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Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Thaddeus Stevens, Daring students and the 4th of July

GOP Congressman Thaddeus Stevens speaking for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
(Photo is from Shutterstock.com)
GOP congressman Thaddeus Stevens speaking in 1868 to impeach President Andrew Johnson. (Photo is from Shtutterstock.com)

The humanities are taking a hit at a lot of places. I count my lucky stars that my classes fill, but I’m not surprised. I teach at a liberal arts college where the humanities are celebrated. Gettysburg College hired me to develop Jewish Studies, which was a big deal for me. I knew about the battle of Gettysburg, I had long ago memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, but my jaw dropped when learning the role of one of my middle school social studies heroes in creating the College, Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens.  

Thaddeus Stevens was behind the first piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress. Because of him, we also have the 13th and 14th amendments; the former abolished slavery, and the latter enshrined that anyone born in the United States is an American citizen. President Andrew Johnson—a dastardly person in my social studies class—was against recently freed black people voting. Johnson was no friend of Stevens, who at one time was Gettysburg, PA’s most renowned resident.  How ironic that one of the most fateful battles of the civil war was fought in Gettysburg.

President Johnson and congressional democrats considered Stevens a radical Republican as an abolitionist fighting for Black suffrage. He was a revolutionary, fighting for democratic freedom. Tommy Lee Jones played Stevens in the film Lincoln. One can’t make a movie about Lincoln and the abolition of slavery without Thaddeus Stevens, who played a significant role in directing and moving President Lincoln to abolish slavery.  

But what few know about Stevens was his commitment to a liberal arts education, which inspired him to provide the land for Gettysburg College in 1832. How fitting that decades later, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address here, a sacred symbol of American freedom. 

Next week will be the 160th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. It was here that the Union Army of the Potomac ran into the Confederate army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee. The armies fought from July 2nd to July 4th, 1863. The defeat of Lee’s corps at Gettysburg was a turning point in the war. Fifty thousand casualties were also a consequence of the battle, some of whom were students here.

Civil war re-enactors – already arriving –  will spend three days imitating the battle. It’s surreal. I once passed Robert E. Lee taking a stroll with his wife, Mary Anna Curtis Lee. I wonder if the re-enactor knows of Thaddeus Stevens and his role in the building of Gettysburg College. 

Gettysburg College, like other American liberal arts colleges, helps motor American innovation. Liberal arts colleges graduate innovative students, which is a reason why many of the 1% send their children to them, colleges they themselves attended. Such connections play throughout one’s life. These titans majored in fields like classics, philosophy and medieval literature. For example, recent YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki studied history and literature at a liberal arts college. Senator Mitt Romney majored in English literature, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner learned English and theater at a liberal arts college where he didn’t take any business or finance courses, not to mention recent Nobel Laureate for her work on CRISPR, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, also went to a liberal arts college. Clarence Thomas pondered literature at a liberal arts college. Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer went to a liberal arts college, Carly Fiorina examined medieval history and philosophy before becoming CEO of Hewlett-Packard, kind of like John Mackey who founded Whole Foods after majoring in philosophy and religion. 

What do each of those mentioned above have in common? They’re imaginative and inventive. Their liberal arts background plays no minor role in whom they’ve become. I know this because we teach innovative young minds here,  helping to create future leaders who must be daring to help lead us into the millennium, where they will produce new ways for us. How do we do it? 

Liberal arts colleges have small, intimate classes in which Professors know the students” names and don’t forget them. Professors demand that students think outside of the box, daring them to take risks in their written work and beyond. Not only that, but we achieve this through offering an array of approaches to learn and express what one has learned. One way: students write non-stop, which invites them to consider alternatives they’ve never thought.

Our average student composes at least 64 assigned papers for particular classes with diverse professors. They learn how to write for a variety of distinct subjects and personalities. To be good at this means learning to create in many distinctive styles for a chorus of different and often conflicting voices. No two professors are alike. ChatGPT is of little help. I’ve seen many find this out. Real writing demands innovative, imaginative and critical thinking as well as developing perceptual skills, skills we see reflected in the nuanced, critical thinkers we graduate each year.  

Lincoln identified the liberal arts motto when he said during the Gettysburg Address that “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Graduating students from such colleges go out each year ready to continue Lincoln’s fearless fight for democratic freedom for all citizens.  

This Fourth of July reflect on the valorous courage of Thaddeus Stevens and his prophetic vision of the liberal arts.  Fighting for democratic freedom is an everyday affair that requires bold, imaginative, innovative spirits.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College