With February being both Black History Month and Career & Technical Educational Month, no one is more worthy of being remembered in both categories than Thaddeus Stevens.
As a Pennsylvania legislator, Thaddeus Stevens founded the state's system of free public education. As chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War era, Stevens played a crucial role in Congressional funding for the Civil War, pressured President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, fathered the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, and following the war's end, was the chief architect of Reconstruction.
Although Stevens has been little known, even to his fellow Pennsylvanians, that oversight is slowly changing. Each year, the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster educates 800 students and the two-year technical school boasts a 98 percent placement rate. The school was founded to benefit the state's indigent orphans. Even today, Stevens serves the economically disadvantaged-with many students receiving full grants, as well as educating tuition-paying students.
In 1833, Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In 1830s America, there were free public schools were practically unknown. When a Free School Bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Stevens became an ardent supporter. He collaborated with Governor Wolfe to get the bill passed.
When the legislators returned to their districts there was an uproar. People believed it was too expensive and some opposed the bill because they had their own religious schools. Over 32,000 individuals signed a petition to repeal the new legislation.
The General Assembly was recalled into session to reconsider. The Senate quickly passed a repeal bill. The bill then went to the House. Stevens took the floor to defend the original bill.
There was standing room only as most of the Senate filled the gallery. Stevens began his speech by using statistics to show how a state system of free schools was more efficient and ultimately less costly than the existing system.
Calling the repeal act, "An act for branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from the rich and the proud," he urged the legislators to ignore the misguided petitions and to "lead their people as philosophers, with courage and benevolence."
When he finished, the House suspended the rules and amended the Repeal Bill into an act that strengthened the original Free School Act and passed it. The Senate immediately followed suit.
The result was to give Pennsylvania a statewide free public school system, decades before New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and all southern states. This is why Stevens is referred to as the savior of free public education in Pennsylvania, and why the state created Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology as a tribute to him.
Stevens was born in Vermont in 1792 with a congenital deformity, a clubfoot, which made it difficult to walk. As a boy, he was ridiculed and shunned. His alcoholic father left the family and later fought in the War of 1812.
He was said to be the most impoverished student at Dartmouth College, and although an honors student, the well-to-do students would not nominate him for Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduating from Dartmouth, he taught school in York, studied law, and passed the Bar Examination. He moved to Lancaster, where in his first year of practice, he won nine out of 10 cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In 1833, Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He successfully fought for free public education which became free public school, and his system became a model for the nation.
Stevens was elected to the United States House of Representatives from 1849-1853 and from 1859 until his death in 1868 – the period leading up to and including the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. He is credited with the creation of Civil Rights legislation.
During his lifetime, Stevens practiced philanthropy, lending over $100,000 to the poor and needy without any intention for repayment. In his will, he left $50,000 to establish a school for the relief and refuge of homeless, indigent orphans. This original bequest has evolved into the college of technology that bears his name.
Thaddeus Stevens College, is now owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The schools draws a large number of students from Carbon County and is popular with graduates from the Carbon Career & Technical Institute in Jim Thorpe.
In 1999, a nonprofit group, the Thaddeus Stevens Society, was founded to promote the memory of Thaddeus Stevens, the champion of freedom and equality. There is also an exhibit on Stevens at the National Civil War Museum in Gettysburg.