Lancaster, PA: Home of the Worst President (and Best Congressman) in American History

tags: museums, presidents, birthplaces

M.J. Rosenberg is a Washington D.C.-based writer, and worked for twenty years as a speechwriter and legislative aide at the House, Senate, and State Department. This is the first of a series of articles on presidential museums and birthplaces.

Image via Wiki Commons.

If there is one place in America in which the intellectual battles of the Civil War era are still being played out, it is Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- hometown of both President James Buchanan and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

Located less than two hours from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., Lancaster is most often visited because it is at the edge of picturesque Pennsylvania Dutch country. Since the 1930s restoration of Buchanan's estate, Wheatland, Lancaster has also drawn presidential history buffs who come to see how the fifteenth president, the only bachelor chief executive, lived.

The bachelor angle is the only thing most Americans know about Buchanan, if they know anything about him at all. It is widely believed today, as it was by Washington insiders in his own time, that Buchanan may have been gay, although neither the term nor the concept of homosexual identity (rather than homosexual behavior) was recognized until the twentieth century. The main evidence attesting to Buchanan's homosexuality are a few surviving (and revealing) letters from Buchanan to William Rufus King, a long-time member of Congress and Franklin Pierce’s vice president, with whom Buchanan shared a home for thirteen years. President Andrew Jackson famously and derisively called the two “Aunt Nancy and Miss Fancy.”

You won’t learn about Buchanan’s sex life at Wheatland. The tour guides forestall such discussion by telling the story of Buchanan’s engagement to a young woman who, for some unknown reason, broke it off and died almost immediately afterward (possibly a suicide). Her father specifically disinvited Buchanan from the funeral. The story raises more questions than it answers but those who tell it seem to believe it explains his swearing off women from that time forward.

Although probably gay, the GLBT community is unlikely to ever claim President Buchanan as one of their own. That is due to his sympathetic attitude toward slavery and to those who broke up the union in order to preserve it. As historian Jean Harvey Baker put it, “If [Buchanan] could have, he would have made the United States into a slave society that extended from Baja California to the East Coast.”

In fact, in his 1857 inaugural address he announced that slavery was no longer an issue 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.”

That was exactly four years before the Civil War, a war Buchanan did almost nothing to prevent.

His lackadaisical approach to the crisis that was all around him is why Buchanan is considered a failed president even, surprisingly, at his beautifully preserved home. Buchanan's is the first presidential museum or historic site that I have visited that makes no claim that the presidency it depicts was a success. (I haven't visited the Nixon Museum and Library since it was transferred from family control to that of the National Archives so I can't speak to how Nixon's failures are addressed there).

The Buchanan site is almost painfully honest about his record. The fifteen-minute introductory film about Buchanan offers no defense of his record except to conclude with the judgment that he deserves a “fairer shake” because he did finally grasp the secessionist threat by the time of the Fort Sumter crisis, that is after his successor had been elected and Buchanan was almost out the door.

While Buchanan’s reputation was never high, it was, until relatively recently, higher than that of his neighbor and antagonist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was the House leader of the Radical Republicans, a pre-war abolitionist and an advocate of a Reconstructionist policy that would have limited the seceded states reintegration into the union until the rights of the former slaves were secured.

For about one hundred years following his 1868 death, Stevens was viewed as a fire-breathing extremist who was driven to champion black Americans by some perversity of body or mind (he had a club foot) and by his relationship with a black woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, his housekeeper, business associate and companion. In his own day, Steven’s relationship with Smith was viewed as more than scandalous: it was “miscegenation” and a crime.

Even without his relationship with Smith, Stevens’ support for full racial equality would have led to his demonization in pre-Civil Rights era America. although Stevens might have been ignored altogether but for the world’s first blockbuster movie, D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.

Birth Of A Nation, set during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, views the period through a white supremacist lens. The slave owners were benevolent, the slaves were happy simpletons, the Ku Klux Klan were fighters for justice and Thaddeus Stevens, or the character created as his doppelganger, is Satan, who was determined to destroy America by ending white privilege and substituting black domination. Although historians of the era did not share quite that lurid view, Civil War and Reconstruction-era revisionists (the so-called Dunning school) basically shared that take on Stevens and conveyed it in scholarly works and in textbooks throughout much of the twentieth century.

The triumph of the civil rights movement altered Stevens' place in history and in popular culture. He is now viewed as among the top fighters for racial equality in our history. The three Civil War constitutional amendments which Stevens pushed to passage (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth, although he died before ratification of the last) changed the legal status of African Americans from chattel to citizens. Thanks to Stevens and his fellow Radical Republicans, the constitutional basis for equal rights for African Americans was already in place by the time the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed Congress to enact the civil rights laws.

The dramatic shift in Thaddeus Stevens’ standing can be seen in another blockbuster film which, most likely, laid the Birth Of A Nation image to rest for all time, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. This Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is a man of courage and conscience, almost a prophet, whose vision coupled with his legislative know-how, was indispensable to Lincoln in achieving both abolition and the right of African Americans to be recognized as human beings with rights. As for Stevens' relationship with Lydia Hamilton Smith, Spielberg portrays it as evidence of just how ahead of his time he was.

That shift in Stevens’ standing can be seen just as dramatically in Lancaster. If Buchanan’s Wheatland is largely about apologizing for Buchanan’s record, the new Thaddeus Stevens/Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site, still under construction, celebrates both Stevens and Smith not only for what he did in Congress but also what they did together.

The home they shared was slated for destruction at the beginning of this century until a group of Lancaster citizens succeeded in achieving its preservation, despite its being located smack dab in the middle of a site being developed as a new hotel and convention center. The preservationists did not know exactly what they had saved until the archaeologists went to work excavating the site. Then they discovered a cistern that had been reconfigured in the 1840s as a hiding place for runaway slaves. It turns out Stevens and Smith were running a station on the Underground Railroad.

In other words, Thaddeus Stevens was exactly who his enemies from James Buchanan through D.W. Griffith suspected him of being: he was fully and completely dedicated to racial equality, both in his public and private life, and he also was a lawbreaker (it was illegal to help transport slaves to freedom) in pursuit of that goal. He was not so much a man of his time but of ours. As for Buchanan, he is fixed forever in the 1850s.

Go to Lancaster and visit Buchanan and Stevens. The sites associated with them are rich with history, beauty (Buchanan’s estate) and drama. Taken together, they tell quite a story, one that continues. Imagine what Thaddeus Stevens would think about Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House.

On second thought, I doubt that the old prophet would be all that surprised.

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