“…he epitomizes the core principle of our country that all persons are created equal. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “All men are created [equal],” [Thaddeus] Stevens believed it with every fiber of this being and actually enacted it into law…”
-Ross Hetrick, President of the Thaddeus Stevens Society
History and the unending march of time tends to cloud not only the vision into the past, but also the legacies of noteworthy individuals. Historical figures such as Thaddeus Stevens, until now, have not received the laudatory acclaim he so rightly deserves from modern society.
On April 16, 2012, approximately 220 years after Thaddeus Stevens’s birth, a dedicated gathering of Gettysburg College students, faculty, staff, townsfolk and living historians met along Carlisle Street out front of the building dedicated in Thaddeus Stevens’s honor, and aptly named Stevens Hall. Participants attentively listened to remarks from Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs, alumni association director Alex Monroe from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, local historian Brad Hoch, and Thaddeus Stevens Society President and exhibit item provider Ross Hetrick. Each of these speakers affirmed the fact that Stevens deserved to be remembered, and that his legacy in support of both education and the evils of the institution of slavery warrants a more prominent place in history and memory. In light of celebrating Stevens’s life and close ties with Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College), a wayside marker was dedicated that afternoon to remind and educate students of the origins of their campus.Thaddeus Stevens, though a prominent and well-known statesman of his time, is neither terribly well known today, nor is he popular in media relating to the Civil War era. Nonetheless, the Gettysburg College community has much to celebrate in honor of Stevens, past and present. For instance, the plot of land north of the town of Gettysburg upon which the college now stands was purchased from Stevens with the purpose of establishing a system of higher education upon its grounds. Furthermore, the funding of the stately white building at the heart of the campus, Pennsylvania Hall (or Old Dorm), was made possible through Stevens’s efforts to secure funding for Pennsylvania College. After much debate among Pennsylvania representatives considering whether or not a college should be established in Gettysburg, Stevens was quoted, stating that “my course is set. Let others shape theirs as they please.” Indeed Stevens’s course had been set. Adamant in his support of both public and collegiate schooling systems, Stevens played a major role in the establishment of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania aside from his efforts in supporting Pennsylvania College.
The name of the exhibit in Musselman Library is “Rediscovering the Legacy of Thaddeus Stevens.” Assuredly the personal items on display allow visitors and students alike to come face to face with objects Stevens would have used in day-to-day life. Being able to see these objects allows for the visitor to imagine Stevens as he was. Hetrick elaborated that, “The objects and documents in the exhibit bring Stevens to life by showing the wig that he wore, the cane that he used and the letters that he wrote. It gives a much more complete picture of the man and era than simply a biography would provide.”
Truly, Thaddeus Stevens lives on in memory, and the Gettysburg College Special Collections Exhibit, “Rediscovering the Legacy of Thaddeus Stevens” is playing a significant part in planting that seed. If Gettysburg College is to lead the march in resurrecting the memory of this notable man, it would be a most fitting and proper way to re-introduce Stevens to the American public. His course was set, and now we must take that course and shape it into relevant interpretation for the future.Just as various historians and social scientists hold that there is a Lincoln for every generation, whether it be a focus on the 16th president’s peaceful nature in times of current unpopular war, or opinions of equal rights in times when a nation struggles with acceptance and coexistence, so is there a Stevens for our age. Luckily, historical analysis leaves us to our own devices of molding our chosen figure to our needs and inquisitiveness. Nonetheless, now more than ever it is essential to also recognize the achievements and convictions of Thaddeus Stevens. The exhibit, therefore, not only allows the visitor to rediscover the legacy of Stevens, but rather also presents them with the unique opportunity to identify with the past in order to gain a more fruitful knowledge of the present.
Gettysburg College Special Collections is located on the 4th floor of Musselman Library. Hours are 1-5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For more information on Thaddeus Stevens, consider visiting the exhibit in the Special Collections Reading Room, which will be displayed until March 2013.