Monday, December 6, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles No. 12

The Thaddeus Stevens Zone and the Second Founding History Festival

December 2021

By Ross Hetrick

In the heart of Gettysburg is the Thaddeus Stevens Zone, a block that is steeped in history and the perfect place to hold a Second Founding History Festival.

Appropriately enough, the zone is on the first block of West Stevens Street between Carlisle Street and Washington Street. At one end at the corner of Stevens and Carlisle is the historic McPherson mansion. At the other end at Stevens and Washington is the entrance to Gettysburg College and Pennsylvania Hall -- which was paid for with a state grant that Stevens secured for the college in 1834. Between these two historic buildings are a few college administrative buildings and parking lots, making it the perfect area for an outdoor festival.

The McPherson mansion is Gettysburg's greatest unheralded historical treasure. The ancestral home of one of Gettysburg's first families, the complex of buildings sits in pristine 19th century condition, practically unused since it was bought by Gettysburg College in 2018.

The history of the McPherson family was intertwined with Thaddeus Stevens and Gettysburg throughout the 1800s. John B. McPherson was a close business associate of Stevens and was involved in starting Gettysburg Bank and the Maria iron furnace in Fairfield. His son, Edward McPherson grew up in the shadow of Stevens's illustrious career and some historians have said Stevens was like a second father to Edward. And Stevens was a major influence, helping him to become a lawyer, congressman, newspaper editor and then clerk of the House of Representatives in 1863, where he played a critical role in American history. 

At the direction of Stevens and the Republican caucus, McPherson on December 4, 1865 omitted the names of ex-Confederates when he called the roll of the new Congress. Despite protests by the southerners and their allies, Stevens through a parliamentary maneuver was able to make the ban stick. Thus started Reconstruction which saw the passage of Constitutional amendments requiring equal treatment under the law, extension of civil rights to the state level and expansion of voting rights. 

At the other end of the Stevens Zone is Pennsylvania Hall, a monument to Stevens's devotion to education. After it was founded in 1832, Gettysburg College, then called Pennsylvania College, tried to get state help to build its first building. As a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, Stevens was successful in 1834 in getting a $18,000 grant, but not without severe political backlash. "Let demagogues note it for future use," Stevens responded, "and send it on the wings of the wind to the ears of every one of my constituents, in matters of this kind, I would rather hear the approving voice of one judicious, intelligent, and enlightened mind, than to be greeted by the loud huzzahs of the whole host of ignorance." 

Stevens went on to provide the land for the campus at a price determined by the college's board and to serve on the board until his death in 1868. He also prevented the college from moving away from Gettysburg in 1854.

With such historic attributes, the Stevens Zone is the perfect place to hold the Second Founding History Festival -- a celebration of the start of the transformation of America to a more equal and representative country during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Besides the connection with Stevens and McPherson, Gettysburg also has the distinction of Lincoln proclaiming the "new birth of freedom" in his Gettysburg Address.

This could be a collective project of the history and social groups in Adams County. The event could be held in late July to coincide with the anniversary of the ratification of 14th Amendment and there could be historic skits, lectures, food vendors, and information booths for participating groups. 

Perhaps Gettysburg could eventually be as associated with the Second Founding as Philadelphia is the home of the First Founding in the late 1700s.

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, November 8, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles No. 11

Thaddeus Stevens inspired iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan

November 2021

By Ross Hetrick

Bob Dylan, the troubadour to a generation and Nobel laureate is a great admirer of Thaddeus Stevens. In fact, you could say that Stevens inspired Dylan.

In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote: "I read the biography of Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican. He lived in the early part of the 1800s and was quite a character. He's from Gettysburg and he's got a clubfoot like Byron. He grew up poor, made a fortune and from then on championed the weak and any other group who wasn't able to fight equally. Stevens had a grim sense of humor, a sharp tongue and a white hot hatred for the bloated aristocrats of his day. He wanted to confiscate the land of the slaveholding elite, once referred to a colleague on the floor of the [House of Representatives] chamber as 'slinking in his own slime.' Stevens was an anti-Mason and he denounced his foes as those whose mouths reeked from human blood. He got right in there, called his enemies a 'feeble band of lowly reptiles who shun the light and who lurk in their own dens.' Stevens was hard to forget. He made a big impression on me, was inspiring." (Italics added)

Obviously, the Thaddeus Stevens Society was thrilled to find such a famous admirer of the Great Commoner. But alas, Dylan is also famously reclusive, declining in 2016 to even pick up his Nobel prize in literature. But Dylan will be in Thaddeus Stevens country when he performs at the Hershey Theater on November 16.

