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 famous 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: thaddeusstevenssociety.com