While thousands of visitors flock every day to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, there’s a very good chance you’ll find yourself all alone on a tour of Wheatland, the home of America’s 15th president, James Buchanan.
Buchanan purchased the three-story, Federal-style brick mansion in 1848. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania spot is where he planned and conducted his successful 1856 presidential campaign and it’s where he retired to spend the rest of his life after a widely maligned four-year term as president.
If you look at almost any published survey or ranking of U.S. presidents from best to worst, you’ll find James Buchanan either dead last or close to it. He’s been condemned by historians for his influence over and endorsement of the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slaves could not be citizens of the United States, considered by most legal scholars as the worst ruling ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also elected just in time for the financial panic of 1857 and his bungled handling of the question over whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state further inflamed sectional tensions.
But more than anything else, Buchanan’s presidency is criticized for the indecisiveness he exhibited over the looming threat of secession by the nation’s pro-slavery Southern states. Buchanan believed that secession was illegal, though at the same time, he also believed that the federal government had no right to stop it. As the election of 1860 neared, Buchanan, who wisely decided he wouldn’t run for a second term, kicked the proverbial can down the road to his successor. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and four years of bloody civil war ensued.
Indeed, Buchanan couldn’t wait to hightail it out of Washington and return to the seclusion of Wheatland. On Inauguration Day 1861, he said to Lincoln, “Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning home, you are a happy man indeed.”
Buchanan never married, and after he died in 1868, Wheatland was inherited by his niece Harriet Lane, who also served as Buchanan’s unofficial First Lady in the White House. In 1936, the house was acquired by a nonprofit group established to preserve the property and open it to the public. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
The interior of Wheatland is furnished today as it would have been when Buchanan resided there, with many of his own possessions, including a desk he used at the White House. Having never been significantly altered or remodeled, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the mid-19th-century upper-class lifestyle and, more specifically, the life of a man who many consider the worst president ever.
Know Before You Go
A guided tour of Wheatland costs $15, which also includes admission to Lancaster's history museum, on the grounds of Wheatland.