Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 9

 All aboard the Thaddeus Stevens Express

September 2021

By Ross Hetrick

The Thaddeus Stevens Society will hold a community picnic on Sunday, October 10, at 1 p.m. at the Hamiltonban park, 4020 Bullfrog Road, Fairfield, PA where there are signs detailing Steven's efforts to build a railroad and run an iron furnace. To bring this history to life, Society president Ross Hetrick will give a portrayal of Stevens. Free hot dogs, chips and sodas will be provided and side dishes are welcomed. We ask that participants be vaccinated. 

Stevens is generally known for his political career in which he was known as a foremost champion  of freedom and equality. But he was also a strong promoter of commerce and industry and remnants of those efforts can be found around Fairfield and are highlighted at the new community park, which includes a jungle gym shaped like a train.

When Thaddeus Stevens represented Adams county in the Pennsylvania legislature in the 1830s he was able to get the state to foot the bill to build a railroad from Gettysburg to western Maryland to link up with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which had just started operating in 1830. If the railroad had been completed, it might have linked Adams county to the developing Ohio valley and Gettysburg would have seen a booming economy.

Instead, the railroad was relentlessly attacked for its expense and the fact that it took a zigzag course to get over the mountains, prompting critics to call it the "Tapeworm Railroad." The project was abandoned after Stevens lost political power as a result of the 1838 "Buckshot War," a bizarre event in Pennsylvania history where Democrats took over the state legislature by force. It wasn't until 50 years later that the railroad was completed by the Western Maryland Railroad. Massive stone viaducts built in the earlier effort can still be found in the Fairfield area on Mt. Hope Road and Iron Springs Road. 

The Maria iron furnace stack, a remnant of another Stevens venture, also still exists along Iron Springs Road though it is obscured by thick vegetation. Stevens and other investors started the iron mill in 1826 and operated it for 11 years before starting the Caledonia iron works near Chambersburg. Because the Maria furnace was along the route of the proposed Tapeworm railroad, Stevens was accused of feathering his own nest. But in actuality, the operation was shut down in 1837, long before the railroad would have been finished under the best of circumstances.

So come to the Hamiltonban community park on October 10 and learn about the history of Stevens and Fairfield and enjoy a hot dog and soda.

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website:

The Great Commoner, Fall 2021, Number 43,

 Society meets Oct. 10 in Fairfield, PA

      Picture of Thaddeus Stevens on sign at Fairfield, PA park

The Thaddeus Stevens Society will meet on Sunday, October 10, at 1 p.m. at the Hamiltonban Community Park, 4020 Bullfrog Rd., Fairfield, PA. The new park has signs about Stevens's Maria iron furnace and Tapeworm railroad in the Fairfield area.

The Society will hold a community picnic and provide free hot dogs, chips and soft drinks. Additional dishes from attendees are welcomed. We also ask that participants be vaccinated. 

Besides a short business meeting, Ross Hetrick will portray Thaddeus Stevens and talk about the Great Commoner's life and involvement with Fairfield history. If you plan to attend, please contact the Society at or call 717-253-0099. 

                                 Train jungle gym at Hamiltonban Community Park

Stevens 230th birthday celebration, statue dedication taking shape

The Thaddeus Stevens Society will hold the largest celebration in its 23 year existence on April 1, 2 and 3 when it dedicates a Stevens statue in Gettysburg and fundraises for the restoration of his house in Lancaster, PA. 

We will have seminars, banquets and video shows. The festivities will start in Lancaster, PA on April 1, move to Gettysburg on April 2 and conclude on April 3 at Caledonia State Park near Chambersburg, PA.  A tentative schedule for the celebration can be found at:

We are also considering putting together a package deal where participants would travel from city to city by bus and stay in hotels near the events. If you are interested in this or would like to help with the celebration, please contact the Society at or call 717-253-0099.

Stevens statue coming alive
Alex Loza, sculptor of Stevens statue, accepts check from Stevens Society President Ross Hetrick in front of clay model.

The Stevens statue to be put in front of the Adams County courthouse in Gettysburg took another important step in June when the clay model was completed and work began on the final bronze version. 

The statue presents a dynamic version of Stevens clutching a copy of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution -- one of Stevens's greatest achievements. Stevens stands on a base in the shape of Pennsylvania with the following places important to his history marked: Philadelphia, Lancaster, York, Gettysburg, Harrisburg and Caledonia.

 Stevens holding 14th Amendment to Constitution.

