It is a cruel irony of history that the Republican Party that originally stood for “Free Soil, Free Labor and Free Men,” the Party that led the nation in Civil War, the Party that wrote freedom and equality into the Constitution has become a bigoted and right wing extremist southern regional Party dominated by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney.
In becoming a southern rump, that party has betrayed every founding principle of its first generation of statesmen.
Happily, at least for one of those first generation of Republican founders, Thaddeus Stevens is finally getting his due in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After a decade of conflict between the City of Lancaster and preservationists, the derelict homes of Stevens and his African American housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith are being restored and will be opened as the focus of a major museum and heritage center highlighting their work and contributions to American history.
In the process archeological work around the homes has now also uncovered the involvement of Stevens and Smith as conductors in the Underground Railroad leading to the expansion of the original project to include a below street level heritage center under the re-designed convention center. When complete, the Stevens and Smith site will be a major destination where generations of Americans can uncover with pride, some of their past.
While the City of Lancaster has seized the opportunity to develop a major tourist attraction out of what once was a bitter feud with preservationists, the rest of us will be able to reacquaint ourselves with the pivotal events of the mid-19th Century and a major leader in those events who has been left to fade to the recesses of American memory.
For all of our “original intent” friends on the right, including Justice Scalia and the radical right wing of today’s Republican Party, among others, the actual original intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment, equality for all, is soon to be displayed for anyone to see in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Thaddeus Stevens fought a lifetime against bigotry and slavery and for racial and social justice. He demanded equal access to public education for all. In the processed he fathered the reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and left us our greatest legacy of the promise of liberty, the equal protection of the laws for all Americans.
The Majority Leader and whip of the Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction era in the U.S. House of Representatives, Chairman of the House Ways & Means committee, and leader of the “Radical Republican” faction of the Congress, Stevens was the one of the authors and the chief floor leader who helped craft and win passage of the three Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution.
He shepherded through the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments during his lifetime, and he also led the fight for passage of the 15th Amendment until his death in 1868. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. Taken together, his contribution to the American Constitution is surpassed only by that of James Madison and the founders.
Lydia Hamilton Smith was a woman who defied convention, she ran Stevens household in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C. She organized his household, his social and his political events. She grew adept as a businesswoman in her own right, acquired and managed property of her own. To the shock of many, she freely advised Congressman Stevens in his home and in his offices, and he freely and openly sought her advice and counsel.
Stevens believed passionately in the equality of all, African Americans, Asian Americans, women, working people, the disabled and the poor. He was a forthright egalitarian in an age when few shared his views. Despite his “radical” views on race and class, he became the most powerful member of Congress, and in the view of many historians, the most powerful and effective to have ever held a seat in the House. He remains one of histories greatest parliamentarians.
An effective leader with unshakable views, he was no ideological purist simply for the sake of purity. He freely compromised his legislation in order to get “half a loaf,” then worked to get the other half after his bills passed into law. More often than not, he ultimately won the whole loaf.
When Andrew Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment on the grounds that “blacks were too barbarous” to govern themselves or share equal rights, Stevens had him impeached on the trumped up grounds that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. While Johnson was acquitted, the 14th Amendment was ratified without any further interference from the President.
One notable failure, however, was Stevens proposal for the confiscation of the slaveholding plantations and redistribution of the property to the former slaves in forty acre plots. Property confiscation proved to be a bridge too far for his fellow Congressmen, and “forty acres and a mule” failed in committee.
Shortly before his death, Stevens bought a plot at one of the prominent cemeteries in Lancaster. Upon learning that the cemetery deed included a covenant restricting burial to whites, Stevens demanded a refund and instead purchased a plot in a small African American cemetery.
He was buried there on August 17, 1868. His tombstone reads, “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 chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”
As a final bequest he endowed the creation of a trade school in which orphans and other indigent persons were to be admitted without tuition or fees. His bequest stipulated that no student was to be segregated on the basis of race, religion or color in housing or in meal halls. Today that institution remains, true to his bequest, as the Thaddeus Stevens Technical College of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In one more recent tribute to its founder, the College unveiled a bronze statue to Stevens on the occasion of his 213th birthday on the grounds of the college. In Lancaster, at least, and hopefully beyond, Thaddeus Stevens has made a great political and historical comeback from obscurity.
In a recent speech at Dartmouth University, Steven’s alma mater, Randall L. Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University noted, in speaking about Thaddeus Stevens, “Could history have gone another way; the people who we laud as heroes, were there other people in their environment who made other choices?”
Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith were two people who made other choices than many of their contemporaries. They were partners for equality, great Americans, and truly, in the words of Lincoln, the better angels of our nature. To me, these two individuals are genuine heros of their own age, in ours, and in any age.
For more news about this history center in Lancaster, see also the Stevens and Smith Historical Site