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James Buchanan, Harriet Lane Johnston and Wheatland

By John T. Marck


James Buchanan's birthplace was called Stoney Batter, in Pennsylvania at Cove Gap, an area cut through the Tuscarora Mountain, which is a part of the Allegheny Mountain Range.  The original log cabin in which he was born on April 23, 1791 has been moved, and in its place stands a stone pyramid monument surrounded by majestic conifers. Nearby is Buck Run, a brook trout stream.

Although a very quiet serene place today, it was a busy area of the western edge of civilization at the time of his birth. In the late 1790s, the Allegheny Mountains were a barrier to those seeking a way westward. Cove=s Gap, was that area which was cut through two of the three parallel mountains, making passage easier to the west.  Those seeking a passage to the west used this Gap.

            James Buchanan's father, James, Sr., first bought the log cabin in 1789, and called it Tom=s Trading Place.  In its heyday besides the log cabin, there were barns, stables, stores and an orchard.  His father renamed it Stoney Batter after the Buchanan home in Northern Ireland and continued his business here until he moved with his family to Mercersburg, when James was six years old.  Even though James was only six when he left Stoney Batter, he never forgot the area as it left with him a warm lasting impression. Many years later in 1865, the then owner of the cabin in which he was born invited James back to revisit his birthplace. James replied by saying, "It is a rugged but romantic spot, and the mountains and mountain stream under the scenery captivating.  I have warm attachments to it." 

Buchanan and Mercersburg, Pennsylvania 

The log cabin in which James was born was originally moved from Stoney Batter to Chambersburg.  Then in 1953, it was again moved to its present location on the Mercersburg Academy campus. 

Buchanan's Boyhood Home 

In Mercersburg, James Buchanan Sr., purchased land and built a large, attractive brick house. It was here that the future president spent his boyhood.  The Buchanan's lived on the second floor of the house, using the first floor as a store operated by James, Sr. Later the house was sold, purchased by James O. Carson, then later to the McAfee brothers, who enlarged it, then converted it into a hotel. 

In 1909, they sold it to C.W. McLaughlin, who renamed it the Hotel Mercer.  Upon his death, his son, Jack renamed it the James Buchanan Hotel, and it is still in operation today as a pub and residential hotel.  

James Buchanan grew into a tall, stately man, who always wore stiff formal high stock collar shirts.  His family was well to do, and as a young adult, James graduated from Dickinson College. Very knowledgeable in law, and a gifted debater, he had a promising career ahead of him in politics.

Buchanan's Political Life 

Buchanan was first elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, and then to the House of Representatives five times, then served for a short time as Minister to Russia, before moving to the Senate, where he served for ten years.  Under President James Polk, he served as Secretary of State, and then was Minister to Great Britain under President Franklin Pierce.  

Because of his vast experience to service in Europe, this assisted him with the Democratic nomination in 1856, and at the same time seemed to exempt him from any involvement in the various domestic disputes of the day, such as the issue of slavery. 

Buchanan, as President-elect, believed that this crisis over the issue of slavery would go away if he maintained a sectional balance in his Cabinet appointments and also thought he could persuade others to accept Constitutional law as interpreted by the Supreme Court.  At this time the Justices were considering the legality of restricting slavery in the western territories, and two of the Supreme Court Justices insinuated to Buchanan what their decision would be.  

So, in his Inaugural Address, President Buchanan said that the territorial question was going "happily, a matter of but little practical importance," since the Supreme Court was about to settle it. But Buchanan was misled.  Two days after his Address, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott Decision, which asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights in the slave territories. This delighted those in the South and created a furor in the North. 

The troubles with what to do with Kansas continued, so Buchanan decided to try to end the problems by urging the admission of this territory as a slave state. He tried to use his Presidential authority toward this goal and by doing so, angered the Republicans and alienated members of the Democratic Party. Thus, Kansas remained a territory. 

In 1858, when the Republicans won the majority in the House, every bill of significance they passed fell before Southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto.  The Federal Government was in a stalemate.  

In 1860, the sectional contention rose to such a level that the Democratic Party split into northern and southern branches, each nominating their own candidate for the Presidency. When the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a forgone conclusion that he would win the election, even though his name never appeared on any southern ballot. Rather than accept the Republican nomination, some southerners advocated secession.  

