Sunday, December 20, 2020

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 1

 Kicking traitors out of Congress

January 2021

By Ross Hetrick

A few weeks ago the nation held its breath as the Supreme Court considered whether to take a case brought by the Texas state attorney that would have invalidated the votes of tens of millions of people in four states and likely hand the Presidency to Donald Trump. Fortunately, the case was thrown out, but not before 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives, including seven from Pennsylvania, signed on to this very undemocratic effort.

Now there are calls to expel these congressmen from the halls of power, citing the third section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that was ratified in 1868, which bars those who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion." While this action would be highly unusual, it is not unprecedented. In fact, it was done 155 years ago when Thaddeus Stevens orchestrated the exclusion of ex-Confederates from the House of Representatives. Stevens, who lived in both Gettysburg and Lancaster, PA, was the most powerful congressman at the time. And his actions, aided by Gettysburg resident Edward McPherson, kept the United States from losing the war after the war. All of this was done before the 14th Amendment provision was added to the Constitution.

The crisis facing the country was caused by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the installation of  Vice President Andrew Johnson as president. Johnson was a southern slave owner from Tennessee who was sympathetic to the southern elite. He became president in April 1865 while Congress was out of session until December. During that time, Johnson allowed the southern states to hold elections and they chose ex-Confederate military officers and politicians. In fact, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, was elected to the Senate from Georgia.

These elected representatives intended to join with northern congressional allies and take over Congress. They let it be known that they would reject the federal war debt and embrace the Confederate debt, thus making the union pay for the war against itself. The ex-Confederates also would protect the newly enacted southern state laws, called the Black Codes, which reinstated slavery by making criminals of freed slaves and putting them back on plantations as convict labor. But Thaddeus Stevens was not going to let this happen and he came up with an ingenious plan.

When Congress convened on December 4, 1865, House Clerk Edward McPherson, a Stevens ally, began calling the roll of the new Congress. But he skipped the names of the ex-Confederates, which sparked a hail of objections. But Stevens, who had the backing of a majority in the House, was able to counter the protests by raising a point of order that barred any debate until after the roll was called, thus barring the southerners from Congress.

It proved to be a critical turning point in American history. With ex-Confederates excluded, Congress in the coming years was able to eliminate the Black Codes, enact measures to create a more equal southern society and approve the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, fundamentally changing the workings of the federal government.

But Congress was not content with just barring traitors on that one occasion.  They went on to include the prohibition in the third section of the 14th Amendment to take care of future threats to the country. Now the question arises as to whether what the 126 Republican congressmen did in the Texas case rises to the definition of "insurrection or rebellion" and who will decide if it does. Perhaps it should at least be debated as a warning to politicians who would consider such undemocratic tactics in the future.

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: 


Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Great Commoner, Fall 2020, Number 41,


Bordewich to speak at Dec. 4 Zoom meeting

Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Congress At War, will speak at the next meeting of the Thaddeus Stevens Society on Friday, December 4 at 4 p.m. Because of the continuing pandemic, the meeting will be held remotely by Zoom. Besides Bordewich's talk, there will also be a 15-minute video about how Thaddeus Stevens kept ex-Confederates out of Congress and a short business meeting. To attend the meeting, please send a request by email to

Bordewich is the author of seven nonfiction books, including The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government; America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union; and Washington: The Making of the American Capital. The subtitle of his new book about Congress during the Civil War is “How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery and Remade America.” In his speech, Bordewich will highlight Thaddeus Stevens’s crucial role during the war.  You can find out more about Congress At War at this web page:

Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Congress At War: How Republican Reformers Fought, the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

December 4, 1865: a date that will live with great honor

     December 4 will mark the 155th anniversary of the day that Thaddeus Stevens and Edward McPherson saved the country. On that day in 1865, ex-Confederates were barred from Congress preventing the loss of the war after the war.

      After Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat from Tennessee, became president. With Congress out of session, Johnson issued pardons wholesale to Confederate officials and allowed them to hold elections for Congress despite warnings not to do so by people like Thaddeus Stevens. Predictably, the southerners elected Confederate officials, including generals and colonels. Even the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens was elected to the Senate.

     If they had been allowed to take their seats, it would have been a disaster for the country. They would have joined with their northern Democratic allies and taken over the government. They intended to reject the Federal war debt and embrace the Confederate debt, making the U.S. pay for the war against it. Even worse, they could have kept slavery alive. Despite the approval of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, the southerners used a loophole to bring it back.  Under the 13th Amendment, involuntary servitude is prohibited, except for convicts. So the southern states after the war passed the so-called Black Codes, which said any black person without a job was a vagrant and could be put back on a plantation as prison labor.  To make sure they didn't have jobs, blacks had to get work permits from local sheriffs.

     But Thaddeus Stevens was not going to let this happen. He came up with a plan with the Republican caucus and Edward McPherson, the Clerk of the House and a long-time Stevens associate. On December 4, 1865, the house convened and McPherson started to call the roll of Congressmen.  When he got to the southern members, he skipped them -- didn't call them out. Southerners and their northern allies strenuously objected, but Stevens and other Republicans shut them down citing a point of order that nothing could be discussed until the roll call was finished. As a result, the ex-Confederates were excluded and Stevens introduced a resolution to create the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and Congress started down the road to the 14th and 15th Amendments and changing the nation forever.  

Thaddeus Stevens before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, March 14, 1868

The need to contribute to the Society's 
Thaddeus Stevens house fund
     The Thaddeus Stevens Society has collected more than $3,000 to help fund the refurbishing of Stevens's house in Lancaster, PA, but we have a long way to go. We should be able to raise at least $10,000 and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars if we have enough enthusiasm. 
      A consultant for the Lancaster Historical Society in May issued a request for proposals to establish a museum in the house, with the expectation that the project will be completed by  fall of 2022. There has been no update since then and it is not known how the pandemic has affected the effort. 
     It is absolutely essential that the Thaddeus Stevens Society vigorously support the historical society's multi-million effort.  It is an incredible national disgrace that sites associated with one of country's greatest champion for humanity have been neglected for 150 years while there are thousands of monuments and museums to the racist traitors of the Confederacy. 
     Beyond the restoration of his house, there are other sites associated with Stevens that are in need of protection such as houses in Vermont, his grave in Lancaster and the remains of his iron mill in Fairfield, PA.  So we will need continuous support from our loyal membership and perhaps some people might consider leaving a legacy to the Thaddeus Stevens Society in their wills.
Thaddeus Stevens's house on Queen Street in Lancaster, PA. The exterior has been restored to its 1860's appearance, but its interior is waiting to be completed.

Statue Update
      Sculptor Alex Paul Loza is continuing to work in Chattanooga, TN, on the Thaddeus Stevens statue and it is on track to be completed by early 2022 in time for Stevens's 230th birthday celebration in April 2022. The recent controversies about statues has slowed the search for a home in Gettysburg, PA. But we remain hopeful of finding a location long before the end of 2021.
Model of Thaddeus Stevens statue being made by sculptor Alex Paul Loza. To be located in the Gettysburg area, the statue will be completed by early 2022.

New Web Page
     The Society has a new web page that is cheaper and easier to use. The page has the same url of but the email has changed to The simple, easy to use design provides a variety of links to Stevens videos, photos, quotes, sights, along with contact and membership information. There is also a link to Stevens swag like caps, mugs, shirts, key chains and even face masks. Check it out.
             The new Thaddeus Stevens Society web page.