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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In 1828, sensing the rise of a vigorous opposition party, Buchanan threw his support to Democrat Andrew Jackson, who was elected president that year. Buchanan served the last of his five terms in the House of Representatives as a Democrat. After a stint as Jackson’s ambassador to Russia from 1832 to 1833, he was elected to the Senate (by the State Legislature, in accordance with the laws of that time) in 1834. Eleven years later, when Democrat James Polk became president, Buchanan served as his Secretary of State. He won plaudits for his advancement of American claims in the Northwest.


Buchanan was already a rising political star by the time 50-year-old Thaddeus Stevens moved to Lancaster in 1842. Stevens had come to Pennsylvania after graduating from Dartmouth College; he settled in Gettysburg, where he earned a reputation as the most brilliant lawyer in town, despite dual disabilities: a clubbed foot and a disfiguring illness—alopecia, a rare form of baldness—that caused him to lose his hair by age 35. (He wore a wig throughout his career; when a political admirer once begged for a lock of his hair, he plucked off the entire hairpiece and presented it to her with a rueful smile.)


Stevens had won election to the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1833 at age 41. In office, he emerged as an advocate for public education. His preoccupation, however, was slavery. His hatred of it was rooted not only in his Yankee upbringing but also in an 1821 incident. In a case he would thereafter never explain or even allude to, Stevens successfully defended a Maryland owner of runaway slave Charity Butler, who was consequently returned to bondage. Though a professional triumph, the case “affected him deeply,” says Hans Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian and professor emeritus of American history at the City University of New York. “I think that he was disgusted with himself for what he had done.” From then on, Stevens’ commitment to equal rights for African-Americans—an idea that was anathema even to many abolitionists—would be unwavering.


In contrast, Buchanan condemned slavery in the abstract while supporting it in fact. It was, he asserted before Congress in 1826, “one of those moral evils from which it is impossible for us to escape without the introduction of evils infinitely greater. There are portions of this Union in which, if you emancipate your slaves, they will become masters.” He proclaimed a willingness to “bundle on my knapsack” and spring to the South’s defense, should that ever become necessary, and vigorously defended the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required citizens, regardless of their beliefs, to help recapture runaway slaves anywhere in the country. Says Baker: “He was totally opposed to abolitionism, and pro-Southern. He wanted to protect the Union as it was, run by a Southern minority. His agenda was appeasement.”


Even so, Buchanan is not without his defenders. “Buchanan revered the Constitution with an almost religious fervor,” says Samuel C. Slaymaker, director of the James Buchanan Foundation, which oversees Wheatland. “He was afraid of the masses, but he was also afraid of the presidency becoming too powerful. He saw the president as an administrator for the laws that Congress made, not as someone who was there to make the law himself. He foresaw that a war would be long and bloody, and feared that the country might not survive it.” As for slavery, Slaymaker says Buchanan thought it more a legal than a moral issue and believed it would fade out in the South as it had in Pennsylvania. He felt that the abolitionists only made things worse by provoking Southerners with their “immoderate language.”



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