Dismayed by this and hesitant in his actions, Buchanan denied the legal right of states to secede, but then held that the Federal government had no legal right to prevent it. Hoping for a compromise, but the secessionist leaders refused.  

Buchanan then took a more militant stance. When several of his Cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and then sent the ship, Star of the West, to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter.

           On January 9, 1861, with this ship still far away, Buchanan reverted to his former policies of inactivity, sitting by doing nothing of value until he left office.  In March 1861, upon President Lincoln assuming the office of President, Buchanan retired to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, leaving his successor to deal with the issues of war that faced the nation.


The Wheatland mansion located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a fine example of Federal architecture, built in 1828 by William Jenkins, a Lancaster lawyer and banker. He named it "The Wheatlands," because of the lush wheat fields that surrounded the property.  In 1848, while James was serving as Secretary of State, he purchased the estate and its 22 acres of land, for $6,750.00.  He then changed the name to simply, "Wheatland." 

Front of Wheatland

Rear of Wheatland

President Buchanan Portrait Painting inside Wheatland

The floor plan of the house consisted of a main central area with wings on both sides. This central section has two rooms on the first floor that flank the T-shaped entry and stair hall and two rooms on the second floor. Above the front portion of the entrance hall on the second floor is an additional small room. 

The west wing of the mansion contains two rooms on both the first and second floors, while the east wing consists of only one room per floor. The first floor of the house also consists of a parlor, dining/sitting room, library, family dining room and a warming kitchen. The second floor has a guest room, three family bedrooms and a housekeeper=s bedroom. 

Entrance Hallway looking toward Front Door

Stairway to right of rear entrance door at back of house

Dining Room set with a typical meal during Buchanan's day

Lamp in Dining Room. Interestingly, these lamps would be moved from room-to-room. Using a metal device, the chain was removed from the ceiling mount, and then taken to another room once dinner was over for example, to provide light in the next room, generally following the occupants.

Some the original china at Wheatland

Shown here in the dining room are numerous original items. Because it was dangerous to drink water in these times because it was not clean, President Buchanan drank mostly wine, brandy and whiskey. As such we wonder how people functioned having consumed so much alcohol! The dark bottle at right front is the only existing remaining bottle of the wine that Buchanan drank daily.  Experts agree that this wine does not go bad, and that if it was opened today it would be fantastic in taste. While water is essential to one's health, people in these times often mixed it with liquor to help destroy impurities, etc.

President Buchanan's desk now at Wheatland that once occupied the Oval Office at the White House during his Presidency.

Another view of Buchanan's office and desk.

Items at the Library at Wheatland.

President Buchanan's bedroom and his actual bed, and the one on which he died.

Another view of Buchanan's bed.

The Bath "Tub" that Buchanan used located inside his bedroom. The carpet on the floor is the original pattern that is still available in shops today.

Buchanan loved Wheatland, picturing it as "a beau of a statesman's abode." Buchanan's affection for Wheatland was indicated by his saying "the comforts and tranquility of home as contrasted with the troubles, perplexities, and difficulties" of his public life. Buchanan spent twenty years here, until his death on June 1, 1868.  

James Buchanan as President many times seemed more eager to get out of the White House, and then stay in it, with the impending disaster that soon followed, being The Civil War.  Although he supported the cause of the Union vocally, many believed he simply tried to always appease the South, as a well as many thought he was a lover of slavery. To tell his side of the story, Buchanan decided to write a book. In 1866, following the end of the Civil War, it was published, but largely ignored by the public. In it Buchanan blamed the Civil War totally on the Republican Party and the abolitionists. Soon after its publication, Buchanan vanished from public life, retreating inside his beloved Wheatland.  Over the next two years of his life he only saw close friends.  

James Buchanan is buried in the Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster. The Trinity Lutheran Church established this cemetery between 1849 and 1852. 

