I agree with Don Gallagher of Lititz, PA: It’s time to honor Thad Stevens.
While working on Impeached, my book about the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, I developed a powerful respect and affection for Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the “Radical” Republican from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Even though he was never Speaker of the House of Representatives, he effectively ran that chamber through the Civil War and for three years after, until his death in 1868.
Stevens is still a controversial historical figure, having never really recovered from his portrayal as the evil, darky-loving political manipulator of the 1915 silent film classic,Birth of a Nation. (We’re hoping for better luck with the version of Stevens in the upcoming Spielberg flick about Lincoln, for which Tommy Lee Jones will portray the man from Lancaster.)
Though we have left the attitudes of 1915 far behind us, along with the pro-Ku Klux Klan enthusiasm that fired that film, Stevens’ reputation still suffers. The fierce look on his face was no illusion: he was one tough hombre. Other congressmen dreaded facing him in floor debate. Stevens’ quick wit left many an adversary sputtering in frustration or grinning ruefully.
But there is so much more to celebrate about Stevens:
- As a state legislator, he authored and muscled through legislation establishing that state’s first free public schools.
- He was a true enemy of slavery. He purchased the freedom of some slaves. As a lawyer, he represented fugitive slaves for nothing. Some of that story is told in Steven Lubet’s fine book, Fugitive Justice.
- Stevens fought in Congress against the spread of slavery before slavery and was a champion of abolition until it happened. Stevens, who limped from a club foot at birth, was said by one friend to act as though “every injustice in the world had been done to him.” Every underdog could claim his support.
- As ferocious and tenacious as he was, Stevens was also a deal-maker who understood that politics is the art of the possible. His legislative efforts were critical to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments — he bemoaned that the Fourteenth Amendment was not stronger in defending the rights of the freed slaves, but admitted that it was the best he could get through Congress — the the first Civil Rights Act and all of three Reconstruction Acts.
- Through all this, he had a wicked sense of humor. When I give talks on the impeachment trial, I am always grateful to Stevens for leaving behind a couple of wonderful anecdotes that bring a hearty laugh before any audience. Virtuous, effective AND funny? People don’t come any better than that.
Because Don Gallagher agrees with me on a lot of these points, he is leading an effort to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to dedicate a “forever” stamp to Stevens. Mr. Gallagher is no rookie at this business. He takes credit for the 2002 stamp honoring Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku and the 2008 stamp for author James A. Michener.
How do we go about this? We send letters demanding a Stevens “forever” stamp to the US Postal Service (using first-class postage, you bet — put on an extra stamp, just to make a statement). The address is:
Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee
c/o Stamp Development
U.S. Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300
Washington, DC 20260-3501
And the Postal Service– perhaps a bit reluctantly — also has a website with instructions. Lift a hand, a pen, or just use the keyboard in front of you. It’s time to honor Thad Stevens.