Few political figures in American history came into the White House with a better resume than Democrat James Buchanan. His career spanned some 40 years – one in which he served in both houses of Congress, as well as appointments to ambassadorships – before he was elected in 1856 as the country’s 15th chief executive. And he remains the only one to hail from Pennsylvania born in a desolate frontier portion of Franklin County 20 miles west of Chambersburg in 1791. His home later in life was Wheatland just outside Lancaster, and his majestic mansion stills stands as a testament to the highly cultivated tastes of this lifelong bachelor.
In John Hay’s 1872 book, The Heroic Age in Washington, Lincoln’s assistant secretary relates a telling story about President Buchanan who met at the White House just minutes before riding with President-elect Lincoln to the U.S. Capitol for the swearing in on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861.
“I was waiting with boyish wonder and credulity,” Hay wrote, “to see what momentous counsels” would be shared as the nation teetered on the brink of Civil War. Buchanan though proceeded to share “many intimate details of the kitchen and pantry” adding that “the water from the well on the right was better than the left.”
According to Hay, Lincoln displayed that “weary, introverted look of his, not answering. Lincoln later admitted to Hay that he had not “heard a word of what Buchanan had said.”
President Buchanan died in 1868 and his buried in Woodward Hill Cemetery in the heart of Lancaster city some four miles from his home. He had several nicknames one dubbing him “Old Buck” by his friends; by his political foes he was labelled “Old Public Functionary” for his unimaginative and indecisive style of management, and “Ten Cent Jimmy” was another unflattering moniker aimed at him by newspapers after he quipped that 10 cents a day is plenty of pay for a common worker in the 1850s.