President Buchanan's Grave

Statue of President Buchanan located in Buchanan Park near Wheatland

Closer view of Buchanan's Statue


Harriet Lane Johnston "First Lady"

James Buchanan, who vowed never to marry after the death of his fiancée, is the only President to date that was unmarried, so, Harriet Lane, his niece, acted as hostess, and is unique among all the other First Ladies.  James, who was her guardian since she was orphaned at the age of eleven, and in her twenties at the time she was the hostess, among all the First Ladies, is one that achieved great success in this position during times that were very troubled, and through it all, remained a polished young woman.

Since living with her uncle from a young age, it was James who supervised her education, and took her with him on his trips as Secretary of State. In appearance, Harriet was of medium height, with masses of light hair that was golden in color.  

Portrait Painting of Harriet at Wheatland

After the sadness the country experienced during the Pierce administration, Washington welcomed their new "Democratic Queen" as she was known. Harriet filled the White House with flowers, and guided the social life there with enthusiasm and discretion, which won her national popularity. 

During Buchanan's Presidency as sectional tensions increased, Harriet was tactful in working out seating arrangements for the weekly formal dinner at the White House, using care to keep political foes apart, while giving these dignitaries their proper precedence.

           Although she never faltered in her tactful ways, the task soon became impossible to balance, when seven states seceded, as Buchanan was about to leave office.  Had this happened earlier in his term, the White House and its various dinners may have been much less of a pleasant experience. 

Beginning in her teenage years, Harriet was a happy person, who flirted with various gentlemen, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome."  Her uncle James warned her against, "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions."

Waiting until she was 36 to marry, she chose, with her uncle's approval, Henry Ellicott Johnson, a Baltimore banker. Over the next 18 years, Harriet faced much sorrow. She first lost her uncle, then her two sons, followed by her husband. After the death of her husband, she decided to leave Wheatland and live in Washington, among friends she had met during happier times.  

Harriet's Bedroom at Wheatland

Doll inside Harriet's bedroom at Wheatland. Some say the doll resembled Harriet, although most believe Harriet was much more attractive!

Another view of Harriet's bedroom showing location of Doll.

Over the years she had acquired a sizable art collection, which she bequeathed to the government. After her death in 1903, they accepted this gift, which inspired an official at the Smithsonian Institution to call her the "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts."       

Additionally, Harriet dedicated a large sum of money to endow a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  It became an outstanding pediatric facility and gained a national reputation, which is a fitting memorial to the young lady who handled the duties at the White House with such dignity and charm.  Today, the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children.

View from window to outside at Wheatland


 Quick Biographical Facts


15th President

Term- March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861

Democratic Party



Birth: Cove Gap, (near Mercersburg) Pennsylvania, April 23, 1791.

Nick Name: Old Buck

Ancestry: Scotch-Irish

Marriage: None. Buchanan vowed never to marry after his fiancée died.

Children: None

Home: Wheatland, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Education: Attended Old Stone Academy; graduated from Dickinson College in 1809.

Religion: Presbyterian

Occupation before Presidency: Lawyer

Pre-Presidential Offices: Member of Pennsylvania Legislature; Member of U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate; Minister to Russia and Great Britain; Secretary of State.

Age at Inauguration: 65

Buchanan Administration: Vice President: John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky,

Inauguration March 4, 1857, The Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Occupation after Presidency: Retired

Writings: Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866); Works of James Buchanan (12 volumes, 1908-1911), ed. by John Bassett Moore

Death: Lancaster, Pennsylvania, June 1, 1868.

Cause of Death: Rheumatic gout at age 77.

Place of Burial: Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Interesting Facts:

Buchanan was one of seven Presidents to have been born in a log cabin. The cabin now stands on the grounds of Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania

Buchanan worked out the first trade agreement with Russia when he served as Secretary of State under President Polk

During his Presidency in October 1859, Federal troops stormed the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, which was occupied by anti-slavery militants under John Brown. Brown was found guilty of treason and hanged

Buchanan had a habit of closing one of his eyes almost constantly, because he was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other

Buchanan was the only President to never marry


Copyright © 1992-2022 (2019) by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Informational assistance from "Wheatland," Lancaster, Pennsylvania; The White House; Presidential Avenue and The Presidents of the United States, by John T. Marck, and The First ladies of the United States, By John T. Marck.

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