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Thaddeus Stevens in York

Print of Thaddeus Stevens from original 1838 portrait by Jacob Eicholtz.  The portrait is owned by Gettysburg College.
Print of Thaddeus Stevens from original 1838 portrait by Jacob Eicholtz. The portrait is owned by Gettysburg College.

History is full or “what ifs.” We can only speculate on how a different path could have affected outcomes of important events in our history.

We might be familiar with the life of Thaddeus Stevens and his role in Congress as a strong advocate for the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

His connection with York County is usually ignored in biographical sketches, but there is an important “what if” there. How might history have been changed if the young teacher had stayed in his native Vermont and not applied for a position at the York County Academy, bringing him close to the Mason-Dixon line and the reality of slavery? Did his relocation spur him on to study law here and eventually launch his political career? “What if?”

See below for my recent York Sunday News column on Stevens and how his York sojourn.

Why Thaddeus Stevens came to Pennsylvania

We associate Thaddeus Stevens with Gettysburg, where he lived and practiced law from 1816 to 1842, and with Lancaster, his residence from 1842 until his death in 1868. Many biographical sketches about Stevens do not mention why Stevens came to southern Pennsylvania from his native Vermont in the first place. As related in the newspaper story below, the 22 year old college graduate was looking for a job, and he found one right here in York.

The article reads, in part:

Personal Reminiscences and Anecdotes of a Great Pennsylvanian.

More than half a century ago Thaddeus Stevens came from the green hills of Vermont to the York County Academy, which was then a celebrated institution of learning.

At that time he was a tall, slender, delicate-looking young man, with an expression of great animation, spirit and intellect in his striking countenance. He presented himself before the Board of Examiners, conscious of his ability to pass any test to which he might be subjected. One of the bunch, as a preliminary movement, took up a bunch of goose quills lying on the table before him, and carefully selected one, handed it to the young applicant, requesting him to make a pen. Stevens, who was not familiar with the art of pen-making, excused himself upon the ground that he had no penknife. This excuse was invalidated by the ready production of the necessary knife from the pocket of the examiner. He was compelled to try his skill at shaping the pen. The result was a most sorry attempt.

The pen being complete to the best of his ability, his tormentor handed him a blank sheet of paper and requested of him a copy as a pupils’ model. With the best of pens Stevens’ writing was very illegible and as the old gentlemen was not skilled in deciphering hieroglyphics he could make nothing of the sheet returned for his inspection. This part of the examination did not prove very satisfactory to either party and with an ominous shake of the head he was referred to the next member of the board, who first inquired of Stevens how many letters the English alphabet contained and gave him some words to spell. Stevens, quite taken by surprise at this rudimentary examination and knowing more of Greek than English letters, did not acquit himself creditably on either query and was equally unsuccessful in solving the mathematical problems submitted to him. The wise men thought a man who could neither make a pen, write a plain hand, spell words ‘or do sums’ a poor representative of the smart Yankee schoolmaster they had bargained for and looked very grave over the doubtful eligibility of their candidate.

Stevens, not a whit discouraged by his failures said: ‘I came here on an application to teach Latin and Greek. I see among this learned body an eminent doctor of divinity, who is an accomplished linguist. I will be pleased to answer any questions he will put to me in the classical department.’ The reverend doctor subjected him to a most critical examination, which fully proved his competence to fill the place. He made a very successful teacher. During that time he studied law in the office of Mr. James Reilly, but did not take the full course prescribed by law.

There was much prejudice among the good people of this ancient town against the Yankees, and some of the more influential members of the bar secretly resolved that Stevens should be rejected upon his application for examination. Some of his friends advised him to go to Maryland and get admitted, as a certificate given in that State would qualify him for practice in Pennsylvania. He therefore went to Belair, in Harford County, during the session of court. At the request of one of the lawyers a committee was appointed to test the ability of the young aspirant. He was duly sworn in, given his certificate, which he presented at the next regular term in York, and was admitted to practice. He soon went to Gettysburg to follow his profession.”

I don’t know how much of the story of the York County Academy interview is fancy, but it is pretty well established that Stevens did teach there for a year or two. I seriously doubt that spelling or arithmetic gave him trouble. We do know that Stevens did study law in York (other mentors have been named besides Reilly), and he did go to Maryland to be certified to practice law, allegedly because he hadn’t studied law here for the period of time required by the York County legal community. He was subsequently admitted to the York County Bar in November 1816. Moving soon after to Gettysburg, he practiced law there and became involved in the iron business. He served intermittently in the Pennsylvania General Assembly from 1833 to 1842. Relocating to Lancaster in 1842, Stevens was elected as a Whig to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1849 to 1853. He was again elected, this time as a Republican, to serve from 1859 until his death at age 76 in 1868.

The rest of lengthy article goes on to relate other incidents in the life of Thaddeus Stevens. It is datelined “Lancaster, May 1,” and designated “Special Correspondence of THE TIMES,” referring to the Philadelphia Times, but there is no year indicated. Other anecdotes in the piece indicate that it was written after Stevens died, by a personal acquaintance of the congressman, but it is unsigned. Other articles with the Lancaster dateline and designation for the Times are signed W.W.G.

No matter the authorship or veracity of the anecdotal accounts, it is clear that Stevens’s legal career has its roots in York County. Being a teacher here perhaps also shaped his strong support of the 1834 Pennsylvania Public School Law.