The papers of President James Buchanan, who presided in the four years leading up to the Civil War, have been digitized and are now available online for the first time from the Library of Congress, along with the papers of his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, who served as first lady in the White House. Buchanan was the nation’s only president who never married.
The Buchanan collection includes approximately 1,600 items dating from 1825 to 1887.
Buchanan’s papers include correspondence, notes, drafts of remarks and other records relating to his career in the U.S. Congress representing Pennsylvania, as secretary of state and as minister to Great Britain, along with his presidential years. Subjects include politics nationally and in Pennsylvania, sectional disputes in the country before the Civil War, the theory that states could nullify the U.S. Constitution, relations with Mexico and other issues of the time.
During Buchanan’s time as secretary of state, the U.S. annexed Texas, acquired California, negotiated borders for the Oregon Territory with Britain and fought the Mexican War. Buchanan served under President James K. Polk, whose papers are also held by the Library and also are available online.
When Buchanan became president, he was confronted with the question of slavery, the Dred Scott decision from the Supreme Court and whether popular sovereignty would determine if new states allowed slavery. Near the end of his presidency, Southern states began to secede from the Union – just before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the first president from the new Republican Party.
For her part, Johnston may have proven to be a more popular figure than her uncle during a difficult time in the presidency. She was active in Washington’s social scene and had learned to navigate successfully in official circles during her time in London while her uncle served as America’s minister to Great Britain in the mid-1850s. Buchanan wrote about dining with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and noted Johnston was clearly “a favorite of both.”
Johnston’s papers include correspondence about ladies’ fashions, romance and social affairs at a time when Washington was still dominated by Southern families. She also had a close relationship with Buchanan, who had become her guardian at a young age after her parents died. They wrote frequently to each other when they were apart. Buchanan’s writings show him to be affectionate but also offering advice to rein in her emotions and to encourage good conduct.
The Library has held the Buchanan-Johnston collection for a century, and additional materials have been added over the years. However, the bulk of Buchanan’s materials are located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The digitization of the Buchanan papers is part of a larger effort to make presidential materials accessible online. Other newly digitized collections include the papers of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James K. Polk.
Coming Online Soon
Additional Civil War-era materials include the papers of Joseph Holt, who served in Buchanan’s administration and later presided over the trial of the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination as judge advocate general of the U.S. Army, and E.B. Washburne of Illinois, who served in Congress during the Civil War and later as minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War.