Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), grand old commoner and radical reconstructionist, was made into a hero by conspiracist and paper money book-peddlers and ignorant regurgitators. In his real life this vile being was a bank-lawyer, since 1824 one of the many attorneys whom Nicholas Biddle employed for the benefit of the Bank of the United States. In 1836, just about single-handedly, Thaddeus Stevens pushed through the bill that rechartered the Bank of the United States as a Pennsylvania State bank. Thaddeus never met a bank (or railway company) that he did not like; and he especially liked the Bank of the United States. He was also fond of large government building projects which go hand-in-hand with large government debt. By 1838 the debt of Pennsylvania was $24,000,000; at the time when the Federal government owed nothing. He believed himself to be opposed to Freemasonry, yet in his legislative actions he carried out masonic aims
Thaddeus Stevens, Nineteenth Century Egalitarian
by Hans Louis Trefousse.
The years 1834 to 1836 witnessed Thaddeus Stevens’s greatest impact upon the Pennsylvania legislature. They would be years of increasing power, but while marking some of his most outstanding successes, they would also show that he often tended to overextend himself, so that in the end he would be unable to realize some of his most cherished objectives.
After the adjournment of the legislature in the spring of 1834, Stevens immediately began to mend his political fences. In May, as one of the delegates to an anti-Jackson convention in Harrisburg, he witnessed what was in effect the birth of the Whig party in Pennsylvania, in reality largely the old National Republicans under a new name. Opposed to the formation of a new organization, he nevertheless entered into an alliance with it. The Whigs passed resolutions condemning Jacksonian policies, which they labeled “executive usurpation,” and, collaborating with the Anti-Masons, agreed to an arrangement that put them in charge in areas where they were in a majority, and the Anti- Masons elsewhere. But the cooperation was tenuous; Stevens always insisted on Anti-Masonic purity. Still, it was again he who was selected to invite Daniel Webster, a leading Whig, to come to Gettysburg. He reminded the senator of a previous promise to visit the town. Since then, he wrote, the affairs of government had assumed “a new and boding aspect.” Liking what Webster had done, Stevens expressed his appreciation of the senator’s stand favoring Pennsylvania’s interests.
Thaddeus was very satisfied with himself. He had made a name for himself in politics, and he was determined to continue and enhance his political career. “I have gained some applause, here, among all parties for what they mistake for talents and independence,” he wrote to his brother Abner Morrill in Vermont. “And judging from the resolutions adopted at public meetings in almost all parts of the State, you would say I was the special favorite of the Anti-Masonic party.”
Stevens’s eloquence and intelligence were also devoted to other causes, among them his obsessive Anti-Masonic crusade. As early as December 1834, he introduced a motion to instruct the Judiciary Committee, of which he was again a member, to bring in a bill to suppress extra judicial oaths. A long introduction about the evils of Masonry, which he called a state within a state, accompanied the motion, which, however, was tabled. Its author did not rest; on February 24, 1835, he called up the resolution again and delivered a diatribe against its opponents, whom he accused of applying the gag law, the measure used in Congress to suppress antislavery petitions, to the Anti-Masonry party. Again failing to prevail, he moved to create a committee of investigation of Freemasonry, a resolution that passed only after it had been amended to read “secret societies.” He delivered another fiery speech in support of his motion and tried to have all extralegal oaths outlawed, only to see both efforts fail in this session. But he was merely biding his time.
When the session drew to a close, Stevens had more than justified his reputation as a legislator who could not be disregarded. Widely hailed as the savior of public education in the commonwealth, he was a power not only in the legislature but throughout the state. If some of his measures did not succeed, it must be remembered that his party was in the minority. This situation, however, wa about to change.
Jackson’s opponents in Pennsylvania were lucky that year. The Democratic party split; one faction, supported by German sectarians, still opposed the school law, fully endorsed Jackson’s war upon the bank, and favored a constitutional convention to revise the state’s charter, while the other not only favored the school law but was less enthusiastic about the convention and the struggle with the bank and endorsed a third term for Governor Wolf. Henry A. Muhlenberg, a Lutheran pastor, was the candidate of the anti-Wolf element, and when the 1835 Democratic convention renominated the governor, the “Mules,” as Muhlenberg’s supporters were known in contradistinction to the “Wolves,” bolted and nominated their candidate and a separate ticket.
The Anti-Masons and Whigs, combining for the purposes of the campaign, made the most of this opportunity. Seizing the main chance, Stevens, at a public dinner in his honor in Pittsburg on July 4, 1835, warned against the threat to liberty faced by all free societies. In the United States, it was Jackson and secret societies the constituted the greatest danger, he said. Likening the president to Nero and Caligula, he accused Jackson of disregarding all of Pennsylvania’s special concerns, protective tariffs, public lands, and the currency. In addition, secret societies menaced American liberty. Education was the answer to these threats. Castigating Muhlenberg’s stand against free schools and Wolf’s connection with the Masons, he called for support of the “honest farmer,” Joseph Ritner, again the Anti-Masonic candidate. His speech was widely reprinted throughout the state.
