Thaddeus Stevens was one of the most important persons in Gettysburg College history, securing funding for the college’s first major building, providing land for its campus, and keeping it in Gettysburg when others wanted to move it in 1854.
Gettysburg College, then called Pennsylvania College, was founded in 1832 by Samuel Simon Schmucker in the Gettysburg Academy building at the corner of Washington and High Streets, where it still stands and is used as a private residence. The next year the college asked the Pennsylvania legislature for $18,000 to construct a building of its own and was promptly turned down.
Then in 1834, Thaddeus Stevens, an outspoken supporter of education, entered the state House of Representatives, pledging to support the appropriation for the college, which opened a political firestorm. Much of Adams County opposed the expenditure saying taxpayer money should not go to colleges, which benefited a few people but rather go to building one-room schoolhouses for the masses. Others said the money should not be spent at all and taxes lowered.
Stevens countered by saying Adams County was entitled to a fair share of the large amounts of money being spent by the state and that the appropriation would be a good investment. “If this legislature should deem it worthy of their countenance, it is not difficult to foresee its complete success,” he said.
He also confronted the fact that many of his constituents were against the expenditure. “Let demagogues note it for future use and send it on the wings of the wind to the ears of every one of my constituents; in matters of this kind, I would rather hear the approving voice of one judicious, intelligent, and enlightened mind, than to be greeted by the loud huzzas of the whole host of ignorance,” he said. This would become his political creed for the rest of his life — he was going to do what he thought was right regardless of what was popular.
Even after the state legislature approved the $18,000 appropriation, the college had difficulty finding someone willing to sell it land for the campus. Once again, the college turned to Stevens who was one of the largest property owners in Gettysburg. Stevens, who had been elected to the college’s board, sold six acres of land to the college at $88 an acre, a price that was determined by the other college trustees. The building that was erected with the money was Pennsylvania Hall, which is now the college’s administrative center, and its iconic cupola is the symbol of the institution.
Stevens moved to Lancaster, PA in 1842 but continued to serve on the college’s board until his death in 1868. This membership proved to be crucial in 1854 when the board was considering moving the college to another city because of stagnant enrollment and an anemic endowment.
On hearing about this, Stevens wrote: “If the scheme you refer to be real (which I can hardly believe) it is an attempt to violate an executed contract with the people of Adams County and is atrocious.”
He then made a special trip from Lancaster to Gettysburg to browbeat the trustees into approving a resolution that assured the college would remain in Gettysburg. The vote was a lopsided 10 to 4, with college founder Schmucker voting with the minority.
In appreciation for his long service, the college in 1868– the last year of Stevens’s life– built Stevens Hall, which still stands on Carlisle Street. By that time, Stevens had become famous as the nation’s most powerful congressman, playing a key role in the destruction of slavery and the effort after the Civil War to change the Constitution to bring about a more equal society.
So when first-year students walk from the campus to the national cemetery at the end of August to hear about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, they should also be told how Thaddeus Stevens had a Gettysburg address for 26 years and is primarily responsible for them attending a college in Gettysburg.
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/
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.