Base of statue with places related to Stevens marked.

Quote about Stevens:
"That which gives Mr. Stevens the great power which he wields in the House -- a power which is almost irresistible -- is his emphatic and earnest denunciation of treason. The country has suffered so much in the past from vacillation that it greatly admires any thing which looks thorough and straightforward. Mr. Stevens's words have a gladiatorial strength which would have done honor to the boldest of Rome's orators. They sway men by their sledge-hammer strokes -- they are words of iron. Whatever be the verdict of posterity in regard to the wisdom of Mr. Stevens's acts and speeches, future generations can not fail to render him the tribute which is always yielded to extraordinary force of character." Harper's Weekly, unsigned, April 7, 1866.

Leave a legacy for Thad
Support Thaddeus Stevens's legacy by leaving a legacy of your own. If you wish to include the Stevens Society in your will, please let us know by contacting Ross hetrick 717-253-0099 or email Thank you.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 8

 "Equality of man before his Creator"

August 2021

By Ross Hetrick

"My lifelong regret is that I lived so long and so uselessly," Thaddeus Stevens said shortly before he died on August 11, 1868 at the age of 76. It was an incredibly ironic false statement. 

In his last eight years, Congressman Stevens had led the remaking of America. He had helped to end slavery, changed the Constitution to make equality the law of the land and enacted legislation to protect the recently freed slaves, not to mention changed the nation's financial structure that enabled the Union to win the war.

But Stevens was a man intent on making the United States "a more perfect union," during the brief period that the federal government was not dominated by the "slave power" of the southern states. But despite having this advantage, Stevens was unable to change the Constitution so that it would promote universal voting for both men and women, black and white. And he had failed to remove the chief obstacle to his revolution -- President Andrew Johnson. 

But his greatest failure -- in Stevens's eyes -- was his inability to pass legislation that would have confiscated land from the super-rich southern aristocracy and redistribute it to the freed slaves on whose backs the wealth had been accumulated. Stevens was blunt and prophetic about what would happen if this was not done.

"If we do not furnish them with homesteads and hedge them around with protective laws," Stevens said. "If we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage. Their condition would be worse than that of our prisoners at Andersonville." -- a notorious Confederate prison camp. And true to Stevens's prediction, several decades of  white supremacy repression were ushered in after a brief period of multiracial democracy. 

But despite his despondency, Stevens retained his famous wit. A visitor commented on his good appearance despite his illness. "It is not my appearance, but my disappearance, that troubles me," Stevens responded.

He also comforted himself by recalling his victory 33 years earlier when he gave a stirring speech in the Pennsylvania legislature that turned back a repeal effort of the state's fledgling public school system. "I shall feel myself abundantly rewarded for all my efforts in behalf of universal education if a single child, educated by the Commonwealth, shall drop a tear of gratitude on my grave." he said.

Stevens also took steps to ensure his grave would be a great inspiration for equality. Instead of being buried in Lancaster's main cemetery where President James Buchanan laid, Stevens bought a plot in a small integrated graveyard. And his reason is explained in the epitaph on the grave. 

"I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude. But finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, 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."

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website:

Monday, July 5, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 7

 Father of the essential, but obscure 14th Amendment

July 2021

By Ross Hetrick

Thaddeus Stevens's greatest achievement was the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, a measure that affects everyone in America, but is as obscure as its father.

Every school child knows the immortal words "all men are created equal," in the Declaration of Independence and learns about the Bill of Rights, which protects the freedoms of the press, speech and religion. But the 14th Amendment, which is rarely taught, is necessary to breathe life into them.

The Declaration of Independence was simply a proclamation that had no force of law, which was sadly illustrated by the existence of millions of slaves during the first 90 years of the republic. And while the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution, it only restricted the federal government and did not apply to the states, allowing slave states to outlaw anti-slavery publications in the south. The 14th Amendment changed all that.

Ratified in July 1868, the amendment for the first time in our history required that everyone be treated equally under the law and prohibited the states from abridging the rights embodied in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court for decades blocked these changes. But by the mid-20th century, the court started interpreting the amendment the way the framers intended. Since then the Supreme Court has used the amendment to outlaw public school segregation, allow interracial and gay marriage, make birth control legal, along with other monumental changes.

Thaddeus Stevens set the stage for the passage of the amendment with his brilliant parliamentary maneuver on December 4, 1865 that barred ex-Confederates from the House of Representatives. If they had taken their seats, the amendment would never have been approved.

