Editor’s note: This story is part of a continuing series of reports from the Thaddeus Stevens Society, authored by society president Ross Hetrick. The society is dedicated to promoting Stevens’s important legacy.
One of the great ironies of American history is that President James Buchanan, a defender of slavery, lived in the same city of Lancaster, PA, as Thaddeus Stevens, a relentless foe of the infernal institution.
This stark contrast was highlighted in a new book, American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal, by Neil King, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. The book recounts King’s 330-mile walk from Washington, D.C. to New York City, which includes passing through Lancaster. He writes about the difference between the two men.
“Without Buchanan, the country would be little different,” King wrote. “He coddled the South and forestalled war for his four years in the White House. Then he retired to his high brick Federalist house on the edge of town to receive guests and work on his memoirs — the first ever presidential account of a president’s time in office — as the nation imploded.”
On the other hand, King says, “Without Stevens, we would be a far different nation. Throughout the war, he led Lincoln to places — emancipation, Blacks serving in the military — where Lincoln was reluctant or slow to go. After the war, he led the charge to revamp the Constitution and to move aggressively on Reconstruction. He was one of the founders of the country’s second founding.” he also noted that when Stevens died, “it was as if a sitting president had perished.”
Of course, since Buchanan was president, even a terrible president, his Wheatland mansion has been lovingly preserved and his memory maintained at local historical institutions. But Stevens was woefully neglected in Lancaster during the 20th century.
His modest house on Queen Street was not preserved and repeated remodeling left it unrecognizable from its original appearance. Fortunately, what was left was saved from the wrecker’s ball in the early 2000s, and the exterior was restored to its 1860s appearance. But the interior has remained a shell for more than 20 years.
But now a new $20 million museum called the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History and Democracy is slated to open in early 2025.
Despite a century of neglect of Stevens, one monument to the Great Commoner remained — his grave at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, the city’s only integrated graveyard at the time of Stevens’s death. King included a sketch of himself in front of the eight-foot granite memorial in his book. He also added its inspirational inscription:
“I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: Equality of Man Before his Creator.”
Ross Hetrick is president and founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. Hetrick was a business reporter for 18 years in Baltimore and owned Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg from 1996 to 2004.