Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thaddeus Stevens, library advocate

Photo of Thaddeus Stevens by Saylor, not dated. Image courtesy
of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,
image LC-USZ62-15441. Available online at .
Among Civil War-era figures, one person I have long admired is Thaddeus Stevens. When I was in high school in Massachusetts, I learned very little about him other than that he was a leader of the Radical Republicans. But during my first week as a college student in Washington, D.C., I walked by Thaddeus Stevens School which was quite close to GW's campus. An historical plaque nearby told of his pioneering roles in civil rights and education. This prompted me to write a paper about him. Although he was thoroughly despised by some of his contemporaries, I would like to think that I would have cheered him on if I'd lived in his era and had the chance to hear him speak on the floor of a legislature. One quote I particularly remember, made in the 1830s when he was defending Pennsylvania's public school law, was: "Build not your monuments of brass or marble. Make them of everlasting mind!" The facts that he had a disability (club foot) and often employed wicked sarcasm in his correspondence and speeches struck me on a human level, too. When the movie Lincoln was released last year, Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of Stevens was my favorite part. I am certainly not Stevens' only fan -- there is actually a society based in Gettysburg dedicated to him.

So this week I was delighted to learn that I have another reason to like Stevens. I was visiting the Adams County Historical Society as part of my effort to document public libraries in Gettysburg and surrounding communities. The Adams County Library System was founded in 1944, but I figured there must have been earlier attempts to establish libraries. After all, Gettysburg was a county seat, hosted a college and seminary, and was a crossroads for anyone traveling through the region.  As early as the 1850s, it had a chapter of the Young Men's Christian Association, an organization which frequently offered libraries and reading rooms to its members.

Sure enough, looking through the historical society's vertical files, I found a transcription of the constitution of a "Library Society of Gettysburg," as well as related articles from the Adams Centinel newspaper. Glancing over the list of officers, I spotted a "Thaddeus Stevens, Esq." who was a member of the library's "Committee on Superintendence and Selection." This prompted me to consult several biographies about Stevens. I was slightly deflated when I found that at least some historians already know about the Great Commoner's library interests. For instance, Hans L. Treffouse's Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian and Bradley Hoch's Thaddeus Stevens in Gettysburg: The Making of an Abolitionist mention the 1822 library as well as the Gettysburg Literary Association, another organization which was founded in 1841 and over which Stevens presided. But given that scholarly commentary on these libraries is brief, I imagine that others have not been as interested in the topic as I am. And given that their works were written a decade or more ago, they may not have had the same access to period newspapers as I currently do.

Newspaper Archive seems to have complete (or near-complete) runs of several antebellum Gettysburg publications. Using the database, I learned that a group of local citizens published notices in both the Adams Centinel and the Republican Compiler, inviting those who were interested in "devising some mode of purchasing books" and able to "contribute the only real and substantial aid, pecuniary aid" to attend a meeting the following day at the county courthouse (Adams Centinel, April 17, 1822, pg. 3). At the gathering, which occurred on April 18th, 1822, Thaddeus Stevens was among 3 men appointed to draft a constitution for the new organization. The resulting document, which was printed in local newspapers, stipulates that each member purchase at least one initial "share" for $5.00 plus pay a semiannual subscription of $1.00 for each share he held. Volumes could be borrowed and returned on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and were to be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis (Adams Centinel, May 8, 1822, pg. 3.). Stevens was also placed on a committee to develop a list of titles for the group to purchase.

For the next several years, documentation in the newspapers is sketchy. It appears that the group met on a quarterly basis. During its February 5th, 1824 meeting, items on the agenda included "reducing the amount of the semi-annual installments, and of extending to a longer period the time limited by the Constitution for retaining books" (Adams Centinel, January 28, 1824, pg. 3). Other than announcements regarding elections, subscription dues, and upcoming meetings, nothing is said until a series of ominous advertisements in the May 7th, 14th, and 21st, 1828 Adams Centinel, urging all subscribers to return the society's books to S. S. King. Apparently, there was an urgent need to account for each volume, because a second series of notices, appearing in the July 16th, 23rd, and 30th issues of the Adams Centinel list specific titles that have yet to be returned. It is only from these articles that one learns a few of the titles the group owned, including "The Sketch Book, The Federalist, Johnson's Works, Percival's Poems, Junius' Letters, ... Rob Roy, Beauties of Shakspeare, ... Dwight's Travels, and ... Fielding's Works." Between mid-July 1828 and mid-December 1833, I found no further articles about the Gettysburg Library Society. Then, an article invited all stockholders to a meeting to be held on Christmas Eve at S. S. King's office regarding "business of interest." (Adams Centinel, December 23, 1833, pg. 6). One might presume that the organization folded around that time. Furthermore, when a Mechanics Institute was founded in Gettysburg a few years later, and its continuance was being debated in the news, one advocate mentioned that that it was only through the institute that members had the opportunity to borrow reading material -- added evidence that the Gettysburg Library Society had ceased to exist. By 1843, additional notices requesting patrons to return the society's volumes mentioned that the collection was now "in the care of the Franklin Harmony Society," so perhaps it donated them to the other organization (Adams Centinel, August 14, 1843, pg. 3). Similar notices appeared in the Adams Centinel throughout August, September, and October of that year.

