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: