Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Where is Thaddeus Stevens when Pennsylvania needs him?

So I crawled out of my undisclosed location long enough this weekend to finally see the movie "Lincoln" -- a movie about the 16th president and also about bipartisanship," which in a modern context makes the film about as fantastical as "Harry Potter." If you've seen it or read about it, you know that Daniel Day-Lewis IS Lincoln in a slam-dunk Oscar performance, but the most interesting supporting character in the film is the Radical Republican (heh) congressman Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, a volitile and fiery fighter for racial equality.

And, a Pennsylvanian.

Like other moviegoers, I was inspired to learn more about Stevens. I quickly realized that if he were alive today, Thaddeus Stevens would be appalled and horrified -- at what his beloved Republican Party has become, and at the hoops like voter ID that continue to threaten the rights of blacks and other citizens to vote some 147 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment.

But he'd also be shocked at something else -- the fact that public education is under assault here in his home state. If there's anything besides his battle to end slavery that was important to Stevens, he was widely known as the "savior of public education in Pennsylvania."

How so?

Stevens was an enemy of ignorance, and his lasting service to all Pennsylvanians was his masterly defense of the Commonwealth's new law providing for free public schools, which had been adopted on April 1, 1834. Although Thaddeus Stevens had played no active part in the passage of this educational legislation, he sprang to its defense when a powerful opposition arose against it in the following session, making its demise seem certain. Most of the members of the new assembly pledged to weaken the Free School Act with amendments or to repeal it outright. The struggle climaxed when the legislators had to choose between a senate bill repealing the act and a house bill preserving the system with but a few changes. It seemed certain that the senate bill would triumph.

Re-elected to the house with instructions from his constituents to favor repeal, Stevens marshaled his great powers of intense persuasiveness and trenchant oratory in a speech that routed the opposition and earned for him the title of "savior" of Pennsylvania's public school system. His conviction that education produced and preserved a happier and democratic society is evident in his earlier criticism of his colleagues for favoring without question measures that would improve the breed of hogs, but economizing on measures to improve the breed of men."

Stevens' speech on why public education for all -- rich or poor, regardless of background -- matters is every bit as eloquent as anything in Spielberg's "Lincoln." Here's an excerpt:

"It would seem to be humiliating to be under the necessity, in the nineteenth century, of entering into a formal argument to prove the utility, and to free governments, the absolute necessity of education…Such necessity would be degrading to a Christian age and a free republic. If an elective republic is to endure for any great length of time, every elector must have sufficient information, not only to accumulate wealth and take care of his pecuniary concerns, but to direct wisely the Legislatures, the Ambassadors, and the Executive of the nation; for some part of all these things, some agency in approving or disapproving of them, falls to every freeman. If, then, the permanency of our government depends upon such knowledge, it is the duty of government to see that the means of information be diffused to every citizen. This is a sufficient answer to those who deem education a private and not a public duty—who argue that they are willing to educate their own children, but not their neighbor's children. 

I trust that when we come to act on this question, we shall take lofty ground-look beyond the narrow space which now circumscribes our vision-beyond the passing, fleeting point of time on which we stand-and so cast our votes that the blessing of education shall be conferred on every son of Pennsylvania, shall be carried home to the poorest child of the poorest inhabitant of the meanest hut of your mountains, so that even he may be prepared to act well his part in this land of freedom, and lay on earth a broad and solid foundation for that enduring knowledge which goes on increasing through increasing eternity."

If Thaddeus Stevens were alive today, he'd be every bit as appalled at what's happening today in Pennsylvania -- with charter school charlatans and their cash-addled enablers in Harrisburg racing to the bottom to starve public school systems in communities large and small, across the commonwealth, and then hand the flaming wreckage over to profiteers with no motive to educate the poorest or the neediest among us. If Stevens were here, he'd be bashing Gov. Corbett and his pals as buffoons or worse, until they dragged him off the legislative floor.

Who will be the Thaddeus Stevens of 2013? Because Pennsylvania needs one, desperately.