On September 7, both Stevens and McSherry were renominated for their assembly seats. During the campaign, Thad delivered a violent Anti-Masonic philippic in Lancester, in which he called the lodge “a chartered iniquity, within whose jaws are crushed the bones of mortal men, and whose mouth is continually reeking with blood, and spitting forth human gore.” His speech was well received, his sensational assertions doing him little harm in Gettysburg, where the results of the election were a foregone conclusion. Not only did he defeat his two opponents, Thomas Miller on the Wolf ticket and Isaac Robison, the Muhlenberg candidate, by votes of 1,636 to 1,473 and 951, respectively, but Ritner was elected governor, and Stevens was in a position to influence the new administration.
There were two main causes he had in mind for the coming session of the assembly, in which the Whigs and Anti-Masons had a majority. One was the renewal of the Anti-Masonic crusade, which he could now pursue to his heart’s content, and the other, the recharter of the Bank of the United States in Pennsylvania, a matter of utmost concern to the anti-Jacksonians.
He did not wait long to launch his greatest Anti-Masonic effort. Having on December 7 introduced a bill to suppress secret societies, he became the head of a committee to investigate the evils of Freemasonry, to which on the 19th the house referred five petitions against the order.
He tried to make the most of this opportunity. In the beginning, the committee’s hearings were held in the chamber of the state supreme court. As you enter the supreme court room in the capitol, reported the Harrisburg Chronicle, “you turn your eyes to that seat on the elevated platform usually occupied by the Chief Justice; how different the scene ! There appears a gentleman with a grey eye, smooth hair, robust person and a cold and severe countenance, that is the chairman of the Anti-Masonic Inquisition — Mr. Stevens.” His associates were seated a little lower, on his left and right, three Anti-Masons, one Whig, and one Democrat. The reporter concluded by pointing out that two Yankees were employed as secretaries and one as chairman — “success to the land of the witches,” he remarked.
He had a point. The proceedings could well remind spectators of the witch trials, for Stevens presided in an imperious manner. Browbeating witnesses, losing his temper, and making a spectacle of himself before an audience so large that the hearings had to be moved to the assembly chamber, he was intent upon embarrassing leading Democrats. He summoned ex-governor Wolf, former senator and future vice president George M. Dallas, future governor Francis R. Shunk, and others to appear before the committee. Wolf and his associates wrote dignified letters of refusal, whereupon Stevens had them subpoenaed. On January 13 and 14, 836, they presented themselves but refused to testify. Stevens then reported their refusal to the assembly and demanded that they be cited before the bar of the house, a request that was granted after a long debate.
—[in the middle of this circus, he had time and mind to introduce and carry through the bank charter bill]
Finally, on January 21, with the sergeant-at-arms at the head, Wolf, Dallas, Shunk, and their associates presented themselves before the house. Stevens then enforced the motion that they be sworn, and the Speaker rose and said, “George Wolf, I am instructed to propose to you an oath, or affirmation, that you will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, touching the matter before the House.” Wolf thereupon got up and replied, “I respectfully decline taking the oath for reasons assigned to the Committee,” and his associates followed suit. Stevens then attempted to have them remanded to the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, but the house refused and dismissed them, so that his Anti-Masonic antics were defeated.
The hostile press was jubilant. “The Inquisition, like a goose has rested upon one leg for several days,” reported the Harrisburg Chronicle. “On Friday, the remaining prop was knocked away…. Thus ended the broad farce.” Continuing to question less important witnesses, Stevens succeeded in inducing the house to pass his bill outlawing secret societies but failed in his attempt to include a section against Masonic judges. Although in June he issued a lengthy report concerning the alleged evils of Masonry, in the long run his crusade had done him more harm than good. Called the inquisitor general, he had overplayed his hand by trying to intimidate the widely respected former governor. And the Masonic Whigs resented his effort to keep the Anti-Masons and Whigs apart.
If Steven’s Anti-Masonic crusade was not a great success, he did manage to accomplish the other goal he had set for himself, the recharter of the Bank of the United States in Pennsylvania. Because of Jackson’s veto of the Bank Bill in 1832, bank president Nicholas Biddle’s charter was due to expire on March 4, 1836. Now Stevens and a number of others who were favorable to the bank —Stevens had long been one of Biddle’s attorneys— began to further a scheme to recharter the institution in Pennsylvania in return for a large bonus to the state, which would enable them to reduce taxes and expand internal improvements, including Stevens’s pet project of a railroad from Gettysburg to the main line of the Baltimore & Ohio, which incidentally would also serve his ironworks in the mountains.
