Thaddeus Stevens: A Man Who Defended the Oppressed

Pennsylvania politics is a sad arena. Recently, governor Tom Corbett announced that public education would be cut in an effort to make the budget. Among the beneficiaries of his budget includes energy companies, which have no problem making money nowadays (he has stock in them, by the way). Cutting public education would be a disastrous move; just what the future doesn’t need is more people with fewer skills, the ends of which would be a wider gap between classes.

Education is good, I say. And in light of this, it’s time for a short history lesson. Today, we’re profiling Thaddeus Stevens.

Thaddeus Stevens was also a Republican in the state of Pennsylvania, and lead Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party. In fact, he was such a noble individual, that any honest Republican today would take a good look at his behavior and the principles governing their own party, and wonder just where everything went wrong.

Thaddeus Stevens ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on the Anti-Mason ticket, and was elected. Stevens possessed a dislike for Masons, who were known for their secretive nature, and for excluding on the basis of physical characteristics. Rather than place education on the chopping block, Stevens was most proud of his efforts to institute free public education. In the 1830s, education was not free, and could only be afforded by the wealthy. When a free school bill was introduced into the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he was an ardent supporter. An effort to repeal the bill resulted in a petition that gathered 32,000 signatures, and the Pennsylvania Assembly felt pressured to repeal the bill. To Thaddeus, this was a sensitive issue. Recalling his own childhood in which he lived in poverty, and the efforts of his own mother who came to the conclusion that education was his only chance at life, he gave the following moving speech before the Pennsylvania Assembly:

“I know how large a portion of the community can scarcely feel any sympathy with, or understand the necessities of the poor; the rich appreciate the exquisite feelings which they enjoy, when they see their children receiving the boon of education, and rising in intellectual superiority above the clogs which hereditary poverty had cast upon them…

“When I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and perhaps as a consequence, hereditary pride, are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty.”

The result was the Assembly voting in favor of public education by a margin of 2 to 1. Pennsylvania would provide statewide free public education an entire generation before the same was offered in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the entire South.

Stevens was known for his radical Republicanism during the Civil War. In August 1861, he supported the Confiscation Act, the first law attacking slavery. Stevens defended and supported Indians, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. However, defending blacks took up most of his time. He was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting as many as 16 fugitive slaves a week. Stevens even called for a complete dismantling of the confederate social structure, though his efforts were thwarted by the assassination of Lincoln.

Stevens also led the Republicans in a battle against banks, warning that a debt-based monetary system would bankrupt the people. And he called it right. After the assassination of Lincoln, the Republicans lost the battle, and a national banking monopoly later emerged.

Lincoln was succeeded by the Vice President, the openly-racist Andrew Johnson, whose 1867 message to Congress stated that blacks possess less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” Stevens despised Johnson, and attempted to have him impeached. This measured failed by a single vote, but reduced Johnson to a mere figurehead until his acquittal by the Senate in 1868, when he was replaced by Ulysses Grant.

When Stevens died in 1968, he requested to be buried at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, with a headstone written by himself as follows: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated though a long life, equality of man before his Creator.”

Stevens’ legislative legacy is the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which collectively serve as the basis for all civil rights legislation. In Stevens’ will, he left $50,000 to establish a school for the refuge and education of the disadvantaged. Stevens requested, “They shall be carefully educated in the various branches of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits. No preference shall be shown on account of race or color in their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish or Mahometan, nor any others on account of race or religion of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the same table.” The living legacy of this request is the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Low-income students may qualify for the Thaddeus Stevens Legacy Grant, which is designed to provide an education at no cost.

Incidentally, Governor Tom Corbett gave a speech at the 2012 commencement at Stevens Tech. I’m not sure whether he had rotten tomatoes thrown at him, though I could hardly imagine that a few in attendance, particularly the staff, were not at least considering it.

Thaddeus Stevens dreamed of a socially just world, where unearned privilege did not exist. He believed that being different and having a different perspective can enrich society. He believed that differences among people should not be feared or oppressed, but celebrated. He is truly someone from which today’s Republican party can learn a lot, as they don’t even tangentially resemble their former glory.

To learn more about Thaddeus Stevens, check out his Wikipedia page. Also, check out his bio on the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology page.

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