So the Thaddeus Stevens Society plans to spread the word about the Great Commoner outside the concert by having a Stevens re-enactor (Ross Hetrick) stroll around with a sign requesting Bob meet his inspiration. He will be accompanied by an entourage of people in nineteenth century garb. They will also be bearing a Thaddeus Stevens bobble head and the new Stevens biography as gifts to Bob.

They will be handing out leaflets quoting Bob's admiration of Thad and informing Dylan's fans about the Stevens's 230th birthday celebration next April when a Stevens statue will be dedicated in Gettysburg. Perhaps they will even be able to persuade some people to join the Society which promotes Dylan's idol. 

Will Bob Dylan meet with them? The answer is blowing in the wind.

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, October 4, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles No. 10

 Thaddeus Stevens ranks in top six American leaders

October 2021

By Ross Hetrick

Frederick Douglass, the famous Black abolitionist, said congressman Thaddeus Stevens had "the power of conviction, the power of will, the power of knowledge and the power of conscious ability," that "made him more potent in Congress and in the country than even the president and cabinet combined."

This assessment was not his alone and was shared by other contemporaries and some historians. Coupled with his monumental impact, Stevens deserves to be ranked as one of America's six most important leaders.

Of course, the other five are presidents. The first three are the great triumvirate -- Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln -- known to every school child who paid attention in class. The fourth is less well known and less respected -- James K. Polk, the 11th president who served from 1845 to 1849. His contribution was to increase the size of the nation by one-third by annexing Texas, settling the boundaries of Oregon with England and then provoking a war with Mexico and taking the spoils of California and the southwest. He is the reason that America stretches from sea to shining sea.  The fifth is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lead the nation during the Depression and World War II and established the U.S. welfare state.

While Stevens was not a president, his contribution was for pushing and assisting one president and blocking another. As the most powerful congressman during the Civil War, he helped to win the war by revamping the government's economic structure and more importantly, he was relentless in pushing a reluctant Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

But those achievements were dwarfed by what he did after the war by thwarting President Andrew Johnson from losing the war after the war. Johnson, who was part of the ruling class of the pre-war South, wanted to revert back to the ways things were in the South with rich planters in control and even the reinstatement of slavery by the criminalization of the black population.

Stevens was able to block these dark dreams of Johnson by orchestrating the exclusion of ex-Confederates from Congress in December 1865. He then went on to shepherd through the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for equal treatment under the law and extending civil liberties to the state level.  He was also an architect of Reconstruction  legislation that imposed military control  on the conquered South to protect freed slaves and give them a chance at political power.

If Stevens had not been successful, the United States today could have become a much different place with states making laws for different groups and legally infringing on such basic rights as freedom of speech and religion. As the leader of a veto-proof Congress against President Johnson, Stevens also had a hand in the purchase of Alaska from Russia and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. He richly deserves the title of the 17th and a half president and his picture should also be on our money, particularly since he helped create federal paper money. 

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:

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 changing 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 be 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: 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 3

Thaddeus Stevens tried for two impeachments in 1868

March 2021

By Ross Hetrick

If Thaddeus Stevens had his way, President Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached, would have also been the first to have been impeached twice.

After Johnson narrowly escaped being removed from office by one vote in May 1868, congressman Stevens, one of the impeachment managers, introduced another measure for impeachment, claiming the first effort was marred by bribery and corruption. But with only several months left in Johnson's term, Stevens's second try got nowhere.

The Johnson impeachment seemed to have had a lead pipe cinch of succeeding. Johnson, a southern Democrat, faced overwhelming Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, which routinely overrode vetoes with two-third votes. And Johnson had managed to antagonize much of the country by siding with southern leaders, who had just finished leading a rebellion that killed hundreds of thousands of northern soldiers.

This peculiar situation resulted from the Republicans selecting Johnson as the party's vice president nominee in 1864. A Tennessee senator, Johnson had become a northern hero because he was a fierce foe of secession and refused to join other southerners who left the Senate. The Republicans hoped his inclusion would broaden the appeal of the ticket.

But after the war, Johnson had no problem with handing control of the south back to its aristocratic leaders who were intent on re-imposing slavery in another form and meting out bloody punishment to anyone who resisted them. Congress reacted by passing bill after bill -- overriding Johnson's vetoes -- that placed the south under martial law, sought to protect the newly freed slaves and gave the vote to black men.

But Johnson, who was supposed to implement these laws, did everything he could to sabotage Congress's efforts. He would appoint southern sympathizing generals to oversee the military occupation and he would relentlessly attack Congress, calling for the hanging of its leaders like Thaddeus Stevens.

Congress tried to circumvent this situation by working through members of Johnson's cabinet, who were holdovers from the Lincoln administration. To aid in this effort, Congress passed the Tenure of Office act that prohibited Johnson from removing these cabinet members without Senate approval.