Stevens followed this up by introducing the initial version of the amendment and then ushering it through Congress. When ratification by the states, particularly southern ones, seemed questionable, Congress made approval of the amendment a condition for former Confederate states to rejoin the union.

And even though he was its father, Stevens was very disappointed by the transformed offspring because it left out provisions to open voting to blacks and women. He said he would vote against the measure, but later reversed himself saying it was the best that could be had. 

"Believing, then that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it," Stevens said. "I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times. It may be that time will not come while I am here to enjoy the glorious triumph; but that it will come is as certain as that there is a just God."

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website:

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 6

 "I shall deem it a cheap purchase"

June 2021

By Ross Hetrick

On his way to the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Jubal Early on June 26, 1863 destroyed Thaddeus Stevens's Caledonia iron works near Chambersburg, PA inflicting the largest civilian financial loss during the invasion of Pennsylvania.

Stevens had long been a target of the Confederacy. As the most powerful congressman in the Union, he had long advocated freeing the slaves and then using them in the military. He also wanted to confiscate land from the richest Confederates and distribute it to the freed slaves.

When Early arrived, the iron furnace manager pleaded with him not to burn down the mill, telling him that it had been losing money for decades and was only kept open by Stevens for the sake of the workers. "That is not the way Yankees do business," Early cynically replied. "Mr. Stevens is an enemy of the South. He is in favor confiscating their property and arming the negroes," he said. "His property must be destroyed." He further said that if he had caught Stevens at the mill, he would have hanged "him on the spot and divide his bones and send them to the several [Confederate] states as curiosities."

Even before the burning, Caledonia had been nothing but trouble for Stevens. Started in 1837, the operation had amassed debts of $200,000 by 1842, forcing Stevens to move from Gettysburg to Lancaster, PA, to make more money as a lawyer to pay down the debt. He jokingly called it his "sinking fund" and he continued to lose money through the 1840s and 50s and only started making some money in the 1860s.

Stevens was at Caledonia on June 16 when word arrived that Confederates were in the area and he beat a hasty retreat to Shippensburg. Stevens would later sarcastically say he understood the Confederates regretted not meeting him since he "seems to very popular with the chivalry."

When Stevens heard about the burning, he at first quipped, "Did they burn the debts also?" He estimated that he lost $75,000 as a result of the mill's destruction, but he was more concerned about the 250 people who lost their work. "I know not what the poor families will do. I must provide for their present relief," he wrote a friend.

But despite the huge loss, which would have amounted to millions in today's money, Stevens took it in stride. "We must all expect to suffer by this wicked war," he wrote to a friend. "I have not felt a moment's trouble for my share of it. If, finally, the government shall be reestablished over our whole territory; and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a cheap purchase."

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website:

Monday, May 3, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 5

 Thaddeus Stevens and forty acres and a mule

May 2021

By Ross Hetrick

The issue of reparations to the descendants of slaves is making its way to the floor of the House of Representatives where congressmen may soon vote on whether a commission be established to explore the matter. It is an issue that dates back to shortly after the Civil War, when Thaddeus Stevens championed a plan that would have  transformed the South. But despite his reputation for pulling off legislative miracles, the plan went nowhere.

Known as "40 Acres and a mule," the plan was to confiscate land from the richest rebels and give 40 acres to each of the one million adult black men who had recently been freed from bondage. Advocates of the plan said freed slaves needed the land so that they would not be subjected to the tender mercies of their former masters.

The idea got a trial run in the last few months of the war when Union General William Sherman was confronted with what to do with the tens of thousands of freed slaves flocking to his lines. His solution was his Field Order 15 issued in January 1865, which divided up 400,000 acres of abandoned property along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts to 40,000 blacks.

While the program had the support of President Abraham Lincoln, it did not of his successor, Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat, and the order was overturned in the fall of 1865 and property returned to its previous owners.

But the idea of 40 acres and a mule did not die there. It was taken up by Stevens, who was the leader of the Radical Republicans and the most powerful congressman at that time. And he wanted to do it in a big way.

Stevens wanted to confiscate 390 million acres owned by the wealthiest 70,000 people in the south. Of that, 40 million acres would be allotted to the 1 million adult black men at 40 acres a piece along with $100 for equipment. The rest would be sold at an average cost of $10 an acre to raise $3.5 billion to support veterans, compensate loyal southerners and northerners who were damaged by the Civil War and pay off the war debt.

