Buchanan's Pyramid
A wonder it's not upside down.

by Ben Bratman

Some 4,500 years ago, at the behest of the pharaoh Khufu, Egyptian workers erected the Great Pyramid of Giza. Standing 455 feet tall and weighing in at 5.9 million tons, it is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today.

At Giza: Still great.


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Some 4,400 years later, workers in rural central Pennsylvania erected a 31-foot high, 300-ton stone pyramid in the gap of Tuscarora Mountain near tiny Mercersburg. This pyramid, which I visited recently, might very well be the greatest wonder in the American presidential world. I was left in sheer wonderment after learning it was built to honor one of the worst chief executives this country has ever known—our 15th president, James Buchanan.

Yes, James Buchanan – the president who fecklessly stood by as the United States fell apart in 1860, and the president whom historians rank as the third worst ever (ahead of Grant and Harding only because his administration was untouched by scandal). At the top of Buchanan’s pyramid is, of course, an apex. Given what Buchanan represents, as I stared at that apex, I could only wonder why the pyramid was not built upside down.


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The dubious Buchanan pyramid was one of a few stops—and certainly the most head-scratching among them—during a trip my brother and I took to see all things Buchanan in central Pennsylvania. I was inspired to explore the life and times of “Old Buck” in part by our commonalities. Like me, President Buchanan was a bachelor from Pennsylvania. Unlike me, he has a pyramid.

Buchanan’s niece Harriet, invariably described as “doting,” and who played

James Buchanan: Pharaoh of central PA?



First Lady during Buchanan’s single term as president, directed in her will that the pyramid be built in her uncle’s honor. Being the product of uncle adulation that it is, the stone structure sits rather incongruously under the shadow of a small forest of conifer trees. It bespeaks someone being buried there, but upon closer inspection, that is not the case. Buchanan is not buried underneath or anywhere near the pyramid. It serves, rather, as a memorial to his birth – our 15th chief executive entered this world in 1791 in a cabin that once stood where the pyramid now uncomfortably sits.

Buchanan’s birth was apparently so momentous—certainly his presidency was not—that it got a state park named for it The James Buchanan Birthplace State Park offers 18.5 acres for hiking, trout fishing, picnicking, and, of course, Buchanan worship. The signs at the pyramid site put visitors in that Buchanan worshiping sort of mood, whitewashing his woeful presidency with transparently ludicrous portrayals of Buchanan as a president whose policies were no different from those of his successor, Abraham Lincoln.


Pyramid in rural Pennsylvania vs. large monument with statue in Washington, D.C., and face on the five-dollar bill and penny—you be the judge

Clearly destined for bigger and better places than Mercersburg, Buchanan moved about 100 miles east to Lancaster, and in 1848, he bought a house there on the Wheatland estate. (He would retire to that house after his presidency and live out

Buchanan's pyramid: Which way is up?


the remainder of his life there.) The Wheatland house still stands today, and is open to visitors. Our tour guide there proudly spoke of Buchanan’s illustrious pre-presidential career, which included a stint as ambassador to Great Britain. She pointed out autographed portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the wall. Buchanan and his doting niece apparently hit it off with the queen and the Brits in general. It probably didn’t hurt that Buchanan and his British friends shared a not-so-thinly-veiled sympathy for what would soon become the Confederacy.

In 1856, with fellow Democrat Franklin Pierce well on his way to the triviality bestowed on pathetically wretched presidents, Buchanan watched as his party chose him as its candidate to be the next pathetically wretched president.

Buchanan won, spent four years screwing up, retired to Wheatland, and died in 1868. His grave is located in a cemetery in what is now a dodgy neighborhood of Lancaster. We attempted to visit the gravesite, but just as we were about to pull into the cemetery, a police cruiser blocked it. For no legitimate reason (as far as we could tell), two Lancaster police officers got out and started questioning a group of black teenagers who had gathered nearby. Surely Buchanan would have sided with the officers.

All in all, even though it points to the sky rather than into the hard Pennsylvania ground, the pyramid may still be the ultimate emblem for the unfortunate Buchanan and his presidency. According to the state park website, “the pyramid structure contains 250 tons of native rubble and mortar.” Buchanan left the United States in a similar condition.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Ben Bratman

Ben Bratman is associate professor of legal writing at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a former practicing attorney. His blog is Sui Generis. Favorite presidents: Theodore Roosevelt (R); Harry S Truman (D).