But Johnson would not be bound by the law and tried to fire Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who had been trying to implement Congress's program. Stevens, who was the most powerful House member at the time, sprang into action and pushed through an impeachment resolution and became one of the impeachment managers. 

But Stevens was gravely ill during the Senate trial and the case was handled by Rep. Benjamin Butler. Some historians believe that Johnson would have been removed if the effort had been led by Stevens, who was legendary for his abilities as a lawyer and politician. Johnson was also saved by questions about the legality of the Tenure of Office Act and qualms about Sen. Ben Wade, the person who would have become President.

And even as he tried a second time, with only a few months to live, Stevens doubted that he would be successful and his words were prophetic considering the outcomes of impeachments since then. 

"I have come to the fixed conclusion that neither in Europe nor America will the Chief Executive of a nation be again removed by peaceful means," he said in a July 7, 1868, speech in Congress. "If he retains the money and patronage of the Government it will be found, as it has been found, stronger than the law and impenetrable to the spear of justice. If tyranny becomes intolerable, the only resource will be found in the dagger of Brutus," Stevens said referring to the assassination of Julius Caesar. 

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: 

The Great Commoner, Spring 2021, Number 42,

Bruce Levine, Stevens biographer, talks on Zoom on April 2

Bruce Levine, the author of the newest Thaddeus Stevens biography, will be featured on an April 2 Zoom meeting at 4 p.m. To attend the meeting, please send a request to and you will receive an invitation closer to the event. A limited number of books with signed bookplates are available at this link:  After Levine's talk, there will be a Q&A session followed by a brief Society business meeting.

Abolitionists Day on Zoom April 10

    Like many other events, Abolitionists Day is moving on to Zoom on April 10 at 4 p.m. Abolitionist Day has been held since 2017 to celebrate the social movement that helped destroy slavery. This year’s event will be a video review of past years with commentary followed by a group discussion. To get an invitation to the event, email Please designate that you want to be on the Abolitionists Day list.

Big plans for 2022

Plans are being made for two big events in 2022 and we could use your help. The Society will dedicate the Thaddeus Stevens statue in Gettysburg and celebrate Stevens’s 230th birthday on April 1, 2 and 3. Then on the last weekend of July, we hope to inaugurate the first Second Founding Day History Festival in Gettysburg. 

The three-day birthday event will feature seminars, banquets, and fireworks in Lancaster and Gettysburg, PA. We hope it will be the biggest and most exciting event in the Society’s 23-year history. The Second Founding History Festival in July will be a block party in the first block of Stevens Street in Gettysburg, PA, where historic and social activism groups will celebrate the ratifications of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that historians say transformed the American government.

These events are still in the planning phase and we need your help to make them possible. If you are interested, please email or call 717-253-0099 and leave a message. We will get back to you. 

What needs to be done

    We have done a lot over the last 22 years, but there is so much more to do. Below is a list of endangered Stevens sites and unfinished projects that need our attention. If you would like to get involved in one or more, please contact us at or call 717-253-0099.

Thaddeus Stevens's Lancaster House

    The restoration of Thaddeus Stevens’s house in Lancaster is the most important project in the effort to educate the public about Stevens’s legacy. While the outside looks great, the interior remains a shell waiting for work to start. When it is completed in the fall of 2022, it will be the first and biggest public museum about Thaddeus Stevens’s life. The Society has raised nearly $12,000 to support the effort headed by the Lancaster Historical Society. We hope to raise a lot more in the coming year to support this very important project.

Thaddeus Stevens Stamp

    For 20 years the Society, under the leadership of Donald Gallagher, has been campaigning for a commemorative stamp for Thaddeus Stevens. So far it has not been successful. But the effort continues on and Don could use your help in distributing postcards to be sent into the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. For more information on the campaign, click on this link:

Shreiner-Concord Cemetery

Steven’s grave with its epitaph about equality is perhaps the most inspirational grave in America. The cemetery, which also includes other historic graves,  is overseen by a dedicated group of volunteers who work to protect and maintain it. But much needs to put the cemetery on a solid long-term basis. This includes funding an endowment, clarifying the cemetery’s ownership and establishing a permanent maintenance program.

Vermont houses

Stevens's childhood home

House Stevens bought for mother

The house where Thaddeus Stevens lived when he was going to Peacham, VT, academy still exists nearly in it’s 19th century condition. Unfortunately, the structure has stood vacant for the last few years after its most recent occupant died. It is crucial that action be taken to prevent this historic house from continuing to decay.

The house that Thaddeus Stevens bought his mother still exists in Peacham, VT and is occupied. While the outside is still the same as it was in Sarah Stevens day, the inside has been remodeled into a modern home. 

Both houses need to be protected by historic easements or other means that would prevent those properties from being destroyed and used for other purposes.

