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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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Although Buchanan had long dreamed of becoming president, by the time he was appointed to yet another diplomatic post, at 62, as minister to England under President Franklin Pierce in 1853, he believed that his career was effectively over. Ironically, this exile helped him secure the very prize he had sought. During his three years abroad, most nationally known Democrats—including Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—were tarnished by bitter infighting over whether slavery should be extended to the Western territories. Within months of his return home, Buchanan emerged as his party’s presidential candidate in 1856.

 

During the campaign, Buchanan delivered no speeches at all, which was customary at the time. Nevertheless, his opponents mocked his silence and his lackluster performance. “There is a wrong impression about one of the candidates,” Stevens declared of his fellow Lancastrian. “There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.” The Republicans, who had established their party only two years earlier, nominated John C. Frémont, a mapmaker and explorer who had led several expeditions across the Rockies in the 1840s.

 

But the well-established and better-funded Democrats, who pandered to proslavery Southerners, had the edge, and Buchanan, silent to the end, captured the presidency with 45 percent of the vote. (With antislavery Northerners flocking to the Republicans, the new party made a startlingly strong showing, with 33 percent of the vote.)

 

buchanan’s inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1857, reflected an almost pathological complacency. “Everything of a practical nature has been decided,” he declared. “No other question remains for adjustment, because all agree that under the Constitution slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human power except that of the respective States themselves wherein it exists.” The new president was, of course, in deep denial. Since 1855, bloody conflict between proslavery and antislavery forces had ravaged the Kansas Territory; the violence had reached a crescendo during the campaign that led to Buchanan’s election.

 

While Buchanan temporized, Stevens was living a double life, as a prominent lawyer and politician—and as a clandestine activist. His fierce abolitionist views were well known, but the extent of his secret work on behalf of fugitive slaves is only now becoming clear. Even when Stevens lived in Gettysburg, he had begun to volunteer his time to defend runaway slaves in court. After his move to Lancaster in 1842, he regularly aided fugitives traveling from the city of Columbia, Pennsylvania, a key center of Underground Railroad activity 14 miles to the west. Stevens also paid a spy to report on slave catchers active in the area, passing on what he learned to fugitives. “I have a spy on the spies and thus ascertain the facts,” he wrote to his fellow abolitionist, Jeremiah Brown, in 1847. “All this, however, must remain secret or we will lose all the advantages we now have. These are the eighth set of slaves I have warned within a week.”

 

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