What I Learned Visiting the Home of America's Worst President
How do we, the people, build a monument to a terrible president?
It’s a question that’s been on my mind for a few years for absolutely no good or potentially controversial reason whatsoever. We may have room to argue over the patriotic canonization of lesser statesmen, but any person who is ever elected to the highest office in the land -- even if that person one day chooses to eat a baby out on the White House lawn -- is at the very least legally entitled to be animatronically enshrined in The Hall of Presidents at Disney World, even if nobody decides to build a library in their honor.
It was this question that brought me to Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, home of Wheatland, itself the home of the worst president in American history: James Buchanan. It’s understandable that you, a person who lives in the year 2019, might find this unfortunate superlative fantastic, but I assure you that it is verily true: James Buchanan sucked.
Allow me to explain. Buchanan -- who served from 1857-1861, right after Franklin Pierce -- was arguably the most qualified person to ever run for president: he was a Secretary of State, a senator, a congressman, a three-time nominee to the Supreme Court, and an accomplished lawyer who never once hosted a game show or sold mail-order steaks. With a resume like that, who better to lead the country at a time when it was horribly divided and tough decisions needed to be made? Turns out the answer to that question is “absolutely anyone else”. Buchanan was a strict constitutionalist who took every word written by our founding fathers to the letter, meaning his official position on just every critical issue was essentially \_(ツ)_/.
He pushed for the Dred Scott Decision not to specifically advance racist ideology, but because he was sick and tired of the slavery debate and didn’t want to deal with it anymore. He sat idly by during the Financial Panic of 1857, saying the federal government shouldn’t overstep its bounds, leaving America helpless as banks collapsed and hundreds of thousands were left unemployed. Sure, other presidents have faced their share of epic disasters, but at least when those guys left office America was still fully in tact. When the South seceded at the end of his term, Buchanan basically pointed to the constitution, said “not my problem,” hightailed it back to Pennsylvania, and wrote a book that could have been titled Oh, Like YOU Could Have Done a Better Job before dying in 1868.
But despite the fact that he sucked so hard that he quite literally destroyed the entire country, James Buchanan was the President of the United States of America. He is enshrined in our history books and shall forever define the period in which he governed, just like every other present and future president will.
MORE:There's more to do in Lancaster than ponder historical legacies
So what exactly would I find when I arrived at Wheatland? Would they hyperfocus on the many positives of his long career as a lawyer and statesman and hope nobody would notice the rest? Might they play the “Well that’s just how things were back then” card? What sort of sweet James Buchanan merch could I score in the gift shop?
What I learned, dear reader, was a situation that the God who blesses America knew we’d end up in, and she had a plan for that: James Buchanan would spend his final days in Lancaster County. It’s the kind of place that was founded by abolitionist Quakers and is currently nicknamed America’s Refugee Capital. Perhaps in another town the people would gladly obfuscate the past for local boy made good, but Lancaster could never tell their own story like that. They also could not be too critical of the facts, because the support of slavery is, apparently, still a partisan issue. The curation of Wheatland needed to be fair and balanced, a remarkable task in a time where we all have intense politically charged feelings about pretty much everything. For example, I still have trouble being in the same room with avocado toast now that I understand it’s a type of class warfare. We live in a loaded world.
So… how do the fine men and women of the Lancaster County Historical Society memorialize a terrible president? They simply “tell it like it is.”
This is not a cop out. No, this is a flat-out masterpiece of subliminal storytelling! This is like if the hopes of Donald Judd and the dreams of Frank Stella had a baby, and that baby was a regional history museum. These historians tell us absolutely everything without “saying anything,” because they are obviously geniuses playing fourth-dimensional chess. They begin my James Buchanan experience with a 13-minute Ken Burns-ish documentary that brings up all of his many racist actions without saying he’s a racist and presents his many, many failures without saying he’s an incompetent boob. It explains how Buchanan only secured the Democratic nomination on a technicality, and that he wasn’t the popular choice for president. In a moment that genuinely shocks me, they address the rumour that Buchanan was (*whispers*) a homosexual. Though there are theories that his resistance to abolition may have been influenced by his slave-holding “roommate” and there are letters where he says he’d been wooing men, the evidence is seen as circumstantial and the notion is quickly dismissed. In most cases this would be tremendously disappointing, but here at Wheatland I become keenly aware that the LGBT community should consider this dismissal to be a blessing.
"For the first time in years, I felt the sense of nihilist despair that is crushing me ease up."
Next, in the small but mighty exhibition hall, content is given context. At the entrance, plastered on the wall, are the tenets of strict constitutionalism. Turn your head, you’ll see a bold Buchanan quote that’s essentially says “It doesn’t say anywhere in the Constitution that restoring peace is the President’s job, you can’t make me do it, have a nice war guys."
The imposing, throne-like chair in which Buchanan accepted his unpopular presidential nomination is displayed next to a weathered old boot that had belonged to Thaddeus Stevens. In the event you’ve forgotten that name from high school history class, Thaddeus Stevens was a disabled Lancaster boy who rose from poverty to congress, led the Radical Republicans in their fight for abolition, and liked to stick that club-footed boot right up racism’s ass. It’s a museum of “coincidental” juxtapositions!
As I left the building and walked toward the doors of the Wheatland estate I had the craziest thought: Could it be possible that the life and times of James Buchanan were relevant to today?!?!
It’s never said that Buchanan was a bad president. There are no assumptions about his beliefs, no derision of his actions, no questioning of his politics, no judgement of his character. There are facts, just laid out, for you to make of them what you will. You can see how stories end. You can learn to stop them before they begin. You will know what the wrong side of history looks like.
I stood in the office of James Buchanan and, for the first time in years, I felt the sense of nihilist despair that is crushing me ease up, and I once again felt hope. After Buchanan’s one and only term in office, America elected the man who is universally considered to be our country’s best president: Abraham Lincoln. Maybe he hoped that his trespasses would be forgotten as time went on. Wheatland does what a memorial should do: It reminds us not to forget the stories we have already written.
P.S.: There is, in fact, a gift shop at Wheatland, where I bought a deck of playing cards featuring the faces of every single one of our presidents. No matter how awful Bunchanan, or Nixon, or Johnson, or any other president is, they shall forever be on America’s playing cards, until the day purple mountains majesty crumble into our shining seas.