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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Lancaster was a prosperous little city with a population of about 6,000 when Buchanan, at age 18, arrived there in 1809. Handsome two- and three-story brick and fieldstone houses were laid out in a dignified grid, befitting an urban center that had served as the state’s capital since 1799.




Home to gunsmiths, artisans and markets for the hundreds of farmers who lived in the surrounding county, Lancaster exuded an atmosphere of bustle and importance, even though its streets were unpaved. Fresh out of DickinsonCollege in Carlisle, Buchanan was determined to please his demanding Scots-Irish father, who never tired of telling his firstborn son how much he had sacrificed to educate him.


Had Buchanan lived in present times, pundits would likely describe him as an inside-the-Beltway type, a professional politician who advances himself through appointed positions and personal connections. “In the 18th century, ambitious men went into the church,” says Baker. “In the 20th, they went into big business. The way you made a mark in Buchanan’s era was not by creating an Enron but by entering party politics.”


Buchanan, tall and ruggedly handsome, entered Congress as a Federalist in 1821, representing Lancaster and the surrounding region. By this time, the Federalist Party, founded by Alexander Hamilton, had declined as a national force, a result both of its opposition to the War of 1812 and its image as a protector of the wealthy. The party had lost ground to Democrats, who traced their origins to Thomas Jefferson and presented themselves as champions of the common man. The new Federalist congressman’s primary loyalty, however, was less to party than to career. “Buchanan was an opportunist,” says historian Matthew Pinsker of DickinsonCollege. “Early on, he learned an important lesson for a man who wanted to get ahead in politics: don’t disagree with anyone. He had an impressive résumé, but he was not a popular figure; he was an insider.”



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