The State Museum of Pennsylvania houses a document that claims to be the original charter of Pennsylvania. If authentic, it is the state’s most basic document of record. On March 4, 1680, William Penn met with Charles II in his breakfast chamber where he watched the monarch sign the charter. The document in Harrisburg bears no signature. It is surely a later copy.
The original charter granted Penn the right to carve governing districts out of the 45,000 square miles covered by the charter (Pennsylvania originally included Delmarva and southern New Jersey). Eight of the original eleven county seats were established by Penn and his heirs. The others were established by entrepreneurs. One of those was Lancaster.
The white people who first settled south of the Blue Mountains and east of the Susquehanna were under the jurisdiction of Chester. Eighteenth century roads made it burdensome for them to reside some sixty miles from where “courts were held and public offices were kept.” In 1729, the residents of upper Chester County petitioned the Assembly to relieve them of the burden of travel. The Assembly responded favorably with the creation of Lancaster County. They were instructed to find convenient land upon which they could construct a courthouse and prison.
Lancaster was founded at a time immense growth. The tiny backwater town grew by leaps and bounds and masses emigrated from Britain and settlers migrated west in search of land. By the eve of the Revolution, it was the largest in-land settlement in British North America. It was frequently compared to Philadelphia and described as a “city” by visitors.
During the Revolution, its central location made Lancaster an important munitions depot. Arms and supplies flowed to and from the city in support of the Continental Army. When General William Howe seized Philadelphia for his winter quarters in 1777, the Continental Congress fled to Lancaster. They held a single session there and on September 27, 1777, Lancaster served as the capitol of the United States. The next day, Congress continued its flight across the Susquehanna where it took up session in York.
Lancaster was home to Edward Hand, a Pennsylvania regiment leader who was promoted to Adjutant General of the Continental Army. He served at the siege of Yorktown. George Ross lived there, too. He represented the city in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. Ross commanded troops in the Continental Congress. After the war, he refused to accept the authority of a Federal court in what he considered a state matter. In this regard, he was at odds with his fellow citizens who were strongly allied with the Federalists. Of Lancaster’s six representatives to the 1787 Assembly, five were Federalists.
For a state that produced so many influential people during the Revolutionary period, Pennsylvania’s lack of Presidential success is disappointing. Since 1789 it has sent just one person to the White House. That person was Lancaster’s James Buchanan.
The fifteenth President arrived in Lancaster to study law in 1809. He liked it so much he never left. In 1848, Buchanan did what too many successful professionals do. He purchased a federal style mansion along what is now called Marrietta pike and moved to the suburbs. In 1856 when he was a serious Presidential contender, a New York Herald reporter visited the estate. Near the train station, he hired a “hoss” to make the trip to Wheatland. It cost him twelve shillings for a three-hour rental.
Buchanan was the nation’s only “bachelor” president. As such, his niece served as Frist Lady. His marrital status invites the inevitable question, “Was James Buchanan gay?” The official narrative, the one you get on a Wheatland tour, is that Buchanan was so distraught by the death of his fiance that he never seriously pursued women again. Undoubtedly, this made for a good narrative to deflect the question above. He lived with William Rufus King – another “bachelor” – in Washington for fifteen years. Historians seem loth to render a verdict in the absense of a smoking gun. His contemporaries didn’t share that reluctantance. Andrew Jackson took note of Buchanan and King’s close relationship and referred to the latter as Buchanan’s “Aunt Fancy.” He was most likely homosexual.