The Ivanka Trump of the 19th Century

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tags: Ivanka Trump, Harriet Lane



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

The Ivanka Trump of pre-Civil War America, Harriet Lane dazzled Americans using the technology of her times: mastering the daguerreotype and the telegram rather than the Internet and Instagram. As the glittering, petticoated star of a beleaguered White House, she charmed princes and populists, the press and the public. Yet, ultimately, all her girl power couldn’t save her uncle James Buchanan’s pitiful presidency.

Lane’s style was just risqué enough to enhance her legend without destroying her reputation. Beyond the glitz, this first woman to be called “first lady” in print contributed helpful politicking, wise advice, and a popularity boost to the Buchanan presidency. But, like Ms. Trump, Miss Lane was not married to the man she called “Nunc” and others called “Mr. President.”

Fellow mourners’ anguished solitude reinforced the natural solicitude James Buchanan had for his niece Harriet, born on May 9, 1830. By the time she turned eleven she had lost both her parents. While mourning his sister, Buchanan remained haunted by the great loss of his life, when the great love of his life, Anne C. Coleman, died. This tragedy in 1819, shortly after Buchanan abruptly ended their engagement, triggered speculation that she killed herself. The pain he lived with constantly, occasionally burst through the portly Buchanan’s genial veneer. Although he loved his “adopted daughter,” he could be curt and controlling, monitoring her mail and shaming her for serving a bad meal. Insisting she follow his “advice” before getting engaged, and warning only to marry someone who can “afford you a decent and immediate support,” the brokenhearted Buchanan explained: “In my experience I have witnessed the long years of patient misery and dependence which fine women have endured from rushing precipitately into matrimonial connections without sufficient reflection.”

While building his career in Congress and the Cabinet as a Jacksonian Democrat, “Old Buck” enjoyed unconventional domestic arrangements. His friendship with his roommate Senator William King of Alabama was so intimate, tongues still wag today wondering whether this “Bachelor President” was the first gay president. And in 1854, Buchanan wowed London society as Ambassador to the Court of St. James by unleashing his witty, wonderful, elegant 24-year-old niece on the Brits.

Harriet Lane was such a hit that Queen Victoria herself played pushy matchmaker, hoping “dear Miss Lane” would settle in London. But Lane was devoted to her domineering uncle. Her return to the States paid off in 1857 when Buchanan became president. ...




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