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Digging into a Historic Rivalry

As archaeologists unearth a secret slave passageway used by abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, scholars reevaluate his reputation and that of his neighbors and nemesis, James Buchanan

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When, in 2002, archaeologists Mary Ann Levine and James Delle’s crew of student excavators broke through the roof of an old cistern in the courtyard of a house belonging to one of 19th-century America’s most important politicians, they discovered something totally unexpected: a secret hiding place for runaway slaves. Although the saga of American slavery, and the Underground Railroad (the network that helped fugitives make their way north to freedom), is replete with legends of ingeniously concealed hideaways, secret redoubts such as Thaddeus Stevens’ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are actually quite rare. “I’ve looked at many tunnels that were alleged to have been used by the Underground Railroad,” says Delle, 40, a professor at nearby KutztownUniversity. (Levine is on the faculty at Franklin & MarshallCollege.) “Usually I’m debunking these sites. But in this case, I can think of no other possible explanation.”

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In the mid-1800s, Stevens, a seven-term congressman and power broker, had been a household name, renowned, and in many cases, reviled for his eloquent calls for the abolition of slavery. A brilliant lawyer with a commitment to racial equality far in advance of his time, he would be the father of two amendments to the Constitution—the 14th, guaranteeing all citizens equal protection before the law, and the 15th, granting freedmen the right to vote—and also an architect of Reconstruction. Alightning rod for the political passions that electrified the United States during and after the Civil War, he is virtually unknown today, nearly a century and a half after his death in 1868. “If you stopped a hundred people on the street today, right here in Lancaster, and asked them who Stevens was, I bet only 50 would know,” says Lancaster’s mayor, Charlie Smithgall, 58. “And most of them could tell you only that there’s a junior college here that has his name on it.”

 

Stevens’ reputation, even in his hometown, is dwarfed by that of his neighbor and bitter rival, James Buchanan, the nation’s 15th president and arguably its worst. “Buchanan’s vision was cemented in the past,” says Jean Harvey Baker, a historian at GoucherCollege, in Baltimore, Maryland, and the author of a biography of Buchanan to be published in May. “He continued to see the United States as a slaveholding republic at a time when other Western countries were moving away from slavery. If he could have, he would have made the United States into a slave society that extended from Baja California to the East Coast.” Today, Buchanan’s stately Lancaster home, Wheatland, stands as a lovingly restored memorial; Stevens’ modest brick row house has lain largely neglected for decades and, despite the historic archaeological find, will soon be partially demolished to make way for a massive new convention center.

 

The two men could hardly have produced a more vivid study in contrasts: one was a firebrand abolitionist, considered the foremost radical of his generation, the other a Northerner who supported the South—in the parlance of the time, a doughface. “Doughfaces were mainly border-state congressmen who did the political bidding of the South,” says Baker. “The term implied that they were malleable, that they could be worked on. They didn’t give a damn about slavery. They cared only about keeping intact the Democratic Party’s coalition with the South.” Stevens was a man driven by deeply held moral convictions. Buchanan, on the other hand, emerged as the great equivocator—eternally placating, legalistic and so priggish that President Andrew Jackson once dismissed him as a “Miss Nancy”—a sissy.

 

Yet the lives of Stevens and Buchanan maintained curiously parallel courses. Both men rose from humble origins: Buchanan was born in a log cabin on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1791, and Stevens a year later in rural Vermont. Both were lifelong bachelors and workaholics, fueled by intense political ambition. Both were lawyers wh0 built their careers in Lancaster; they lived less than two miles apart. And both would die in the summer of 1868 amid the postwar trauma of Reconstruction. For decades, in an age when slavery was a 600-pound gorilla in the parlor of American democracy, the two men would find their bitterly opposed political viewpoints inextricably entwined. Buchanan would lead the United States to the brink of Civil War. Stevens would shape its aftermath.

 

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