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Opinion: Pennsylvania’s one president — nothing to brag about

Although Pennsylvania is our country’s fifth most populous state behind California, Texas, Florida and New York, we have had just one president among the 45 who have held this high office.

Quite frankly, James Buchanan, our 15th president just prior to Abraham Lincoln’s being elected in 1860, was nothing to brag about, and he consistently winds up at the bottom or near the bottom of lists of presidents who were most effective.

In the most recent listing, taken by C-Span in 2021, Buchanan ranked dead last for the third time in a row. C-Span polls more than 90 presidential scholars and historians to compile its list every time there is a change of administration.

President Biden is not listed, of course, since he is now serving in the job. Former President Donald Trump made his first appearance on the list in 2021, placing 41st, ahead of Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and the much-maligned Buchanan.

Biden is the 46th president to hold office, even though only 45 men have held the job. Grover Cleveland was elected to nonconsecutive four-year terms so he has two numbers (22 and 24). If Donald Trump is elected again in 2024, he would become just the second president to have two numbers (45 and 47).

I have often wondered why Pennsylvania has played such an insignificant role in having our fair share of chief executives. Of course, there is no definitive answer that I can point to. Some have jokingly said that with a president such as Buchanan, the nation doesn’t want to take another chance with a Pennsylvanian.

That argument, while it might be amusing, doesn’t hold much water, because if I were to take a random survey on the streets of Jim Thorpe during a busy touristy weekend, I would be blown away if more than one or two knew the name of “James Buchanan,” let alone that he was a president from Pennsylvania.

The Civil War at one point was called “Buchanan’s War,” because he failed to take decisive action when southern states started talking about secession. He maintained that secession was illegal but believed that going to war to stop it was illegal, too. An attorney, Buchanan’s favorite phrase was “I acknowledge no master but the law.”

Aside from Buchanan’s former home in Lancaster County (known as Wheatland), there are not a lot of Buchanan footprints throughout the state. I have found five streets named for him - in Bethlehem, Coplay, Phoenixville, Lancaster and Mercersburg.

Buchanan was born in the village of Cove Gap, Franklin County (whose state senator now is failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano). Cove Gap (population about 70) is 150 miles southwest of Harrisburg. Buchanan moved to Lancaster County when he was 18.

Wheatland, which was owned as a private nonprofit organization for many years, merged with the Lancaster County Historical Society in 2020. Virtual or on-site tours of this National Historic Landmark are available. The in-person general admission tours are $15, $13 for seniors.

As far as Pennsylvania governors go, of the 47 whose terms are completed and newly elected Josh Shapiro (number 48), just one was born in our area, and his name was “Wolf.” No, not Tom Wolf, who just completed his second and final term; it was attorney George Wolf, who was born in Allen Township, Northampton County. The two Wolfs were not related.

For those unfamiliar with Allen Township, it is south of Lehigh Township and borders the borough of Northampton.

I find it amazing that in the five-county Times News area of Carbon, Schuylkill, Monroe, Northampton and Lehigh counties, just one local person has ever held the top executive’s position in the 233 years since the first governor was elected in 1790.

Four governors were born in Philadelphia and four in Pittsburgh; three were born in Luzerne County and three more in Berks and Chester.

George Wolf was Pennsylvania’s seventh governor, serving from 1829 until 1835. Easton recognized him as the “father of the public school system” by erecting a memorial gateway near the downtown area. He practiced law in Easton.

Before becoming governor, Wolf served as postmaster of Easton, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and a clerk in Northampton County’s Orphans Court.

A Democrat born in 1777, Wolf died at the age of 62 in Philadelphia.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com