Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Family Life

Though a bachelor, James Buchanan did not lack for family life. He had what seemed to friends like dozens of young relatives under his guardianship whom he cared for after their parents had died. A wealthy man, he was very generous to his family.

Buchanan had a housekeeper named Esther "Miss Hetty" Parker who stayed with him from 1834 until his death. She accompanied him to Washington but was disliked by Harriet Lane, the President's niece, who assumed the official role of White House hostess. When Lane threatened to leave town if Miss Hetty did not, Buchanan sent his housekeeper back to Pennsylvania. When he returned there after leaving office, she stayed loyally on, not even leaving him when Confederate troops approached Buchanan's home on their way to Gettysburg.

By the time Buchanan moved into the White House, social life there had been dreary for years. Sarah Polk had been a strict temperance devotee; Zachary Taylor's wife refused any public role whatsoever; Abigail Fillmore suffered ill health; and the Pierces had seen their young son crushed to death before their eyes in a railroad accident weeks before inauguration, leaving them despondent. Buchanan, however, loved entertaining. Aided by his niece Harriet Lane, an attractive and popular woman in her twenties, the White House saw a social season that had been absent since the heady days of Julia Tyler. Numerous social events crowded the calendar, and a Washington frightened by the onrushing war was only too glad to partake in all the hospitality.