Michael Zak

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.


Michael Zak

Michael Zak's article is adapted from his book Back to the Basics for the Republican Party.

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