The Second-greatest Republican Who Ever Lived

Michael Zak
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Posted: Aug 10, 2006 9:17 PM

Forgetting the Grand Old Party’s heritage of civil rights achievement is what costs Republicans the political initiative. To illustrate, unknown to most Republicans today is the second greatest Republican ever, who died on this day back in 1868.

Born in Vermont, Thaddeus Stevens moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he helped establish the state’s Republican Party in 1855. Three years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, soon becoming an outspoken abolitionist as well as effective legislator. In 1860, he was re-elected with 96% of the vote. The firm backing of his constituents was all the more remarkable considering that he was as married to a black woman, Lydia Smith, as a white man could be in those days. Only four years ago was it discovered that Stevens had built in his backyard a secret hiding place for slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.

When President Lincoln was sworn in, the federal government had only $3 million on hand. In those days, the House Ways and Means Committee handled both appropriations (Ways) and taxation (Means), making its chairman, Thaddeus Stevens, the most powerful Member of Congress. Though the position had not yet been established, Stevens also served unofficially as Majority Leader. During the special session of July and August 1861, Stevens bulldozed right over parliamentary obstacles thrown up by obstructionist Democrats, having the Speaker of the House, whom he had hand-picked, call the House into special session so that the rules could be suspended. He then made sure the President received the necessary funding for the war effort.

Rep. Stevens led the charge for passage of the Pacific Railroad Act, the Land-Grant College Act, and the National Banking Act. He also was instrumental in establishing the first national currency, the greenback. Way ahead of his time, Stevens championed the rights of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. And, it was Thaddeus Stevens who proposed that each family of emancipated slaves receive 40 acres and a mule.

After Confederate rebels burned down his iron foundry, wiping him out financially, friends gave him $100,000, but Stevens donated the money to charity, saying “We must all expect to suffer by this wicked war.” Not just an idealist, he was a very witty guy. Hearing that a Republican congressman intended to duel a Democrat with a bowie knife, Stevens suggested that a dung fork would be more appropriate.

History books written by rebel-sympathizing Democrat professors have burdened modern Americans with a distorted image of Thaddeus Stevens and other Republicans radically opposed to slavery. It is an absurd myth that the Radical Republicans were bent on vengeance against the defeated Confederates. In fact, Stevens adamantly opposed treason trials for any defeated Confederates. He even volunteered to defend Jefferson Davis in court should he ever be put on trial. In any event, there would have been no rebel punished whom President Lincoln or President Johnson could not have pardoned.

In early 1866, Democrat President Andrew Johnson helped defeat Stevens’ bill for black suffrage in the District of Columbia. Stevens then oversaw the drafting of the 14th Amendment and introduced it into Congress. His fight to pass the amendment, though eventually successful, was difficult since not one Democrat in the House or Senate voted for it.

Overlooked by so many history books written by Democrat professors is the fact that the former rebels were almost completely in charge of the South for the first two years after Appomattox. Not until March 1867 were Republicans able to dissolve the neo-Confederate state governments, when Republicans overrode President Johnson’s veto of Thaddeus Stevens’ Reconstruction Act. In an inadvertent tribute to the heroic Republican, caricatures of Stevens and Lydia Smith are the villains of that pro-Ku Klux Klan movie, Birth of a Nation.

At death’s door and no longer able to walk, the 76-year old Stevens managed the prosecution at the impeachment trial of President Johnson. Just before his death, Stevens helped convince a reluctant House of Representatives to appropriate the money to pay for the purchase of Alaska.

Thaddeus Stevens died in Washington, DC with Lydia Smith at his bedside. An honor guard of black Union army veterans stood at attention while his body lay in state in the Capitol. In an unprecedented tribute to their beloved leader, Republican nominated him for another term, and in death he would win a nearly unanimous victory. Some 20,000 people, half being freedmen (former slaves) from the South, attended his funeral in Lancaster, where he had insisted on being buried in a racially-integrated cemetery and with the epitaph “Equality of Man before his Creator.”

The chaplain of the U.S. Senate delivered this eulogy: “God give to Vermont another son; Lancaster, another citizen; Pennsylvania, another statesman; the country, another patriot; the poor, another friend; the freedmen, another advocate; the race, another benefactor; and the world, another man like Thaddeus Stevens.” Amen.

Michael Zak’s article is adapted from his book Back to Basics for the Republican Party, a history of the GOP from the civil rights perspective.