Thaddeus Stevens: A Champion of Inclusive Democracy, Past, Present, And Future

By David A. Atkinson

In the midst of fierce arguments over how history should be taught, and what limitations should be placed on instruction and discussion in the classroom, Pennsylvania is fortunate to have to have numerous local historical societies working to delve into events and personages that shaped our development and trajectory. One of these is the Thaddeus Stevens Society, under the leadership of Ross Hetrick, which undertakes remarkable advocacy and education work on a slender budget through a dedicated group of devotees.

Over several years, the society raised the money for an evocative statue of Stevens, which was dedicated in front of the Adams County Courthouse on April 2nd. In the spirit of Stevens, the sculptor of this magnificent rendering is of Peruvian ancestry. The previous day, the Society celebrated the 230th anniversary of Stevens’ birth with a full day of events in Lancaster, including a seminar by historians and the annual graveside ceremony.

It is commonplace for historians to refer to Stevens as one of greatest unknown leaders of American history. Were it not for the brilliant movie Lincoln, in which Tommy Lee Jones played Stevens in his forceful and compelling character, he would be even less recognized.

Stevens’ legacy is experiencing an upsurge of attention. Bruce Levine has written a well-regarded biography titled Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter For Racial Justice. Lancaster History is working toward establishing a Stevens and Smith House Museum on properties that have received Historic Preservation Landmark status. In a victory for historic preservation, these properties were saved from demolition or relocation thanks to a concerted campaign by community leaders and engaged citizens. The modern Lancaster Convention Center was built around them. This offers a terrific vantage point for viewing the archaeology conducted on the site and keeps the structures in their proper historical context.

Much study has gone into the many Underground Railroad routes through Pennsylvania. Thaddeus Stevens was an important player both in Gettysburg and Lancaster. Archaeological evidence was found in the form of cistern uncovered beneath the Stevens house.

Few have had a broader concept of freedom and equality than Stevens did. His battle to abolish slavery and embed guarantees of rights for Black Americans was relentless, but it was far from the end of the story. He advocated the vote for women fifty years before suffrage was finally realized. He believed that those who also deserved equality included the most persecuted groups of his time – Indians (Native Americans), Chinese, and Mohammedans, in the vernacular of his day.

This was reflected most clearly in the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment, which has regrettably become the target of anti-immigration forces in recent years. There were no aspersions cast about anchor babies and chain migration. No question about why immigrants left their homeland, or whether they had family here, whether they were bringing health insurance, or whether they had employment prospects. One born here was automatically part of America’s destiny.

There is another kind of equality that he constantly championed, and that was the equality of opportunity provided by access to education. He became known as the Savior of Public Education, because in a landmark demonstration of persuasive oratory, he turned the tide against a repeal effort when public schools were in the fledgling stage. He provided the real estate on which Gettysburg College was founded and served as a trustee. His will contained money that led to the establishment of what today is the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, which is an enduring and unique institution featuring equality in student population and success in job placement for graduates. He articulated great principles, and adhered to them in his personal conduct.

No one fought harder for the principles he was committed to, but he also acknowledged that he must compromise and concede points to accomplish as much of his goals as was possible. Men were imperfect, and their work would also be. Obviously, this lesson has been lost on many of the practitioners of modern day politics, across the spectrum.

Unlike many others, he tried to live by the same principles he espoused in the public square. His detractors tried to tar him in many ways, but hypocrite was not a label he would ever wear. He was buried in the only cemetery that allowed for mixed race interment. He wrote his own epitaph, summing up the principles by which he believed we should all aspire.

Several years ago, our Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy produced a half-hour documentary on Stevens. Funding was provided by Ed and Jeanne Arnold. A link was provided to schools and libraries throughout our commonwealth. It may be viewed here.

As part of the statue dedication ceremony, the Thaddeus Stevens Society commissioned a new documentary, which is one hour in length. More historians provided perspective and there is fuller description given of several of Stevens’ transcendent moments. Funding was provided by the society and businessman and Civil War enthusiast Richard Abel. It too will be distributed to schools and libraries. It may be viewed here.

These documentaries are not meant to be the final or complete word on Thaddeus Stevens. They are meant to illuminate, educate, and spark the desire for further inquiry. Most of all, they show leadership in its rarest form, exercised with vigor, public purpose, and humility. A refreshing reminder, shall we say?

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center. He served 35 years on the Pennsylvania Senate Staff.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.