How Thaddeus Stevens and Edward McPherson saved the country on Dec. 4, 1865

On December 4, 1865, Thaddeus Stevens and Edward McPherson executed a parliamentary maneuver that banned ex-Confederates from Congress and changed the course of American history.

The action was necessary because Andrew Johnson, who replaced Lincoln, refused to work with Congress on how to handle Reconstruction, and if he had succeeded in his plans, the results would have been devastating.

With Congress not scheduled to reconvene for another eight months, Johnson started issuing pardons wholesale to ex-Confederates. Then, he allowed the southern states to hold Congressional elections without any restrictions. 

Southern white men, the only ones allowed to vote, did what was expected. They elected 64 former Confederates, four generals, four colonels, and six members of the Confederate cabinet. Even Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the rebel nation, was elected to the U.S. Senate. They planned to join with their northern allies in Congress and take over the legislative branch of the government.

They let it be known that they intended to reject the massive federal war debt and embrace the Confederate debt. In other words, the U.S. government would have paid for the war to destroy the country. But even more sinister was their plan to not interfere with the re-enslavement of black Americans by southern states. Despite the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, southern states passed so-called Black Codes that allowed law enforcement to put blacks back on plantations as convict labor. If these things had happened, the North would have essentially lost the Civil War after the war.

But Thaddeus Stevens, who was the master of the House of Representatives, was not going to allow this to happen. With the help of Edward McPherson, the clerk of the House of Representatives and long-time friend, Stevens came up with a plan.

When Congress convened on December 4, 1865, McPherson began calling the roll of the members of the House of Representatives. When he got to the new southern members, he skipped them using the authority given him by a previous Congress. Southerners and their allies tried to object, but Stevens, a master of parliamentary procedure, shut them down with calls to order and points of order. This prevented the takeover of Congress by the ex-Confederates and gave the Republicans a working majority to combat the policies of President Johnson.

Congress was able to pass the first civil rights bill, fund the Freedman Bureau to aid the newly freed slaves, and impose military control over southern states to protect the black population. But more importantly, Congress was able to pass the 14th Amendment that would ensure that equality before the law would be the law of the land, even though it was neutered by the Supreme Court for many decades.

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/

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Ross Hetrick is president and founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. Hetrick was a business reporter for 18 years in Baltimore and owned Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg from 1996 to 2004.

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Leon Reed
Leon Reed
5 months ago

Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

Ross Hetrick
5 months ago
Reply to  Leon Reed

You’re welcome.

P J
P J
5 months ago

Very interesting tidbit of history showing that humans haven’t changed much even if technology has.

M K
M K
5 months ago

Thank you so much for this post!! I’m currently doing research on Stevens and learning so much more about his impacts on Reconstruction. Do you mind sharing the sources you used to gather this information?

Bill Serfass
Bill Serfass
5 months ago

Thanks, Ross! It’s these kind of details that no one teaches school age students. I’m fascinated by the details of historical events such as these that leave a long shadow for good.

Ross Hetrick
5 months ago
Reply to  Bill Serfass

I appreciate your comment very much. More people should be aware of what Stevens did.

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