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.