April 24, 2002

Thaddeus Stevens, A Man Before His Time

By Congressman Joe Pitts

In 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 Democrat. 

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 laws.”

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.

That 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 away.

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 day.

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 reads:

“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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