April 24, 2002
Stevens, A Man Before His Time
Congressman Joe Pitts
the months after the Civil War, slavery remained constitutional and
African Americans were still not guaranteed the right to vote or even to
count themselves as citizens. The
states of the Confederacy were beaten, but there was no consensus on how
to readmit them to the Union. Republicans
dominated Congress, but the President—Andrew Johnson—was a Southern
The Era of Reconstruction began on this
confused footing, but with one brilliant Pennsylvanian ready to fight for
what he believed. That man was Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster.
In those days, there were two kinds of
Republicans: “Radical Republicans” and “Moderate Republicans.”
Moderate Republicans, following Lincoln’s example, urged
conciliation toward the South. Radical
Republicans, led by Stevens, insisted that no Southern state should be
readmitted until black Americans were treated equally both in law and in
practice. Stevens was
particularly unyielding, going so far as to advocate taking land away from
plantation owners and giving it to their former slaves.
President Johnson, meanwhile, was equally
unyielding. He opposed the
creation of the Freedman’s Bureau, ratification of the Fourteenth
Amendment, and voting rights for black people.
Johnson’s veto pen blocked the Stevens
agenda, until a resulting backlash gave Republicans a veto-proof majority
in Congress in the election of 1866.
Even then, President Johnson fought so hard against the Republican
Congress that it lashed back with articles of impeachment—the only time
in American history until the impeachment of President Clinton in recent
times. Johnson escaped
conviction in the Senate by a single vote.
The Fourteenth Amendment to Constitution
was introduced by Stevens on April 30, 1866—136 years ago.
It was ratified on July 9, 1868.
The Amendment guarantees that “all persons born or naturalized in
the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of
the United States and of the State in wherein they reside.
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the
privileges of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive
any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor
deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the
No other man of his era did as much to
guarantee the rights of citizenship for African Americans.
Decades before the Civil War, Stevens advocated full equality for
black people. In Congress
after the war, he very nearly had the power to make that happen.
He understood that laws alone could not ensure racial equality and
strenuously urged the utter destruction of the old southern elites so that
a new order could be built.
was too much for his contemporaries, and the Civil Rights Movement was
left for a later generation. Disappointed,
Stevens said that he would “take all I can get in the cause of humanity
and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times.”
Stevens would have taken great pleasure in knowing that the
“better man” (Martin Luther King) was a black man from a Southern
state. He would have taken no
pleasure at all in knowing that the “better times” were a century
Thaddeus Stevens was a man before his time.
As early as the 1830s he was using his own money to buy slaves’
freedom and defending free blacks in court at no charge.
His true goal was not an end to slavery, but actual equality among
the races. He even protested
California’s discrimination against Chinese immigrants and argued for
more humane treatment of Indians—positions virtually unheard of in his
Stevens was born in poverty, but rose to
become possibly the most powerful man in America. Frustrated and even
bitter, Stevens died in 1868 having done much for African Americans but
having made few friends. He
is buried in a small cemetery on Mulberry Street in Lancaster—the only
one he could find that did not racially discriminate.
He wrote his own epitaph. It
“I repose in this quiet and secluded
spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but, finding other
cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, 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.”
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