Contrary to what his critics charge, Stevens did not want to confiscate "every foot of rebel land." Instead, he wanted to seize land owned by the richest 1.2 percent of the whites in the South who amazingly owned 84 percent of all the property. To Stevens, this lopsided ownership was a threat to democracy and had to be change.

"The whole fabric of southern society must be changed and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost," Stevens said. "Heretofore, it had more the features of aristocracy than than democracy. The Southern states have been despotisms, not governments of the people. It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the whole landed property. The larger the number of small properties, the more safe and stable the government," he said.

Not only was it important to revamp southern society, the measure was crucial to the recently freed slaves, according to Stevens. "On its success, in my judgment, depends not only the happiness and respectability of the colored race, but their very existence," he said. "Homesteads to them are far more valuable than the immediate right of suffrage, though both are their due."

Stevens introduced his proposal twice, first in February 1866 and then again in March 1867. The first time the measure was overwhelmingly voted down. The second time the measure didn't even get out of committee. In his new Stevens biography, historian Bruce Levine said Steven's fellow Republicans were afraid that such a massive confiscation of property might give ideas to northern socialists and labor leaders. "Republicans also wondered nervously where -- if they began redistributing landed property to exploited and impoverished people -- that road would lead," Levine said.

Stevens's proposal made incredible sense. It would have taken the property from the people who had built their fortunes on the back of slaves and given it directly to the exploited. There would have been no questions about people whose ancestors did not own slaves paying reparations to descendants several generations removed from the enslaved. 

But if the plan had been adopted, it most certainly would have been met with howls of indignation by very arrogant white southerners, who were able to magnify a very mild Reconstruction period into a giant resentment that continues to this day. And considering the vicious, unscrupulous way the black  population was treated after federal troops were withdrawn, the property probably would have been stolen back.

Yet, despite all the problems and objections to the plan, it would have been the right thing to do.

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's web page:

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 4

 The greatest unknown person in American history

April 2021

By Ross Hetrick

In the new biography of Thaddeus Stevens, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine lets it be known on the first page that Stevens was recognized by both friend and foe as a Civil War giant. He quotes the famous black abolitionists Frederick Douglass as saying: "There was in him the power of conviction, the power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of conscious ability [that] at last made him more potent in Congress and in the country than even the president and cabinet combined."

On the other side, Levine said Confederate General Jubal Early said he had Stevens's Caledonia iron works destroyed in the lead up to the Gettysburg battle because Stevens had done more damage to the Confederacy than any other U.S. congressman.

Levine's book, entitled: Thaddeus Stevens, Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter For Racial Justice, is the first significant biography of Stevens since the 2005 publication of Gettysburg author Bradley Hoch's Thaddeus Stevens In Gettysburg: The Making Of An Abolitionist. Levine gives unprecedented attention to Stevens's formation as a youth and young man and includes a great deal of detail and political analysis missing from previous biographies. He also says Stevens was one of the foremost leaders in what is increasingly being called the "Second American Revolution," where the government was fundamentally changed through the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

By all rights, Stevens should be nearly as famous as Abraham Lincoln, a man he worked closely with to win the war and end slavery. Yet, he is largely unknown, even in the Pennsylvania cities of Gettysburg and Lancaster, where he spent most of his life. Much of the reason lies with how popular history is told and  the way in which the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction was deliberately distorted.

Stevens's first problem is that the history that is taught is the story of presidents and generals. And while Stevens was master of the House of Representatives -- his critics called him the "dictator of the House" -- his achievements are usually lumped under the label of "Congress," as in "Congress impeached Andrew Johnson," or "Congress imposed military control on the South."

More importantly, Stevens was one of the victims of the incredibly successful southern propaganda effort know as the "Lost Cause," which downplayed slavery as a cause of the war and made heroes out of Confederate leaders. It also demonized Stevens as a man bent on inflicting vengeance on a prostrate south. Ironically, a chief promoter of this disinformation was Jubal Early.

But things have been turning around for Stevens's fame in the last few decades. A Stevens statue was erected in Lancaster in 2008 and in 2012, he was brought to the big screen in the Lincoln movie where Tommy Lee Jones portrayed him as a champion of equality. And next year, another Stevens statue is scheduled to be erected in Gettysburg, where he lived from 1816 to 1842.

If the trend continues, perhaps Stevens will be able to join the Mount Olympus of American history.

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's web page: