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About Stephen Pleasonton
Stephen Pleasonton (1776? – January 31, 1855) was the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury of the United States; but he is chiefly remembered today for his work in overseeing the United States Light House Establishment during its infancy. He was the father of Union Civil War General Alfred Pleasonton and Union Civil War General Augustus Pleasonton.
Little information has survived regarding Pleasonton's early life and career. He is known to have begun work as a clerk with the State Department. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800 along with the government, and he was still there in 1814 when he saved the Declaration of Independence and other papers from being burned by British forces. In 1817, President James Monroe named Pleasonton the Fifth Auditor in the Treasury Department (a newly created position), which he would hold until his death in 1855.
Saving the Declaration of Independence (War of 1812)
Worried that the British would attack Washington, President James Madison tasked Pleasonton with preserving the books and papers of the State Department. Pleasonton acquired several coarse linen bags, and filled them with all the Department's records. This included the still-unpublished secret journals of Congress, the commission and correspondence of George Washington, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and all the treaties, laws, and correspondence of the Department made since 1789. He had all of this carted to a grist mill three miles beyond Georgetown. Before he left, he noticed the Declaration of Independence had been forgotten and was still hanging in its frame on the wall, and took that as well. After one more day, Pleasonton became fearful that the British would destroy a nearby cannon foundry and possibly even the grist mill if they were to come to Washington, and procured wagons to take the material another thirty-five miles to Leesburg, Virginia, where they were stored in an empty stone house. That night, the British arrived and burned many buildings in the city. While the British left within two days, it was some weeks before the documents were returned to Washington.
Light House Establishment
In 1820 Pleasonton was appointed to oversee operations of the United States Light House Establishment. A bureaucrat, he knew little of maritime matters. The Light House Establishment was not his sole concern, and as a result he delegated much of the responsibility of his office to local collectors of customs. These became district superintendents of lights, and had the authority not only to select the necessary sites for lighthouse construction, but to also purchase the land for the government to use. Superintendents also were required to oversee the actual construction of lighthouses, and ensure their repair when necessary. They would also mediate conflicts and deal directly, when necessary, with lighthouse keepers. Each superintendent was required to submit a yearly report detailing the status of light stations in his charge.
Pleasonton was, by and large, a sober administrator, dispensing funds only when absolutely necessary, and remaining as thrifty as possible. While this drew praise from government officials, it came at great expense to existing aids to navigation.
Diamond Shoals Lightship incident
In 1826, the Diamond Shoals Lightship, off the coast of North Carolina, slipped her moorings in a storm; her anchor and chain were ripped from her hull and fell to the sea floor. Despite being advised otherwise by the local superintendent, Pleasonton waited two months before acting. In the event, he offered a $500 reward for the recovery of both anchor and chain, believing a salvage operation to be more cost-effective than replacing the lost parts (a $2000 cost).
Relationship with Winslow Lewis
Also typical of Pleasonton's business dealings was his relationship with Winslow Lewis. Lewis, a sometime engineer and inventor, had developed a new lighting system for use in American lighthouses. Pleasonton immediately agreed to its use, primarily because he viewed it as cost-effective. The system had its detractors, however, including the brothers Blunt, publishers of the American Coast Pilot; they received many irate letters from various mariners, which they forwarded to Pleasonton. Furthermore, although Augustin Fresnel had developed his revolutionary system of lenses in 1820, Pleasonton refused to sanction their use, viewing them as too expensive. He preferred to remain with Lewis' system, claiming that it was adequate for lighting the American coast.
In the end, it was Pleasonton's refusal to consider Fresnel's system that proved his downfall. This, coupled with his support for Lewis' outdated methods, led to further investigations by Congress; eventually, the United States Lighthouse Board was formed to remove Pleasonton's influence from the system altogether.
Pleasonton was 78 years old when he died on January 31, 1855. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery.
Pleasonton's appointment marked a turning point for the Light House Establishment; responsibility for lighthouses had previously shifted from department to department, with no semblance of continuity. His administration lasted until 1852, at which point the United States Lighthouse Board was created; this was the longest period of stability the Light House Establishment had seen up until that point. Still, many historians have criticized Pleasonton's administration, holding that his frugal nature and willingness to cut costs wherever possible did great harm to the Light House Establishment.
Stephen Pleasonton's Timeline
January 21, 1801
July 7, 1824