How a guy from 200 years ago showed up in Gettysburg Saturday
Ross Hetrick moved to Gettysburg just because Thaddeus Stevens once lived there.
Hetrick opened a coffee shop in the small battlefield town in 1996 to join with other fans of the Civil War-era politician and celebrate his legacy.
He was shocked at what he found.
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“His graveyard was overgrown. No one knew about him,” he said. “It is still incredible to me that he doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves.”
It has taken more than two decades to change that, culminating April 2 with the unveiling of a Thaddeus Stevens statue outside the Adams County courthouse.
“Communities should look at their past and honor the people who were for equality, against slavery so people know about them,” Hetrick said.
Stevens, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress, is best known for his efforts to abolish slavery, which represented "the culmination of his life's work," according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Thaddeus Stevens Society calls him the "Father of the 14th Amendment," which granted citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States. He also fought for public education. A native of Vermont, he worked in York as a teacher and eventually practiced law and politics in Gettysburg and Lancaster.
The building of his statue comes at a time when other figures have been removed across the country, but to some, this is the right time to honor him.
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“There are tons and tons of statues across the United States, and as you know with the bringing down of many of them, they were icons of negative things,” said Kelly Summerford, manager of the William C. Goodridge Freedom Center and Underground Railroad in York. “I look at statues, museums, all those things as a way of educating people. Why not bring in a story that embodies equality, that embodies what we should be today?”
York was the initial landing spot for a young Stevens. Straight out of Dartmouth College, he got a job as a teacher from 1815-1816 at the York County Academy, now York College, according to Karen Rice-Young, archives and special collections manager at York College.
While teaching there, Stevens studied law with James Kelly, one of the academy’s trustees. “The residence requirement of the courts prevented his admission to the York County Bar. In August 1816, he was admitted to the bar at Belair, Maryland; began the practice of law in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was elected to the legislature from Adams County in 1832, according to “The History of the York County academy," researched and written by George Hay Kain.
He would eventually move to Lancaster and represent the region in Congress, often working as an antagonist to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and later leading efforts to impeach Lincoln's predecessor, Andrew Johnson. Hetrick calls Stevens the 17th and a half president because if people needed something to get done during Johnson's term in office, they needed to go through Stevens.
When the House passed the bill that authorized the 13th Amendment, Stevens said: “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus, ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’”
His tenor and work have long attracted hobby historians through the last two centuries, but he hasn’t always been portrayed as a hero. Southern politicians, while promoting their war heroes, derided Stevens for his relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith. His detractors at the time claimed Smith, who was single, and Stevens had a romantic relationship. Hetrick says there is no evidence to that claim.
When Steven Spielberg's movie “Lincoln” portrayed Stevens as a hero, memberships for the Thaddeus Stevens Society doubled, as thousands of people found the club’s website, Hetrick said.
Among Stevens’ fans is musician (and Nobel Prize winner) Bob Dylan, who wrote of Stevens in his autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume 1”: "He grew up poor, made a fortune, and from then on championed the weak and any other group who wasn't able to fight equally. … He made a big impression on me.”
He made an impression on Summerford as well.
“He would be the kind of white Congressman I would love in the Legislature today. He’s one of the persons I would like to go back and meet if I could, just to hear his conversations,” he said. “We all know what he did but it would be nice to speak to him and have a one-on-one as to how he came to those conclusions."
Summerford and his colleagues at the Goodridge Freedom Center will erect a monument of their namesake this summer. William C. Goodridge, a former slave, abolitionist and conductor for the Underground Railroad, will be the first Black man to receive a statue in the City of York, and Summerford believes the statue will be the first for York County as well.
Getting a statue built is expensive, and for the Thaddeus Stevens Society, time-consuming as well. Hetrick started the club in 1999, and its members started fundraising about seven years ago. It was all worth it to Hetrick, as Stevens moved mountains, helping to lead the United States from a country that permitted to slavery to one that is now free.
"I don't think people appreciate the dramatic, world-changing development that was," Hetrick said. "Thaddeus Stevens' story is a message of hope."
Kim Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Thaddeus Stevens gets a statue from his fan club in Gettysburg