Nicholas Biddle was interested in the scheme. His agents in Harrisburg kept him well informed of the progress of the effort to recharter the bank, particularly after Stevens, on January 19, reported the measure from the Committee on Inland Navigation and Internal Improvements, of which he had become a member. Called “an act to repeal the state tax on real and personal property, and to continue and extend the improvements of the State by railroads and canals, and for other purposes,” it contained provisions requiring the bank to pay the state a bonus of $2 million plus a commitment to lend the commonwealth up to $6 million per year in return for the charter, which was to run until 1866. Various provisions of the original bill were not to Biddle’s liking; he enlisted Stevens to induce Ritner and Attorney General James Todd –a bitter opponent– to drop their objections, and in the end t passed the assembly. “I have never seen a bill so ably managed as this was this afternoon by Mr. Stevens,” J.L. Wallace, Biddle’s agent, informed the banker, and after the bill had passed the house, Biddle’s lobbyists regretted the fact that the Adams legislator could not accomplish in the senate what he had done so well in the house. Nevertheless, with some pressure and a threat to incorporate the bank in Maryland, the bill passed. Stevens persuaded the governor to sign it, and the victory was complete.
This success gave rise all sorts of rumors. It was said that the Whigs were induced to support Rittner’s election in return for a promise to enact the bill, and that they agreed to the Anti-Masonic investigation for the same purpose. The friends of the bank considered Stevens’s Anti-Masonic efforts disconcerting, but as J. Norris wrote to Biddle, “After all Stevens’ folly, he is a host in carrying through the bill.” They probably would have been unable to accomplish their goal without him.
Stevens’s relations with the Whigs were indeed peculiar. Eighteen thirty-six was a presidential election year, and Stevens himself had frequently been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. The main Whig contender was General William Henry Harrison, at least in Pennsylvania, and as early as October 1835, Stevens took it upon himself to enlighten the general about Masonry. Pointing out that the Anti-Masons in Pennsylvania were stronger than the Whigs, he insisted that Harrison needed the proscriptive party’s support; and to inform the candidate about the evils of the fraternity, he sent him a copy of the Gettysburg Star. Could he let Stevens know about his attitude ?
The old general wrote a noncommittal reply. Acknowledging the alleged evil of Masonry as shown in the Star, he pointed out that he had always been opposed to the order but would only use constitutional means against its members. As he explained to his intimates, the pledge not to appoint any Masons to office was impossible; he would not be able to carry a single Northern state if he committed himself to it.
Well aware of Harrison’s attitude, Stevens nevertheless thought that the general was the only candidate who could beat Jackson’s chosen successor, Martin Van Buren. But he was not satisfied with Harrison’s stand on Masonry. Thus, when the Anti-Masonic convention met in Harrisburg in December, and endorsed the general instead of appointing delegates to a national convention to be held in spring, Stevens and some “exclusives,” followers opposed to amalgamation with the Whigs, bolted. Issuing an address upholding the separate goals of Anti-Masonry, they deplored the failure of the convention to select delegates to the national meeting and proceeded to do so themselves. In May 1836, their convention assembled in Philadelphia. Refusing to endorse either Harrison or Van Buren, it merely asked both candidates for a pledge not to appoint Masons to office and issued a call for another meeting in 1837.
This strange maneuver adversely affected Stevens’s relations with Governor Ritner. Originally friendly to the Anti-Masonic standard-bearer, Stevens had cooled toward the governor because of Ritner’s endorsement of Harrison and differences in views upon banking. Tobe sure, he had still been able to convince the governor in February to sign the bank bill, but soon afterward, when the Girard Bank in Philadelphia sought privileges from the state in return for favors similar to those given to Biddle’s institution, Ritner vetoed the measure. Stevens voted to override, and for a time, the two men were hardly as close as their enemies imagined. They would draw together again after a while, but for the time being, they represented two different factions of the party.
In spite of his differences with the Whigs, Stevens tended to support measures they favored. Internal improvements always appealed to him, and he introduced bills for the improvement of navigation and the building of railroads. The line that was especially on his mind was the Wrightsville, York & Gettysburg Railroad, which had been incorporated the previous year but without provisions for construction of the extension to his hometown. He obtained the repeal of the railroad’s charter as well as a new one mandating the desired connection. He also actively favored instructions to the state’s congressional delegation to vote against the expunging resolutions with which the Jacksonians sought to blot out the president’s censure from the senate journal. But lest anyone think that he had relented in his hostility to amalgamation with the great anti-Jackson party, he made it quite clear that he considered the partnership between the Anti-Masons and the Whigs dissolved because of the “fraud and treachery” of one of the partners and vowed that it should never be reconstituted with his consent. He even went so far as to say that honest Jacksonians could become good Anti-Masons, but “proud Whigs, never.” He was going to have to change his mind.
In the aftermath of the bank vote, there were numerous charges of bribery, especially as a few Democrats had voted for the bill. Serving on a committee to investigate accusations of corruption brought by one of his colleagues, Stevens, as was to be expected, found them unwarranted and merely an attack upon the bank.
The investigating committee of the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1842 ascertained that Biddle and company expanded at least $479,000 for bribes to obtain the charter in 1836.