was the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury of the United States; 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
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 was present in Washington
in 1814, and saved the Declaration of Independence
and other papers from being burned by British forces.
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'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.