2016-17 Course Catalog - 7
During his time in the General Assembly, the accomplishment
Thaddeus Stevens was most proud of was his effort to institute
free public education. In 1830's America, there were practically no
free public schools. Those that existed were found in New England
and in large cities. Only affluent families could afford to send their
children to school. In a few places, poor children could attend
school if their parents would publicly admit poverty; however, this
was very rare.
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, even
though Wolfe was a Mason. However, when the legislators returned
to their districts there was an uproar. Some people believed that
free public education was too expensive while others 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 and went 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. He said the repeal act should be called: "An act for
branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from
the rich and the proud." He went on:
"I know how large a portion of the community can scarcely
feel any sympathy with, or understand the necessities of the
poor; the rich appreciate the exquisite feelings which they
enjoy, when they see their children receiving the boon of
education, and rising in intellectual superiority above the
clogs which hereditary poverty had cast upon them.... When
I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and
perhaps as a consequence, hereditary pride, are to close the
avenues and steel the heart against the wants and rights of
the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from
early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty."
He urged the legislators to ignore the misguided petitions and to
lead their people as philosophers, with courage and benevolence.
After he finished he limped back to his seat to the cheers of the
entire assembly. The House suspended the rules and amended
the Repeal Bill into an act that actually 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 an entire generation before New York, New Jersey,
Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the entire South. This is why
Stevens is referred to as the savior of free public education in
Pennsylvania, and why the Commonwealth created Thaddeus
Stevens College of Technology as a tribute to Thaddeus Stevens.
The free public school system is another example of Stevens
drawing from his own background and experience and attacking
privilege based on anything other than merit. Also, it reflects his
fundamental belief that education is the great equalizer. He later
said that if education is inexpensive and honorable, people with
intelligence-no matter how poor- would utilize it to improve
An important part of Thaddeus Stevens' legacy is his philanthropy.
Throughout his life, he could never recall the poverty and
discrimination of his childhood without great pain. Its effect was
to sensitize him to the oppression and human suffering in the
world. He simply could not bear to hear or see suffering if his
money or legal aid could relieve it. He gave of them both almost
without limit. He did this irrespective of race, religion, national
origin, or political affiliation. Even his harshest critics said he was
charitable, kind, and lavish with his money in the relief of poverty.
He had standing orders with his physician and cobbler to treat all
deformed and disabled children at his expense. It is impossible
to estimate how much money he gave to the poor and needy or
the value of the legal services he provided for free. One indicator
was that at the time of his death, he had over $100,000 in notes
from individuals to whom he had loaned money, money which
had never been repaid. 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 Thaddeus Stevens College
His will states:
"They shall be carefully educated in the various branches
of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits.
No preference shall be shown on account of race or color in
their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish, or
Mahometan, nor any others on account their race or religion
of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the
He defended and supported Indians, Seventh-day Adventists,
Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. However, the defense
of runaway or fugitive slaves gradually began to consume the
greatest amount of his time, until the abolition of slavery became
his primary political and personal focus. He was actively involved
in the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves to get to
Canada, as many as 16 a week.
Thaddeus Stevens was elected to the United States House of
Representatives from 1849-1853 and from 1859 until his death
in 1868. This was the period leading up to and including the Civil
War and the beginning of Reconstruction.
Academic Catalog * 7