On the trail of Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania’s equal rights champion

By James F. Lee,

James F. Lee for The Washington Post

The Stevens-Smith House on S. Queen Street in Lancaster. Stevens purchased this house in 1843 and lived here until his death in 1868. Sharing this house with him was Lydia Hamilton Smith, a woman of color who managed his household and business affairs.

The librarian held up the boots for us to see. They were very old, sturdy and custom made to fit the owner’s club foot.

“This is our prized possession,” said Timothy Creamer, librarian at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology’s Philip P. and Elizabeth Mitchell Archives in Lancaster, Pa.

The boots belonged to the college’s namesake, Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War-era Radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. Stevens is not well known today, and that’s a shame. He was a man thoroughly before his time: He abhorred slavery, promoted equal rights for Chinese immigrants, endorsed the right of women to vote, lamented the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government, and favored universal and free education, in an age when humans were still held in bondage.


Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War-era Radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania.

“He represents a radical change in behavior towards people who some considered less than human,” said Nathan Pease, director of library services for LancasterHistory, formerly Lancaster County’s Historical Society.

Talk about being on the right side of history.

I was recently introduced to Stevens by the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” in which Tommy Lee Jones plays the fiery congressman. Interest piqued, I read Bruce Levine’s recent biography, “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice.” This past month, my wife Carol and I set out for southeastern Pennsylvania, following our own Thaddeus Stevens trail to learn more about him.

Stevens was born in Vermont into dire poverty and suffered from club foot that required him to use a cane. Through sheer willpower — and assiduous study — he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1814. He moved to Pennsylvania and set up a law practice in Gettysburg, where he lived from 1816 to 1843. He never married or fathered children.

[History buffs trace the steps of a young George Washington through the DMV]

Unfortunately, Stevens’s house in Gettysburg is no longer standing, but the site is indicated by a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission blue marker at 51 Chambersburg St. There is no vestige of the street as it looked in Stevens’s time, only a busy commercial thoroughfare lined with restaurants and shops — and lots of Civil War buff tourists. Stevens’s wealth grew in Gettysburg as his law practice expanded; he ran for public office and invested in property. One of his biggest investments was the Caledonia Furnace, an ironworks started in 1837, in nearby Fayetteville, Pa.

James F. Lee for The Washington Post

Thaddeus Stevens reenactor Ross Hetrick talks with visitor Brianne Meiser at the blacksmith shop, one of the stops on the Thaddeus Stevens Historical Trail at Caledonia State Park.

Carol and I drove west of Gettysburg on Route 30 to Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville to see the ruins of the ironworks, now located in the state park. The park’s 0.8-mile, self-guided Thaddeus Stevens Historical Trail points out the remnants of the 19th-century industrial concern.

The man-made water race that supplied the factory is now a pleasant stream. Trees cover the hills, which occasionally bear the scars of long-ago charcoal pits. At the head of the trail, there is a reconstructed furnace made from the rubble of the ironworks’ original furnace. We walked along the edge of the furnace dam; several people were fishing on the banks of the hand-dug pond that provided a source of water for the water wheel in times of dry weather.

At the blacksmith shop, we found park ranger and licensed blacksmith Bill Taylor firing up the forge. We watched him take iron rods out of the fire, then hammer them on his anvil, sparks flying. The clanging reverberated through the building.

Taylor said this shop was once part of a larger community built around the ironworks, which employed hundreds of iron workers, blacksmiths, woodchoppers and colliers. “At one point there were as many as 200 people working here,” he said. “A lot of them were free Blacks or were enslaved people running for Canada.”

Standing nearby was Ross Hetrick, dressed as Thaddeus Stevens in a black frock coat, cravat and ill-fitting wig. (Stevens was bald and known for his famously unshapely wig.) Hetrick, president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society in nearby Gettysburg, portrays the congressman on Saturdays during the summer at Caledonia.

Hetrick said Stevens was an inspirational figure.

