Where a Reviled President Retreated

James Buchanan preferred his mansion in Lancaster, Pa., to the White House.
James Buchanan preferred his mansion in Lancaster, Pa., to the White House. (Lancasterhistory.org)
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By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What finally got me to visit Wheatland, President James Buchanan's home in Lancaster, Pa., were the lists. These are the lists ranking U.S. presidents, and consistently on the bottom is Buchanan, who served on the eve of the Civil War. In fact, Buchanan's time in office was so bad that he is reported to have said to Abraham Lincoln at the latter's inauguration, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed."

I arrived on a sunny spring morning and looked up the slight rise on which Wheatland sits and understood Buchanan's affection for the place. It is a lovely, 18-room brick Federal Revival mansion with a square main building and two extended wings. But while this is a stately home, it is not Mount Vernon or Monticello. Wheatland reflects the conservative, religious lawyer and politician: comfortable but not pretentious.

A docent, Arlene Zerr, greeted our tour group of about a dozen at the back door of the house. We were an eclectic bunch: history fans, Civil War buffs, presidential home aficionados.

Zerr explained that Buchanan, though born of modest means, was perhaps the most experienced man ever to serve in the White House: By the time he became president he had served in the Pennsylvania legislature, in the U.S. House and Senate, as secretary of state and as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain. After two failed bids for the presidency, Buchanan shopped around for a place to retire. He purchased Wheatland and the surrounding 22 acres of woodland and fields in 1848, in what was then the countryside outside Lancaster. He planned to go back to practicing law. If only that had happened, how differently he would be remembered by history.

Wheatland today has been reduced to about four acres with a majestic tree-filled front lawn, side gardens and a vegetable garden in the rear. No longer in the country, the estate is in one of Lancaster's best neighborhoods of tree-lined streets and large, elegant homes.

There is much speculation about why he remained the country's only bachelor president, but it is known that the love of his life, his fiancee Ann Coleman, died quite young and unexpectedly. Supposedly, he vowed never to marry after her death. But he raised several orphaned nieces and nephews.

One niece, Harriet Lane, became the mistress of Wheatland by the time she was 19, and I could sense her influence in the comfortable green and white parlor, dominated by her grand piano, a gift from her uncle, and her writing desk of intricately carved black walnut, poplar and rosewood. The bachelor's space is evident in the dark wood tones and contrasting white walls of the study, with glass-fronted bookshelves and a worktable in the center of the room. Buchanan, in fact, was devoted to work, even having a small morning/evening office just off his bedroom upstairs.

Buchanan was called from retirement in 1853 by President Franklin Pierce to become ambassador to Great Britain. Harriet accompanied her uncle to London, where her charm captivated British society, including Queen Victoria. Autographed engravings of Victoria and her husband, Albert, gifts from the queen and prince, hang in the parlor of Wheatland. After returning from Britain, Buchanan surprised everyone, including probably himself, by winning the Democratic nomination for president. He campaigned from Wheatland. Every day dozens of visitors crowded into the formal dining and sitting room, where they could ask the candidate questions, make deals and generally politic. He finally achieved his goal of winning the presidency in 1856, when he was 65 years old.

Harriet accompanied her uncle to the White House, where she was popular as the president's hostess. One social highlight of her uncle's presidency was the visit of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whose gala dinner was served on china Buchanan had brought to the White House from Wheatland. That china is on display today in Wheatland's informal dining room. This was the first official visit by a British royal to the United States.

I asked Patrick Clarke, director of James Buchanan's Wheatland, what he thought of Buchanan's being on the worst-president list. Clarke said that nobody elected in 1856 could have averted the war. "The country was a mess. Too many years of compromise after compromise." Clarke takes a realistic view. "He was not a great president. But I wouldn't put him at the bottom of the barrel," he said.

When he left office in 1861, Buchanan was generally reviled, by North and South, Democrat and Republican. His attempts to achieve middle ground in the slavery debate had been disastrous; before his term was out, seven states had seceded. He would spend his remaining years at Wheatland, writing a book in which he absolved himself from all blame for events leading to the Civil War.

One of Buchanan's favorite spots at Wheatland was the frog pond. In a Zenlike moment that belied his sober Presbyterian temperament, Buchanan said that he hoped he could come back in another life as a frog in that pond. In gaining the presidency Buchanan got something he had longed for, and perhaps lived to regret. It's nice to think that maybe he got his second wish: to be at Wheatland forever.

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