Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
15th President of the United States, 1857-1861
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Buchanan and his Cabinet c. 1859
Buchanan and his Cabinet c. 1859
Mathew B. Brady Collection
Library of Congress

James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States, purchased this large Federal style house and its 22 acres of land near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1848. A Unionist and moderate Democrat, Buchanan won the presidential election in 1856, because voters held the futile hope that he could calm the bitter disputes between the North and South about slavery.  His term began with the divisive Dred Scott decision and ended with southern States seceding from the Union after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.  Buchanan, who thought secession was unconstitutional but that the government had no authority to stop it, could only watch as the Union splintered.  He returned to Wheatland at the end of his term of office.  He died there in 1868 and lies buried in the local Woodward Hill Cemetery.

Born in 1791 near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania and educated at Dickinson College, Buchanan studied law and passed the bar in Lancaster, which would be his home for the rest of his life. Establishing a very successful legal practice, he soon became involved in politics.  After serving briefly in the military during the War of 1812, he served two years in the Pennsylvania legislature after his election in 1814. 

Elected five times to the United States House of Representatives, Buchanan was a gifted debater and well versed in the law. After an interlude as minister to Russia, he served for a decade in the United States Senate. He became President Polk's secretary of state and President Pierce's minister to Great Britain.  Buchanan made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency, but in 1856, his absence from the country during the turmoil over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his reputation as a compromiser made him a more acceptable Democratic candidate than either Franklin Pierce or Stephen A. Douglas.  Wheatland became the symbol of Buchanan’s "front porch" presidential campaign.  In many places, Buchanan supporters formed "Wheatland Clubs" to promote his election. 

President Buchanan held tightly to his conviction that although slavery might be morally wrong, the Federal Government lacked the right to interfere with States’ rights.  In his inaugural address, Buchanan called the question of slavery in the territories "happily, a matter of but little practical importance."   Still hoping for compromise, he appointed a Cabinet representing all parts of the country.  Only two days after he took office, the Supreme Court delivered the Dred Scott decision, which Buchanan favored and possibly influenced.  The decision gave slaveholders the right to transport their human property wherever they wanted, declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and blocked any person of African descent from ever attaining citizenship. The Supreme Court's ruling delighted the South and infuriated many people in the North.

Buchanan hoped the admission of Kansas as a State would remove the issue of slavery in the territories from public attention.  Buchanan urged Congress to accept a constitution drawn up by a proslavery group meeting in Lecompton—though the proslavery men were outnumbered four to one in the territory.  His proposal angered Republicans and even members of his own party and Congress refused.  Kansas did not achieve statehood until 1861, remaining a sore reminder of the fractured nation.

Buchanan's Library at Wheatland
Buchanan's Library at Wheatland
James Buchanan Foundation, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

By 1858, the Federal Government was near paralysis. Republicans and northern Democrats dominated the House.  Southern votes in the Senate and presidential vetoes blocked any legislation passed by the House.  The North was still depressed following the Panic of 1857, and John Brown's antislavery raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry brought sectional tension to a boil.

The presidential election of 1860 took place in the midst of crisis. Buchanan had pledged that he would not run for a second term. The northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party each nominated their own candidates.  John Bell ran as the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party.  The young Republican Party united behind Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln won, though with far less than a popular majority.  His name did not even appear on the ballot in any southern State.  Outraged by the election, South Carolina seceded; six other States soon followed.  By February 1861, they joined to form the Confederate States of America.

During Buchanan's remaining months in office, he made repeated but unsuccessful efforts to compromise with the secessionists.  Early in 1861, Buchanan finally took stronger measures to uphold Federal authority.  He sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements and supplies to relieve the beleaguered garrison at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor. When South Carolina batteries drove the ship away, he refused to evacuate the fort, though he made no further efforts to resupply it.  This stalemate only briefly averted the outbreak of war. 

Slavery dominated Buchanan’s administration but was not his only concern.  A dispute erupted with the Mormon-dominated Territory of Utah, which sought to become a State.  Buchanan’s dismissal of Brigham Young as governor led to a short-lived and bloodless Mormon War, which ended when the President sent a special representative to calm tensions in the territory.  He expanded American influence in Central and South America and discouraged intervention by European powers. Like his predecessors Polk and Pierce, he continued attempts to purchase Cuba from Spain.  In 1860, he established diplomatic relations with Japan.

Family Dining Room at Wheatland
Family Dining Room at Wheatland
James Buchanan Foundation,
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

In March 1861, James Buchanan retired to Wheatland with the country on the brink of war. He was the only president who never married.  Following his death on June 1, 1868, 20,000 people attended his funeral in a show of his continued popularity.

The substantial brick house at Wheatland consists of a Federal-style two and one-half story central section flanked by three-story wings.  The main block of the building contains a central hall with two matching rooms on either side; there are 17 rooms in all.  A Doric-columned porch dominates the front of the main section of the house. Few changes have occurred over the years except for some interior improvements made by Buchanan. These included installation of a furnace and central heating, replacement of the open hearth in the kitchen by a cast-iron stove, and the addition of such modern conveniences as a tin bathtub. 

The George B. Willson family, the last private owners of Wheatland, bequeathed one half of the property to the Lancaster County Historical Society.  In 1936, the Junior League of Lancaster and the community leaders purchased the remainder of the property that contained the mansion and its dependencies and began preservation efforts.  Period pieces now furnish the rooms on the first two floors.  Many of the items, especially those in the library, belonged to Buchanan.  Today, retains 10 acres of the original 22 acre property, including the home and three outbuildings.

Plan your visit

The James Buchanan House, Wheatland, located at 1120 Marietta Ave., Lancaster, PA, has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. For visitor information visit the Lancaster website or call 717-392-4633.

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