Thaddeus Stevens before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.
Father of the 14th Amendment
Among the many tributes that Thaddeus Stevens has been given, he most
justly deserves that of “Father Of The 14th Amendment” for laying the
groundwork and then shepherding the the monumental change in our
Constitution through Congress.
Unfortunately, Stevens does not often get credit for the 14th Fourteenth
Amendment. Doing an Internet search for “Father of the 14th Amendment”
often turns up the name of John Bingham, an Ohio congressman, who
contributed an important part of the amendment, but did not have the intimate
involvement that Stevens had. Many websites give no credit to anyone for the
14th Amendment, as if it wrote and passed itself. An exception to this is the
1959 biography of Stevens by Fawn Brodie, who flatly calls Stevens the father
in the foreword of the book.
Stevens’s involvement with the amendment reaches back months before
the preliminary versions of the amendment was introduced, Stevens laid the
absolutely necessary groundwork by doing two things -- blocking the entry of
ex-Confederates to the House of Representatives and creating the Joint
Committee on Reconstruction.
Between Lincoln’s assassination and the reconvening of Congress on
December 4, 1865, President Andrew Johnson, a former Tennessee senator,
handed out pardons wholesale to Confederate officials and without consulting
with Congress, he allowed the southern states to hold Congressional elections,
which resulted in ex-Confederates being sent to Washington. They even elected
the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, to the Senate. If they
had taken their seats, any Constitutional amendment would have been doomed.
But by orchestrating a brilliant parliamentary maneuver, Stevens was able to
keep them out by simply having the Clerk of the House, Edward McPherson -- a
Stevens’s protege -- not call out the southerner’s names at the beginning of the
session. Then immediately after fending off efforts to derail the move, Stevens
introduced a motion to create the joint committee -- the most consequential
group in U.S. history. Composed of six Senators and nine House members, the
committee hammered out the details of the Fourteenth Amendment and
By April 21, 1866, Stevens introduced the first draft on the amendment,
based on a suggestion by Robert Dale Owen, a former congressman. During the
next nine days, various changes were made, including dropping a provision for
black male voting and adding the “due process” clause written by John Bingham.
This part of the amendment turned out to be a crucial part of the amendment
after the Supreme Court in the 20th Century used it to extended the freedoms of
the first ten amendments to the state level. And while this could be seen as
giving Bingham the title of father of the amendment, his measure would have
gone nowhere if Stevens had not laid the groundwork. So we might consider
Stevens and Bingham to be co-fathers, though that might be giving Bingham
more credit that he deserves.
The finished product was not all that Stevens had hoped for, particularly since it
did not include a clause for black male voting and was very lenient on restricting
voting by ex-Confederates. Yet, he voted for it, believing it was the best that could
be done. In a speech just before the House voted on the amendment, Stevens said:
“In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age, I had fondly dreamed that when
any fortunate chance should have broken up for a while the foundation of our
institutions, and released us from obligations the most tyrannical that ever man
imposed in the name
of freedom, that the intelligent pure and just men of this Republic, true to their
professions and their consciences, would have so remodeled all our institutions as
to have rid them from every vestige of human oppression, of the inequity of rights,
of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich. In
short, that no distinction would be tolerated in this purified Republic but what arose
from merit and conduct. This bright dream has vanished ‘like the baseless fabric of
a vision.’ I find that we shall be obliged to be content with patching up the worst
portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept
through by the tempests, the frosts, and the storms of despotism.”
“Do you inquire why, holding these views and possessing some will of my
own, I accept so imperfect a proposition? I answer, because I live among men and
not among angels; among men as intelligent, as determined, and as independent as
myself, who not agreeing with me, do not choose to yield their opinions to mine.
Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.”