposing, handsome figure, Buchanan stood a bit over 6 feet tall and had broad shoulders and a sizable paunch. He had a very fair complexion and large blue eyes. His massive forehead receded to silky gray hair, which he wore swept up and back. He had rather small feet for his size and took quick steps. His most distinctive feature was a wryneck; his head was habitually cocked to the left. Unlike most victims of wryneck, his was not caused by muscular malfunction. Rather, it was a result of a peculiar eye disorder. One eye was nearsighted, the other farsighted; also the left eyeball was pitched higher in the socket than was the right. To compensate, Buchanan early developed the habit of cocking his head and closing one eye. If he were talking to someone or examining something close up, he would wink shut the farsighted eye; if gazing in the distance, he closed the nearsighted one. For reading he found it easier to focus with a candle in front of his eyes. He apparently coped well with the disorder, for he read much throughout his career and did not wear glasses until near the end of his life. His health otherwise generally was sound. One of Buchanan’s eyelids twitched, which, combined with his personality (in 1825, at least) led a modern Jackson biographer to describe Buchanan as a “winking, fidgeting little busybody.” ¬†Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor with Epicurean tastes, was celebrated for serious drinking. He chided his liquor merchants for delivering champagne to the White House in small bottles. He would use his Sunday ride as an excuse to visit the Jacob Baer distillery in Washington and pick up a ten-gallon cask of “Old J.B. Whiskey.” It would amuse him when White House guests mistook the initials J.B. for his own.¬†A journalist of the time wrote “There was no head ache, no faltering steps, no flushed cheek” associated with Buchanan’s drinking. “Oh no! All was as cool, as calm and as cautious and watchful as in the beginning. More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his example gathered an early fall.” Buchanan would begin his drinking with cognac and end with old rye. Two or three bottles might be consumed at one sitting. The press commented on his resistance to alcohol’s effects. Buchanan dressed carefully, commonly in a black suit and white neckwear.

PERSONALITY: According to biographer George Ticknor Curtis, Buchanan’s personality was marked by “strong family affections,” “engaging social qualities,” “fidelity to friends,” a “forgiving temper toward those who had injured him,” and generosity. He freely loaned money to friends in need and gave funds to the poor. He bought slaves in Washington and freed them in Pennsylvania without any guarantee of reimbursement. He was scrupulous to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. He declined all offers of free transportation passes and, as president, turned gifts over to the Patent Office. Buchanan carried himself with an air of dignity and was at all times graceful and courteous. He was not an especially gifted speaker.

SOURCES: DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. 7th ed. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2009; and http://www.doctorzebra.com

James Buchanan with Ham

Franklin Pierce Abraham Lincoln