MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, July 4th isn't just the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On July 4th, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called Congress into an extraordinary special session. That April, Fort Sumter had been surrendered to the confederate government so Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to recapture the fort. Soon hundreds of thousands of men were rushing to enlist in what was shaping up to be one heck of a war.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Now, mind you, when Fort Sumter was attacked, Congress was out of session. That's why Lincoln called a special session to help put the union on a military footing. And the most rabble-rousing member of that Congress was the head of the Ways and Means Committee, a man by the name of Thaddeus Stevens, who 19th century journalist Benjamin Perley Poore, once described as...
MR. MATTHEW WASNIEWSKI
The despotic ruler of the House. No Republican was permitted by old Thad to oppose his imperious will without receiving a tongue-lashing that terrified others, if it did not bring the refractory representative back into Party harness.
And who, as 19th century House Speaker James Blaine once wrote...
Had the reputation of being somewhat unscrupulous as to political methods, somewhat careless in personal conduct, somewhat lax in personal morals, but to the one great object of his life, the destruction of slavery, he was supremely devoted.
We'll get to that one great object in just a bit. But first, those descriptions you just heard were read by Matthew Wasniewski.
I'm the historian of the House of Representatives.
And as such, Wasniewski knows all about Thaddeus Stevens so I visited him in the Cannon House Office Building to find out more about this so-called dictator of Congress.
He could be very cutting. He had a tremendous wit and you wouldn't want to cross him in debate. And it was actually Stevens who was moving things through the House. In those days, we didn't have a majority leader. We didn't have a leadership apparatus. And so, quite often, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee would be the de facto floor leader and that's exactly what Stevens did. He spent most of his time on the floor pushing this legislative agenda and he had a couple of underlings who were running the Ways and Means Committee.
And the Ways and Means Committee, at that point, had a number of functions that were wrapped under it that we now have in separate committees. It controlled all the banking and currency. And in addition to raising revenues and raising money for the government to spend, it also appropriated the money for the government to spend. We didn't have an Appropriations Committee. These were things that could come along in the wake of the Civil War because all of a sudden, the legislative workload had gotten so big it needed to be broken up to make it more efficient.
So Stevens is in a tremendously powerful position. And Stevens was leader of the radical Republican faction in the House, radical in the sense that that faction was driven entirely by an anti-slavery viewpoint. They wanted President Lincoln to prosecute the war very vigorously against the confederates, but that the end goal also would be an interracial or a multi-racial society. And that's what drove Stevens to adopt a much more radical policy in terms of emancipating the slaves. And he does this in a couple of Acts, the First Conscription Act, which was passed in that short legislative session, that one month legislative session in July of 1861.
It says that the Union army can free slaves who are employed by Confederate forces as laborers. It was very narrowly defined. Well, Stevens immediately starts pushing Lincoln to come up with a much broader emancipation plan. That follows a year later with the Second Conscription Act, which allows the federal government to free slaves in any areas occupied by the Union army. And in the meantime, in April, 1862, the Lincoln administration again, kind of at the prodding of Stevens and the radicals, announces emancipation in the District of Columbia.
So much of what Thad stood for was, you know, equal opportunity for all. I've heard he came from very humble beginnings and he had a club foot. Do you think anything from his personal background maybe led to his views later in life?
Yeah, certainly. He was originally from Vermont. He was born into fairly modest circumstances, another thing he shared in common with Lincoln. And he eventually settled in Pennsylvania. But he was born with a club foot. I think it did give him a sense of -- a kind of patience and empathy with people who were disadvantaged. He had this sense of social justice and equality from a very early age. And you can see, as soon as he becomes a member of the Pennsylvania House of Delegates, you know, he's pushing public access to public education. So from a very early age, he's got that egalitarian sense.
He just doesn't go about promoting it in a very gentle way.
He's not a politician's politician, put it that way.
How do you think someone like Thaddeus Stevens would do today with the American public? Not necessarily his political views, but the way he behaved as a parliamentarian?
That's a great question. He would be admired as someone who was a very adept bill manager, but he could often say things that were impolitic and push things that were impolitic. But he was very much from an era -- and I think if you look over the broad swath of House history, the House has always been a partisan place. So the Civil War era, certainly that's the peak of partisanship in the years leading up to the Civil War. And it was for very, very serious issues, but partisanship has been the norm.
There have always been characters like Thaddeus Stevens. But he did very well in an environment where his force of will could move legislation through and he wouldn't have had a lot of the road bumps that modern leaders do. There's a whole leadership structure now that's different. There are issues caucuses. There are a lot more boxes to check and things to be aware of. But in the 19th century, really Stevens was kind of using his own personality to work his legislative will, but in an environment that was much less structured than it is now in the modern era.
That was Matthew Wasniewski, the official historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, talking about Thaddeus Stevens. To see a portrait of old Thad himself, visit our website, metroconnection.org
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