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: