`Old Thad' sparks new debate


Stevens: Demonized by the South, then ignored by history, the 19th-century Radical Republican leader is back in the headlines as his hometown of Lancaster, Pa., decides the fate of his house.

July 11, 2001|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Once again, Thaddeus Stevens is a catalyst for debate in his old hometown.

The last time this happened, the "Old Commoner" was the fierce leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The driving force in Congress behind the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and extended equal protection of the law, he was a foe of slavery, a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, a goad to Abraham Lincoln, a scourge of the South.

This time the Stevens debate in Lancaster is not about his record but about his combination house and office. The Stevens house and two buildings once owned by his mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, occupy part of a site earmarked for a large downtown convention center and hotel complex. Predictably, preservationists battled entrepreneurs until a compromise was reached last month. But more of this later.

During the crucial years just before and after the Civil War, Lancaster was home to two little-remembered men who, in their heydays, were the most powerful politicians in the country.

The first was President James Buchanan, a Democrat who once bragged he had not lost an hour's sleep as the country tottered toward disunion. Though a Northerner, he had an abiding tolerance for slavery and a sympathy for Southerners, who dominated his Cabinet and his social circle. By the time he turned the White House over to Lincoln, the frightful war had begun. Buchanan usually rests with Warren G. Harding at the bottom of presidential rankings.

The second towering figure from Lancaster was Old Thad himself, who fought the slave power of the Southern aristocracy with the passionate zeal of an Old Testament prophet. "Yes, there is a God," he declared as war casualties mounted, "an avenging God who is now punishing the sins of this nation for wicked wrongs which for centuries we have inflected upon a blameless race."

He called the Emancipation Proclamation a "milk and water gruel proposition" that was no substitute for the outlawing of slavery everywhere. He personally blocked Southerners from entry into early postwar Congresses. He pushed through Reconstruction laws that kept the South under military rule. He led the ill-considered attempt to impeach President Andrew Johnson for defying laws that were blatantly unconstitutional encroachments on the chief executive.

The laws and constitutional amendments he championed banned slavery, ensured the protection of the Constitution and federal law to all citizens, regardless of the state in which they lived, and guaranteed the vote to all citizens irrespective of race or previous condition of servitude.

That it took a century before the civil rights laws of the 1960s delivered on these promises of the 1860s was not Stevens' fault. Eight years after his death in 1868, his Republican Party abandoned the South to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in return for tainted victory in the 1876 presidential election.

The decades that followed made a mockery of Stevens' vow "to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color." Stevens was demonized by Southern historians as a hateful, vindictive figure. In the epic 1915 film Birth of a Nation, he was caricatured as being in league with black men lusting for white women. A local newspaper called him "pestilential."

As the decades rolled by, an embarrassed Lancaster virtually ignored him, except for naming a trade school for orphan boys after him (now the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology) -- a school that he himself endowed. There are no statues and few portraits of the most important man who has lived here.

Yet the Stevens name is again in the headlines. Preservationists were determined to rescue him from obscurity in order to save the houses that he and Lydia Smith owned. The business community regarded the whole issue as a roadblock to its desperate efforts to revitalize Lancaster's downtown.

Mayor Charles Smithgall, a pharmacist who collects Civil War cannons, helped promote the compromise that finally emerged. He was willing to restore, preserve and protect the facade and front rooms of the Stevens house on Queen Street and build the convention center around it. The Smith buildings around the corner would be moved across the street. The site would become a tourist attraction where visitors could see a re-creation of a 19th-century law office and home parlor, and examine displays tracing the congressman's battle against slavery and discrimination.

James O. Pickard, chairman of the Convention Center Authority, was eager for this kind of deal -- any deal, in fact, so he could get his $30 million project moving ahead. Randolph J. Harris, director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, got most of what he wanted: safekeeping of landmarks as an example of what Lancaster can do with its 19th-century housing stock.

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