Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles 4

 The greatest unknown person in American history

April 1, 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 1, 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 1, 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: