Thaddeus Stevens’s 14th Amendment again in the news

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is one of the greatest achievements of the Reconstruction era and the essential person in its birth was Thaddeus Stevens, the most powerful congressman of his time.

The amendment has been at the heart of many landmark court cases, including desegregation, same sex marriage, and reproductive rights. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether it will bar a former President from running again for leading an alleged insurrection.

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Stevens was present at the conception of the amendment, nursed it along during its difficult gestation, and was there when it was finally born, just a month before Stevens died. The idea for the amendment was on Stevens’s mind on December 4, 1865 when he orchestrated a brilliant parliamentary maneuver that barred ex-Confederates from taking over the 39th Congress. Without that, Congress would have been unable to pass some of the most important legislation in U.S. history.

Stevens immediately followed that up by forming the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, where he would introduce the initial version of the amendment. Then the measure would go through a series of transformations, some that Stevens approved others that he strenuously opposed. But in the end he voted for it saying it was the best that could be had.

The third section of the amendment was one of the provisions that was dramatically changed. As proposed by Stevens, that provision would have barred anybody who aided the Confederacy from voting until 1870. This was changed to bar people from holding any office who had participated in an insurrection after previously taking an oath to support the Constitution. 

Stevens was against this change, saying it could lead to the ex-Confederates taking over federal and state legislatures in the near future. But whereas his version of the section would have only been effective for two years, the rewritten section may make it applicable to the 21st century. Stevens was so concerned about this and other changes that he threatened to vote against his own amendment. But finally he consented to the changes, summing up his position in this statement in June 1866:

“In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age, I had fondly dreamed that when any fortunate chance should have broken up for a while the foundation of our institutions, and released us from obligations the most tyrannical that ever man imposed in the name of freedom, that the intelligent, pure and just men of this Republic, true to their professions and their consciences would have so remodeled all our institutions as to have free them from every vestige of human oppression, of inequality of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich. In short, that no distinction would be tolerated in this purified Republic but what arose from merit and conduct. That bright dream has vanished ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision.’ I find that we shall be obligated to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept through by the tempests, the frosts, and storms of despotism.”

“Do you inquire why, holding these views and possessing some will of my own, I accept so imperfect a proposition? I answer, because I live among men and not among angels, among men as intelligent as determined, and as independent as myself, who not agreeing with me, do not choose to yield their opinions to mine. Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.”

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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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