Father of the essential, but obscure 14th Amendment
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: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/