Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: January 2005
My search through book stores for famous Pennsylvania Republicans worthy of biographies takes me back to the 19th century to a book published in 1899 on Thaddeus Stevens, who passed away in 1868. Sadly, there seems to have been few halfway decent Republicans since then, but I’ll keep searching.
What is intriguing about this book is we get to see how Thaddeus Stevens was viewed in the same century in which he lived. He is often criticized by modern historians for his tough stance against Southern states following the Civil War that allowed exploitation by carpetbaggers that may have delayed the reintegration of the South back into the Union. Still, his strong and unbending stance against slavery in an era where most other politicians were seeking compromises makes Thaddeus Stevens stand out as a man of conviction and principle.
Thaddeus was from Vermont and attended the University of Virginia until a college prank of an unspecified nature involving the death of a cow forced him to transfer to Dartmouth. After graduation, he sought to teach while studying law and accepted a job teaching in York. While in York, which was near the Mason-Dixon line, he observed the controversy of slaves who crossed from Maryland, a slave state, into Pennsylvania, a free state, and whether Pennsylvania was obligated to return the slaves to their masters. As the author explained, “his eyes were opened to the fact that liberty possessed real benefits and was not a mere abstraction.”
For reasons unknown, Thaddeus Stevens took the Bar examination in Maryland and became a Pennsylvania lawyer due to reciprocal acknowledgements of other states’ licenses. The book notes that some claim the York County Bar adopted more stringent requirements that were purposely designed to prevent Thaddeus from becoming an attorney, but the author doubts these stories. The Maryland Bar exam consisted of two or three oral questions and two bottles of wine for the examiners, which was raised during the examination to four bottles of wine and a card game that parted Thaddeus with nearly all the money he had on him, and Thaddeus Stevens became a lawyer.
Thaddeus Stevens set up his law practice in Gettysburg. What he had seen led him to become a forceful advocate for runaway slaves. Stevens gained note for his courtroom skills in winning such freedoms. In cases where the legal process failed, Stevens at times paid, out of his pocket, to buy the freedom of his slave client.
Stevens also defended over 50 people accused of murder, winning every case except one. He was later quoted as stating that all of his murder clients were guilty, except for the one that was convicted.
The author found little evidence that Thaddeus Stevens had political inclinations, other than serving on Town Council, in his early career. While defending the freedom of slaves energized Thaddeus Stevens and his legal career, it has hatred that finally energized Stevens into a political career. Stevens was rabidly opposed to Masonry and he was an early member of the Anti-Mason Party. He attended the 1831 National Convention of the Anti-Mason Party and, while the failure of the party to sustain itself taught Stevens and others the folly of creating a party based on one issue, Stevens caught the political bug. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House as a representative from Adams County in 1833.
As a state legislator, Stevens work hard, but unsuccessfully, to require that being a Mason was a good cause preemptory challenge in jury selection in court cases where one party was a Mason and the other party was not and in criminal court cases where a defendant was a Mason. He also sought to require a Judge who was a Mason to not hear court cases where a party in the case was also a Mason. While this bill was defeated, it lost by only 11 votes.
Stevens than headed a legislative committee that was appointed to investigate Masonry. The committee issued a report that was attacked for its political content as it strongly criticized the Governor, who was a Mason.
A legislative victory for Stevens was his successful efforts to increase appropriations to the Pennsylvania College located in his Gettysburg district. The book observes the bill was heading for defeat when Stevens rose and gave what the Harrisburg Telegraph newspaper described as a speech “never excelled…never equal in the hall” of the legislature.
The 1834 legislative sessions produced what Stevens is quoted as saying was his greatest achievement in his life. Education was available to the rich who could pay for it and to the poor, for whom the state would pay. Still, many still could not afford to pay to educate their children. Further, many poor families refused to send their children to school for fear of their children being labeled as poor. Stevens was a strong supporter of creating free public education regardless of income. Unfortunately, there was a voter backlash at this costly measure and several supporters of a free education were defeated for reelection. Stevens fought efforts to repeal free education, giving a speech that led State Rep. George Smith to proclaim that “the House was electrified” by the speech Stevens gave and that the “school system was saved from ignominious defeat.” (Many decades later, there would be another legislator noted for using words like ignominious, but that’s another story.)
The 1836 Constitutional Convention found Thaddeus Stevens as one of its members. Yet, due to his objection that the Constitution stated only white people could be citizens of Pennsylvania, Stevens refused to sign the document the convention adopted.
The 1838 legislative session saw a bitter internal dispute over electing its Speaker. The contentious nature of the arguments led Stevens to flee the legislative chamber through a window. Some legislators feared the state militia would be called to the House chamber and they appealed, without success, for federal military assistance. Stevens chose to refuse to recognize the assembled legislature and did not attend House sessions. The legislature declared that Stevens’s House seat was vacant and ordered a special election. Stevens won election back to his old seat.
Stevens was a skillful lawyer and dynamic legislator, but was not as fortunate in business. His business ventures found him $200,000 in debt, thus forcing him to forgo politics. Six years later, he had reduced his debt to $30,000, and he was lured back into politics.
In the unusual fate of politics, Stevens reemerged with his anti-Mason campaign in 1843 in an attempt to take away votes from the Whig Party to allow the Democrats to win election. By doing so, he sought to show the Whigs that they needed his support in future elections. The effort failed and the Whigs won the elections. Stevens was considered an extremist and ineffective politician. Still, the Whigs sought to bring into the Whig fold and nominated him as a Whig Party candidate for Congress. He won.
Congress disappointed Stevens. Stevens was a radical in a body and a political party that sought compromise. Stevens would refer to President James Buchanan as my constituent due to the fact that Buchanan’s Lancaster home was in Stevens’s House district. Yet, Stevens argued against compromising with Southern states on slavery and other issues of the day, proclaiming that if one “cannot be a freeman, let me cease to exist” and that he would rather see “this government crumble into a thousand atoms”.
Stevens hoped to be appointed to the Lincoln Cabinet and was frustrated when Simon Cameron was picked as Pennsylvania’s representative to the Lincoln Administration. Stevens did maintain strong political influence by chairing the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Stevens had a proposal that played an important role in the Civil War. He offered legislation that declared that none of the Southern cities remained as ports of entry. Although Lincoln was slow to agree to this idea, it had a key role in slowing the economies of the Southern states. A blockade by Northern states could have been challenged by foreign nations. Yet, a foreign nation that attempted to enter a port not recognized by a host country would be committing an act of war under international law.
Lincoln had a plan for reconstruction of Southern states that Andrew Johnson implemented. The plan was controversial and opposed by members of Congress such as Thaddeus Stevens. This was a leading cause of the successful effort of House to impeach President Johnson, although the Senate sustained Johnson’s Presidency. Rep. Stevens gave the first speech in favor of impeachment before the Senate. This major legislative failure for Stevens left him a broken man. Stevens died in 1868.
This is a lucid and interesting book about Thaddeus Stevens. Interesting enough, the book has been reprinted as recently as 1972 and copies are still available. People interested in 19th century Pennsylvania politics, or perhaps the legislative aspects of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as Pennsylvania state legislative history, will find this a most useful book.