“In the 80 years following the American Revolution,” he said, “Thaddeus Stevens was the chief proponent of the idea that all people are created equal and he was actually able to get that embodied in our Constitution.”

James F. Lee for The Washington Post

A monument to the furnace stack that once existed at the Caledonia Furnace ironworks. This reduced scale model was built by Pennsylvania Alpine Club from the rubble of the original furnace in 1927.

He pointed out that Stevens was reviled by anti-abolitionists. In 1863, in an act of wanton destruction, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early destroyed the Caledonia Furnace, even burning down the workers’ huts. He did it for one reason: The owner of the works was Thaddeus Stevens. The ironworks was rebuilt and survived into the early 20th century, but the act of destruction was a huge financial loss for Stevens.

[For Women’s History Month, honoring the sisters in the City of Brotherly Love]

From Fayetteville, we drove to Lancaster, where Stevens lived from 1843 until his death in 1868. Lancaster offered more opportunities for Stevens’s law practice — and for his political aspirations. In 1858, running as a Republican, he was elected to serve Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District. He chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and became the outspoken leader of the Radical Republicans, favoring the complete eradication of slavery in the United States.

Stevens was irreverent, sharp-tongued, sarcastic and witty, suffering no fools whether Democrat or Republican. He used all his persuasive power to help engineer passage of the 13th Amendment through the House, and he often criticized President Abraham Lincoln for his slow approach to emancipation.

His house and law office on Queen Street is still standing. It is the substantial brick townhouse of a successful businessman, politician and capitalist. Stevens lived here with his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a woman of color, who, in her own right, was a successful landowner in Lancaster. It is unclear whether the relationship was romantic. Smith stayed with Stevens until his death. Today, the house is named to honor both of them.

James F. Lee for The Washington Post

A valise, owned by Thaddeus Stevens, is on display at the Phillip P. and Elizabeth Mitchell Archives at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

The house is not open to the public at this time. Once scheduled for demolition to make way for the Lancaster Convention Center, it was saved from the wrecker’s ball by the timely intervention of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, which acquired a historic preservation easement to protect the property. The Trust preserved the facade and unearthed thousands of artifacts. Now LancasterHistory has plans to renovate the interior.

The Convention Center provides a viewing area that looks into the Stevens-Smith House basement. We could see a large brick cistern and some of the glassware and plates found in the house. There is speculation that Stevens used the basement as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but there is no concrete evidence to support this.

Of all the stops on our trip, Carol thought the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology Archives was the most informative and most clearly demonstrated the breadth of his influence. A statue of Stevens on the college’s campus underscores this point: Around its pedestal are plaques commemorating the many causes he championed: abolition, philanthropy, equality, reconstruction and education.

It was here that we learned that Stevens saved the free public school system in Pennsylvania, was a chief framer of the 14th Amendment, and was a strong advocate of federal support and protection for freedmen during Reconstruction.

At the college archives, Creamer showed us more of the Stevens artifacts housed there, including a valise marked with his name and a photograph of the congressman’s boot maker. The librarian said Stevens had a standing order with the boot maker to provide shoes for disabled children at his expense.

James F. Lee for The Washington Post

Thaddeus Stevens’s burial place at Shreiner-Concord Cemetery in Lancaster, Pa.

Our final stop was Stevens’s grave at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, a quiet, tree-lined sanctuary in downtown Lancaster. Stevens had chosen this cemetery for his burial because it was the only one in Lancaster that allowed Black people to be buried there. Inscribed on his tomb are the words “EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”

His life is aptly summarized by Leroy Hopkins, past president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania, and a board member of LancasterHistory.

“Stevens was an exceptional individual who overcame physical limitations to become a champion for individuals handicapped by the color of their skin,” Hopkins wrote in an email. “In the truest sense of the word, he was an egalitarian.”

Stevens was not just ahead of his time; we’re still trying to catch up to him.

Lee is a writer based in Virginia Beach. Find him on Twitter: @writer1218.

Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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Source: WP