“Equality of man before his Creator”
By Ross Hetrick
“My lifelong regret is that I lived so long and so uselessly,” Thaddeus Stevens said shortly before he died on August 11, 1868 at the age of 76. It was an incredibly ironic false statement.
In his last eight years, Congressman Stevens had led the remaking of America. He had helped to end slavery, changed the Constitution to make equality the law of the land and enacted legislation to protect the recently freed slaves, not to mention changed the nation’s financial structure that enabled the Union to win the war.
But Stevens was a man intent on making the United States “a more perfect union,” during the brief period that the federal government was not dominated by the “slave power” of the southern states. But despite having this advantage, Stevens was unable to change the Constitution so that it would promote universal voting for both men and women, black and white. And he had failed to remove the chief obstacle to his revolution — President Andrew Johnson.
But his greatest failure — in Stevens’s eyes — was his inability to pass legislation that would have confiscated land from the super-rich southern aristocracy and redistribute it to the freed slaves on whose backs the wealth had been accumulated. Stevens was blunt and prophetic about what would happen if this was not done.
“If we do not furnish them with homesteads and hedge them around with protective laws,” Stevens said. “If we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage. Their condition would be worse than that of our prisoners at Andersonville.” — a notorious Confederate prison camp. And true to Stevens’s prediction, several decades of white supremacy repression were ushered in after a brief period of multiracial democracy.
But despite his despondency, Stevens retained his famous wit. A visitor commented on his good appearance despite his illness. “It is not my appearance, but my disappearance, that troubles me,” Stevens responded.
He also comforted himself by recalling his victory 33 years earlier when he gave a stirring speech in the Pennsylvania legislature that turned back a repeal effort of the state’s fledgling public school system. “I shall feel myself abundantly rewarded for all my efforts in behalf of universal education if a single child, educated by the Commonwealth, shall drop a tear of gratitude on my grave.” he said.
Stevens also took steps to ensure his grave would be a great inspiration for equality. Instead of being buried in Lancaster’s main cemetery where President James Buchanan laid, Stevens bought a plot in a small integrated graveyard. And his reason is explained in the epitaph on the grave.
“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 through a long life, Equality of man before his Creator.”
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens’s important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society’s website: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/