McPherson house in Gettysburg, PA

        At the corner of Carlisle and Stevens Streets in Gettysburg, PA, is the ancestral home of the McPherson family, one of the most important families in Gettysburg in the 19th century. A member of this family was Edward McPherson, an associate of Thaddeus Stevens and the long-time clerk of the House of Representatives. Edward was instrumental in Stevens’s parliamentary maneuver that barred ex-Confederates from Congress on December 4, 1865. 

The house, which is now owned by Gettysburg College, is in pristine condition and would be a perfect place for an exhibit about Thaddeus Stevens, the McPhersons, the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism and the Second Founding of the U.S. The fate of the house is now in limbo. Hopefully, the Society and other historic organizations can encourage the college to have an exhibit that would be unlike any in Gettysburg.

Maria iron furnace stack and Tapeworm Railroad remains

Remains of Maria Furnace Stack

Tapeworm Railroad viaduct

        Along Iron Springs Road in Fairfield, PA, are the remains of two endeavors of Thaddeus Stevens -- his Maria Iron works and the so-called Tapeworm Railroad. Next to the railroad that runs alongside the road are the vegetation covered remains of the furnace stack of Stevens’s Maria Furnace that operated from 1826 to 1837. Further down the road is a stone viaduct, which was part of a railroad that Stevens tried to have the state build in the 1830s. The railroad, which  would have connected Gettysburg to western Maryland, was abandoned after Stevens lost political power in 1838. 

The furnace stack is badly in need of a clean up and perhaps signage telling visitors what it is. It also needs a historic easement to protect it from future development. The massive viaduct is no danger of being eliminated, but  it could use some signage. Fortunately, the owner of the property in front of the viaduct is willing to work with us. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 2

 Thaddeus Stevens and Abraham Lincoln: partners in liberation

February 2021

By Ross Hetrick

One of the great ironies of history is that Thaddeus Stevens is often portrayed as an adversary of Abraham Lincoln, but actually Stevens laid the groundwork for Lincoln's greatest achievements and then protected them after he was assassinated.

When Lincoln took office in 1861, he did not intend to free the slaves, even though he was against its further spread into the U.S. territories -- a position that was still  unacceptable to southern leaders. But a group of congressmen, led by Thaddeus Stevens, from the beginning of the war insisted that Lincoln use his war powers to free the slaves to weaken the Confederacy's ability to fight.  Lincoln  resisted this action until September 1862 and then issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy, but left others in bondage in the four slave states that remained in the Union.

Thaddeus Stevens then took the next step in 1864 and introduced a Constitutional Amendment that would outlaw slavery throughout the United States. This effort got a major boost when Lincoln supported it in early 1865 and the amendment was approved as the Civil War was ending.

This was a pattern that would repeat itself on a number of issues such as the use of black soldiers and giving the vote to freed slaves. Stevens would take an early position, public opinion would warm up to it and then Lincoln would push it to completion.

The interaction of Stevens and Lincoln was best summed up by Alexander K. McClure, a Pennsylvania newspaper editor and politician during and after the Civil War.

"Strange as it may seem, these two great characters, ever in conflict and yet ever battling for the same great cause, rendered invaluable service to each other, and unitedly rendered incalculable service in saving the Republic," McClure wrote. "Had Stevens not declared for the abolition of slavery as soon as the war began and pressed it in and out of season, Lincoln could not have issued his Emancipation Proclamation as early as September 1862. Stevens was ever clearing the underbrush and preparing the soil. While Lincoln followed to sow the seeds that were to ripen in a regenerated union."

Stevens played an even more critical role after Lincoln's assassination. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, was very willing to leave the freed slaves to the tender mercies of their former masters, who sought to re-enslave them with the Black Codes that would have made them convict labor. 

But Stevens was able to prevent this by barring ex-Confederates from entering Congress. He was then able to have military control imposed on the south to protect the freed slaves. This was followed by his greatest achievement: the 14th Amendment, which codified that all persons are to be treated equally under the law.

Gettysburg is unique in having close historic relations with both Stevens and Lincoln. The town is known worldwide for being the location of Lincoln's famous address that summed up American ideals. And while Stevens's connection is less well known, it is actually deeper.

Stevens lived in Gettysburg from 1816 to 1842 and during that time he was a prominent attorney, served on borough council, represented Adams County in the Pennsylvania legislature and participated in the Underground Railroad. Before he moved to Lancaster in 1842, he helped to establish Gettysburg College, saved the state's public education system and started Caledonia iron works, which is now Caledonia state park close to Chambersburg.

Over the years, Lincoln's presence in Gettysburg grew and grew while Stevens's faded nearly to nonexistence. But Stevens has been making a come back in recent decades and the time has come to celebrate the remarkable partnership between Lincoln and Stevens that crushed slavery and began the struggle towards an equal society. 

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: