Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

Pleasonton Defends Himself

By Timothy Harrison


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In 1817, Stephen Pleasonton, the man who saved many valuable government papers, including the Declaration of Independence, from being burned by the British in the War of 1812, was appointed by President James Monroe to be Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. A few years later, in 1820, control of our nation’s lighthouse was also assigned to Pleasanton, which he managed for the next 32 years, sometimes with great criticism.

Without going into great detail, in 1838 there was a Congressional investigation into the way Pleasonton was managing our nation’s lighthouses. In defending himself to Congress, Pleasonton wrote in his defense a letter dated May 3, 1858 in which he stated “I consider the present arrangement for managing the light-house establishment of the United States the most simple and most economical that can be devised, and at the same time, sufficiently effectual.”

Later in the same letter, he wrote, “It is not known to the public who has the general superintendence of the light-house establishment. It is generally believed to be in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, who has in fact, but little to do with it. I would respectfully propose, therefore, that the name and the style of the office should hereafter be, ‘The Auditor for the Department of State and General Superintendant of the Light-House Establishment.’ The powers and duties of the Auditor may remain as fixed by the law of the 3rd March 1817; but those of the light-house establishment ought to be in a general way, at least, defined by law.”

In defending his decision not to use Fresnel lenses in lighthouses, he wrote, “The light-houses are now all fitted up with parabolic reflectors, by law. If any change be made, it must be by law. Should Congress think proper to make appropriation of five or six thousand dollars, to procure a set of French lenses, I will cause the utility of them to be tested, in comparison with the reflector, and report the results to Congress; after which they will act upon the subject as they shall think proper.”

Pleasonton won that battle and he continued to hang on to his job of managing our nation’s lighthouses for another 14 years. But future defenses of his management, which continued to be ongoing, came to an abrupt halt in 1852 when a scathing 750-page Congressional committee report caused Congress to react by creating the United States Light-House Board that would be comprised of the best military engineers and civilian leaders in the nation. And Stephen Pleasonton, the man who ran our nation’s lighthouses for 32 years, was out of job.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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