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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As for Stevens, perhaps the nadir in his reputation was reached in 1915 with the appearance of movie director D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic, The Birth of A Nation, in which he was portrayed as a villain, plotting with a mixed-race co-conspirator to instigate a race war against whites. Smith appears in the film as well, referred to disparagingly as “the mulatto,” and characterized as ambitious and grasping. The film calls the Ku Klux Klan “the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.” President Woodrow Wilson allowed the movie, which portrays blacks as clownish, lascivious lowlifes, to premier at the White House.


As Stevens’ reputation plummeted, James Buchanan’s began to rise, at least in Lancaster. During the 1930s, Wheatland was restored, with the support of public donations, to its mid-19thcentury splendor. (Stevens’ home was not even included on a 1962 map of the Lancaster Historical Society’s important downtown sites.) On a recent tour of Wheatland, a docent, costumed in period dress, cheerily described Buchanan as “a nice man who just believed in the Constitution.” Stevens, she volunteered, seemed to have had an inexplicable mean streak, adding, “I don’t really know exactly what his problem was.”


Later, as snowflakes swirled in the streets of Lancaster, archaeologist Jim Delle unlocked the front door of the row house where Stevens lived, only a block from the square where crowds of spellbound supporters had once listened to his surging oratory. The Federal-era facade has disappeared under a modern facing of dingy white bricks; a garage door intrudes on Stevens’ front parlor. Moldering industrial carpeting, cracked plaster and graffiti lent an atmosphere of desolation to the ground-floor room where Stevens likely wrote his most famous speeches. In the courtyard behind the house, Delle scraped snow off a sheet of plywood covering the broken crown of the cistern; we climbed down an aluminum ladder. In the dank brick compartment, the archaeologist pointed out a small aperture through which fugitives had entered, crawling from a tunnel that connected to the basement of the tavern next door.




Two years ago, real estate developers agreed, after considerable local protests, to leave about half of Stevens’ house standing; however, they insist that the rest of the building must be leveled to make room for a new convention center. “We have to be efficient from a cost standpoint,” says David Hixson of the Convention Center Authority. “But we are making an effort to integrate the historic structures into the project. We need that space.” Current plans, yet unfunded, call for the remaining section of the house to be restored; an underground museum, incorporating the cistern, would also be built. “We can’t just walk away from this house,” says Randolph Harris, the former director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, who has fought to prevent the demolition of Stevens’ house and his adjoining properties. “Stevens is way too important a figure in our history to abandon once again.”


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