This painting of President Buchanan, the Prince of Wales, and several dozen dignitaries at George Washington’s tomb in October 1860 captures a dramatic moment in diplomatic history just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Two inspirations for visiting Mount Vernon last week was a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of the American Revolution last June and a chance viewing of the above painting at the National Portrait Gallery in August. Here we see President James Buchanan and the Prince of Wales, who forty-one years after the events depicted here would become King Edward VII, visiting Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon in October 1860. Buchanan knew the royals well, having served as Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James’s from 1849-53 when the prince was a very young lad. The events depicted in the painting took place in early October 1860, one month before the presidential election won by Abraham Lincoln.

The Prince of Wales was in the United States on a goodwill tour. Everyone put of a brave face but relations between the countries were strained. This all took place within living memory of the War of 1812 and even, for some very aged persons, the Revolutionary War itself, and tension in the Anglo-American relationship were evident. This was the tour during which Michael Corcoran of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment refused to march his men before the Prince of Wales in review. The controversy in New York took place a week after this trip to Washington. The British entourage was unimpressed with the still-young nation’s capital. The unfinished crown atop the Capitol Building, stump of the unfinished Washington Monument, and shabby condition of even Mount Vernon itself–onetime home and final resting place of the colonial general and father of the country–reflected poorly on American ingenuity and even the viability of republican government itself. Given the hysteria and fever pitch surrounding the four-man presidential race then underway, once cannot really blame them for thinking such things.

(image/Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, painter Thomas P. Rossiter; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)