(Surprisingly) Delightful Morning with James Buchanan

Lancaster, Pennsylvania has been on my list of sites to visit for many years. But James Buchanan just doesn’t serve as the magnet that some of the others do, right? The only reason I have visited his birthplace is because I was lost in thought on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and unbelievably missed the turn to DC at Breezewood. I ended up in Mechanicsburg and was happy for the couple stops to visit ol’ Bucks childhood stomping grounds.

Buchanan is at the bottom of all the Presidential Lists. He began and ended his administration with terrible decisions. The Dred Scott Decision, though not his but the ruling of the Supreme Court, strengthened the South with the order that slaves were property, not people. This is understandably unbelievable in today’s historical thought. But at the time, Buchanan agreed with it. That began his administration, but what ended it is mind boggling. He sat silent as state after state left the Union due to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the understanding that Lincoln would move to end slavery.

For good reason, Buchanan is not considered a good president. Most historians scratch their craniums at this fact, because he was set up to be one of the all time great presidents with his resume. But, take it from an HR Manager who still likes people- the resume and the interview are not always strong precursors to whether you can make good decisions. Buchanan did not.

Think of this- Stephen Douglas, the man Lincoln defeated (with the help of two other candidates) spent the months following the Election trying to keep the country together. Imagine that- a defeated candidate trying to keep the country together? They ought to move the Douglas statue at the Illinois State Capitol Building a bit closer to the front.

But… let us keep our fiery opinions for another day. For today, we are laying aside what we know and walking in the footsteps of a president.

James Buchanan called Lancaster, Pennsylvania home for his entire life- albeit a life spent globe trotting. (He was the US Minister to Russia and the United Kingdom, separate periods). His home, Wheatland, is a stately mansion off Marietta Avenue, just two miles from downtown. I did get lost while driving there. I don’t remember the exact details, but it is one of the few times Google Maps failed me. I ended up in a mobile home park with people who somehow absolutely knew I should not be there.

As is my custom, I was there upon opening (even after getting lost!) and was relieved the first tour of the day was not sold out. (Ok, go ahead and chuckle… but people do visit presidential sites!) And these tours are only 10-12 people, so the possibility of waiting is quite understandable.

Allow me to say something- while walking up the desk at the welcome center, the woman was so genuinely warm that I felt like I was indeed walking into someone’s home. 95% of my travels and visits to Presidential Sites have this effect- except one. And it will continue to bother me to my dying day.

After watching the prelude to the tour (a nice film), I walked to the house to meet our docent, one of the most lively, charming, witty and comfortable hosts I have ever met. She made us all gasp when she said, in her period dress, that they are not allowed to wear sneakers as docents. But she swayed to the side and lifted her dress gracefully- to reveal a pair of Reeboks. We gasped, but her smile made us laugh. “I am not standing all day in those dreadful shoes when these are much more comfortable.”

She walked us through every room, allowing time for our own wanderings in the midst of her interesting anecdotes and information. She was a true storyteller. With some docents you can detect the script behind their stories. But this woman (I have her name written somewhere and will include it later) was one of the best I have ever spent an hour with at a presidents home. She made me feel (are you ready?) as if Buchanan would saunter in at any moment.

Wheatland is also the place where Buchanan passed away. He spent much of his retirement writing his autobiography, which is a trove of excuses as to why he acted, and didn’t, in his administration. I will try to read it someday but the words, oh my gosh. It is difficult to follow. Maybe that is why Jackson sent him to Russia. He couldn’t understand him.

Buchanan doesn’t pull on the heartstrings of our Republic and for good reason. But he was a man whose funeral and burial in Lancaster drew thousands upon thousands who considered him their friend and fellow patriot. I am particularly glad his story is so well told by the good people at Wheatland. It is important to tell our whole story, even the parts that don’t really make sense.

By Eric Ebinger

Constantly feeding the passion of studying presidents with reading, writing and walking humbly in their footsteps. Constantly- except for the 50 hours a week I serve as Human Resources Manager for a wonderful manufacturing company in north central Ohio. 

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