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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

No surviving documents describe just how the cistern behind Stevens’ brick house functioned as a hiding place. Perhaps fugitives arrived in Lancaster from Columbia, where an African-American lumber merchant, William Whipper, shipped them eastward toward Philadelphia and to freedom on railroad freight cars fitted with secret compartments. The fugitives might then have been delivered, sealed into barrels, to the tavern next to Stevens’ house. Slaves may have been hidden in the cistern for a few hours, or days, until they could be passed on to other locations.

 

In 1848, Stevens entered into a partnership with a 35-year old widow, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a light-skinned mulatto (her father was white) who would act for the next 25 years as his housekeeper, property manager and confidante. It was a remarkable—and courageous—relationship in an era when segregation was virtually universal. Even in the North, blacks were almost completely excluded from colleges and public schools and barred from theaters, libraries, eating places and accommodations. Silk merchant Lewis Tappan, the most influential abolitionist in New York City during the antebellum period, declined to hire black clerks in his store because he considered them untrustworthy. Genuine partnerships between whites and blacks were almost unheard of.

 

It is likely, given her connections in the local African-American community, that Smith managed the movement of fugitives in and out of the Stevens house. Able to shuttle easily between the divided worlds of black and white, she was ideally suited for such a mission. While it was widely rumored in Stevens’ lifetime and afterward that the two were lovers, no hard evidence exists to support that claim. Stevens, in any case, treated Smith as his equal. He addressed her as “Madam,” invariably offered her his seat on public transportation and included her in social occasions with his friends.

 

Southern politicians had warned that they would lead their states out of the Union if Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for president, won. In the election, opposition to him split among two Democrats, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, and a fourth candidate, John Bell. Lincoln was elected in November 1860. No sooner had the race been decided than the Southern states began to make good on their threats. In the months leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration, a forceful response from President Buchanan might have dampened the secession ardor. But he responded with characteristic equivocation. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded; ten other Southern states followed. “Buchanan handled secession abysmally,” says historian Baker. “When South Carolina seceded, he tried to do all he could for the Southerners. He retained Southern cabinet officers who were, in effect, agents of the South and who continued to influence him in ways that were pretty close to treasonous. He spent so much time on details that the larger issues escaped him. When things got tough, he got immobilized.”

 

Even when members of his cabinet began resigning to join the embryonic Confederacy, Buchanan focused on his pet project, a plan to purchase Cuba from Spain. “A president with vision would have looked ahead and begun the process of returning the Army to the East Coast from the West, where it was scattered on remote posts,” says Baker. “But he did nothing. He had also sent a huge naval expedition to Paraguay, of all places, so that when he needed the Navy, he didn’t have it either.” Yankees derided him as a Southern toady, while Confederates blamed him for not facilitating their secession from the Union. As a private citizen in Lancaster in 1861, he proclaimed his support for a Northern victory. But by then almost no one was listening.

 

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