Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States. This three-act closet drama opens in 1868 with Buchanan, a big man in his late seventies, lying on his deathbed at his estate in Pennsylvania. Because of age and decrepitude, he is in an abnormal mental condition. Most of the people who were important in his life appear in his bedchamber as hallucinations. Among the forty or so characters who make cameo appearances in this biographical pageant are such famous historical figures as Andrew Jackson, Stephen Douglas, James Polk, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln. There are also less illustrious people, including relatives and personal friends. Most of those who confront Buchanan accuse him of one fault or another, depending on their individual perspectives and relationships with the former chief executive. Among the many accusations are that he was a cold, selfish, scheming pettifogger who betrayed his country by conspiring with the proslavery faction on the eve of the Civil War and that he was primarily responsible for that tragic conflict. From Buchanan’s explanations of his various actions during his long period of public service, it becomes apparent that he was an exceptionally hardworking, conscientious, and circumspect if not brilliant man who was just as concerned as his successor, Abraham Lincoln, with preserving the Union. Buchanan dies a lonely, friendless, disappointed old man but a much more sympathetic figure than generally portrayed in history books.
Harriet Lane Johnston
Harriet Lane Johnston, Buchanan’s niece. She appears at different ages throughout the play, at first as a vivacious blonde teenager, later as a mature woman, and finally as a stately matron. Buchanan was the first bachelor to become a U.S. president, and he chose his intelligent, spirited niece to act as his first lady. She was an accomplished hostess and became extremely popular in Washington circles as well as with the American public. In the play, she serves mainly as an interlocutor to Buchanan in order to bring out biographical material in a conversational format.
Anne Coleman, Buchanan’s fiancée. This slender, hypersensitive, aristocratic brunette died at the age of twenty-three. Her death was attributed to hysteria resulting from her breaking off her engagement to Buchanan in a fit of irrational jealousy. There were many rumors, however, that she had committed suicide. Her tragic death was the single most important event in Buchanan’s life. He told many people that his unrequited love for Anne explained his never having married. Her portrait hangs above the fireplace mantel in the old man’s bedchamber. Hostile contemporaries believed he was simply too cold, self-centered, and cerebral a person to engage in matrimony. In the play, he is accused of having been more interested in his fiancée’s family fortune than in her person. She appears in his hallucinations to discuss these and other matters of a nonpolitical nature, rounding out the portrait of Buchanan as a human being as well as a politician.
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