How Thaddeus Stevens and Edward McPherson saved the country.
I am Thaddeus Stevens and I am here to show how I, Edward McPherson and fellow congressmen saved the
country 150 years ago on this date. It was December 1865 and the country was in peril because of one man -- “His
Accidency” Andrew Johnson. The much beloved Lincoln had been cut down by a heinous assassin and the tailor
from Tennessee had taken over. Great wisdom and great diplomacy were needed. Johnson had neither. I had told
Lincoln in 1864 when he was considering Johnson as his vice president that he was a rank demagogue and I
suspect at heart a damn scoundrel. Unfortunately, my assessment proved too true.
With Congress in recess, Johnson began a wholesale pardoning of rebel leaders. Then he took it on himself to
allow those states to hold Congressional elections. The results were predictable. With freedmen not allowed to vote,
former Confederate military and political leaders were elected. The Confederate vice president, Alexander
Stephens -- no relation to yours truly -- was selected to represent Georgia in the Senate.
It would have been a disaster had they taken their seats. They would have joined with their northern Democratic
party allies and taken over Congress as they had done before the Rebellion. They made it clear that they intended
to nullify the federal war debt and to embrace the Confederate debt. Worse, they would have allowed the
reinstatement of the hellish institution of slavery. Despite the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery,
the southerners found a loophole. The amendment allowed for involuntary servitude for convicted criminals. So
southerners passed the Black Codes, making jobless freedmen criminals who could then be put back on their
plantations as convict labor.
As the accepted master of the House, I was not going to let this happen. I came up with a plan that involved Edward
McPherson, the Clerk of the House, a long-time protege of mine. On December 1, 1865, I met with 25 of my most
trusted followers in the House to lay out my plan. Then, on December 2, I met with 128 members of the Republican
caucus. My plan was unanimously approved in 10 minutes. Here is what happened when the House of
Representatives reconvened, December 4, 1865.
Edward McPherson is sitting at a table. Illinois Congressman John Wentworth comes and sits with him.
Wentworth -- Ah, if it isn’t the honorable clerk of the house, Edward McPherson. Ready for the big show today?
McPherson -- Ready as I’ll ever be.
Wentworth -- You sound nervous, Edward.
McPherson -- Wouldn’t you be if you were going to do something that has never been done in our history?
Wentworth -- Don’t worry. Thad has everything under control. and you have me and other Republicans to back you
Wentworth -- Look over there. (Wentworth nods to two other men at another table.) There’s that Copperhead
Brooks from New York with Maynard of Tennessee. They’re probably hatching some plot to foil us. But we can’t let
them. The stakes are too high.
McPherson -- You are absolutely correct. Now is the time for me to begin. (McPherson gets up and faces the
audience.) The hour having arrived for the meeting of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, the Clerk of the House of
Representatives will proceed, as required by law, to read by states the roll of the members-elect. Gentlemen are
requested to respond as their names are called. First the representatives from Maine -- John Lynch [“Here.” is
heard off stage] Sidney Perham [“Present.”], James G. Blaine [“Here.”], John H. Rice [“Here.”]
The roll call fades into the background, as two men huddle around a table and talk to each other.
Brooks -- Well, the show is starting, but I’ll be damned if we’re going to let that club-footed fanatic keep our southern
brethren from taking their rightful seats.
(In the background you hear the roll call continuing.)
Maynard -- Yes, we will succeed. My fellow Tennessean, Andrew Johnson has said Old Thad’s plan will be ‘knocked
in the head from the start.’”
Brooks -- With your help Congressman Maynard. (Brooks then looks up, a little startled.) I believe it is just about
time for your part.
Maynard -- You are right. Excuse me.
McPherson -- (No longer in background) William E. Niblack of Indiana.
Maynard -- Mr. Clerk, I beg to say that in calling the roll you have omitted many members, including myself.
McPherson -- The clerk will be compelled to object to any interruption of the calling of the roll.
Maynard -- Does the clerk decline to hear me?
McPherson -- I decline to have any interruption of the the call of the roll.
McPherson continues to call out five names and then Wentworth pops up.
Wentworth -- I move that the House now proceed to the election of the Speaker of the 39th Congress.
Maynard -- Before that motion is put . . . .
Stevens -- I call the gentleman to order.
McPherson -- The clerk rules as a matter of order, that he cannot recognize any gentleman whose name is not
upon his roll.
Brooks -- Perhaps you can recognize me since I am on the roll. I should hope Mr. Maynard of Tennessee is
recognized as a member of Congress. For if Tennessee is not in the Union, and has not been in the Union, by what
right does the President of the United States usurp his place in the White House?
Wentworth -- I call the gentleman from New York to order and ask what is the issue before the House.
McPherson -- The issue before the House is the election of the speaker. Nothing else.
Brooks -- But why does not the clerk recognize the gentleman from Tennessee and other states as members of this
McPherson -- If the House desires my reasons, I can give them.
Stevens -- It is not necessary. We know all.
Brooks -- The gentleman from Pennsylvania says, “we know all.” But, certain quarters know nothing. You are
excluding 50 members of Congress with no debate. When does the honorable member from Pennsylvania plan to
hold this debate?
Stevens -- I have no objection to answer the gentleman from New York. I propose to press it at the proper time
(laughter from the crowd).
Brooks -- Talleyrand, the great diplomat, said, “language was given to man to conceal ideas;” and we all know the
gentleman’s ingenuity in the use of language. “The proper time?” The proper time is now. I move that Mr. Maynard
and the rest of the duly elected southern congressmen be admitted to the 39th Congress.
Stevens -- The amendment is out of order because it does not pertain to the election of the Speaker of the House.
Maynard -- I appeal to the gentleman from Pennsylvania to listen to me for a moment.
Stevens -- I cannot yield to any gentleman who does not belong to this body -- who is an outsider. We will not admit
those who have slaughtered half a million of our countrymen, until their clothes are dried and until they are reclad. I
do not wish to sit side-by-side with men whose garments smell of the blood of my kindred.
Stevens -- Thus the southerners were kept out of Congress and the country was saved. In the coming years, we
accomplished more than any other Congress had. On that day I also offered a resolution to create the Joint
Committee on Reconstruction, the most far reaching Congressional committee in US history.
We curtailed the reign of terror against freedmen and loyal white southerners by imposing military order on the
former rebel states. We facilitated changes in state constitutions that opened up the political process to all races --
and black men were given the vote.
The blessing of public education came to the south for the first time for both white and black children. And we
passed the Fourteenth Amendment which for the first time in our nation’s history made into law the core value of our
nation, that all men are created equal.
While many of these accomplishments were circumvented after my death, I am glad we laid the foundation for future
generations. We did not throw away a great good simply because it was not perfect. We took what we could get in
the cause of humanity and left it to be perfected by better men in better times. That time did not come while I was
here to enjoy the glorious triumph, but that it will come is as certain as that there is a just God.