Despite the apparent demise of the Gettysburg Library Society, Thaddeus Stevens wasn't to be discouraged. He joined other residents in a gathering at Thompson's hotel on February 4th, 1841 to establish a local chapter of the National Society of Literature and Science, to be called the "Literary Association of Gettysburg." He was promptly elected president, with Reverend S. S. Smucker and Reverend James C. Watson as Vice-Presidents. Although this new group aimed to subscribe to and share periodicals, the newspapers place more emphasis on its public lecture series. I found no information about any books or magazines the group may have purchased. However, notices of upcoming lectures, as well as their full-text, appear in the Adams Centinel. The first was provided by Dr. Henry Krauth, and delivered on April 5th, 1843 at Christ Church. As appropriate for an organization that aspired to circulate reading material, Krauth discussed the importance of thoroughness over quantity. Likening reading to eating, he described that books must be "chewed ... masticated ... swallowed ... triturated ... pounded ..." In other words, thoughtful "reflection" was essential to digesting the ideas found in print (Adams Centinel, April 19, 1841, pg. 1).

Over the next year, the association offered public lectures on a variety of topics. For example, on April 4th, 1842, Henry W. Thorp, the principal of the local female seminary, spoke on the history of the Anglo-Saxons (Republican Compiler, April 18, 1842, pg. 2, and April 25, 1842, pg. 1). In July 1842, Reverend S. S. Smucker, a vice-president of the association as well as president of the local Pennsylvania College, spoke about "the monetary derangement and difficulties of the the times; their causes and remedies" (Adams Centinel, July 18 and 25, pg. 1). On November 7th, Daniel M. Smyser provided a lecture on the crusades (Adams Centinel, November 14, 1842, pg. 6), and on December 19, 1842, Professor W. M. Reynolds of Pennsylvania College entertained an audience with poetry (Adams Centinel, December 25, 1842, pg. 1, and January 2, 1843, pg. 1).

Unfortunately, it appears that this group suffered its demise soon after Stevens moved to Lancaster in 1842. Searching Gettysburg newspapers 1843 through 1850, I found no further articles about the association. I cannot say that I am certain I found every item that was published about the association, since I was using an online database -- a mere "copy of a copy" -- rather than hand-searching the printed papers. However, given that the association's vice president, S.S. Smucker, was president of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College), it is interesting to observe that around the same time, ads appear in local newspapers welcoming the public to attend events organized by his students. For example, a series of notices in the August 28rd, 1843 issue of the Adams Centinel invited residents to come to commencement exercises at Christ Church, a lecture by Reverend James R. Keiser before the Alumni Association, and an address before the student literary societies by Reverend John Todd -- all scheduled in September (see pg. 3). Locals were also welcomed to annual "literary contests" between the student Philomathian and Phrenokosmian Societies (for example, see Adams Centinel, April 3, 1843, pg. 3). It appears that these or similar public events continued to occur at least through 1850, when I stopped searching the newspapers. Perhaps the local college absorbed some of the literary society's activities, or the college's programs made the society's less necessary after Stevens departed.

If only I had the resources and time to pursue this fascinating topic further! For one thing, I wonder if the Papers of Thaddeus Stevens at the Library of Congress or the Papers of Samuel S. Schmucker at Gettysburg College offer any additional material. Also, in light of Stevens' commitment to racial equality, one topic worthy of pursuit is the particular wording of the constitution for the Gettysburg Library Society. Perhaps indicative of Stevens' egalitarianism, the constitution refers to "persons" rather than "men," and states that all individuals who comply with the organization's rules would be "entitled to equal rights and privileges" in the library. It may be insightful to compare this to other library documents of the era to learn whether it was unique in employing language that was neutral in terms of gender and race. I'm also curious whether Stevens was involved in any library movements while he lived in Burlington, VT (1810-1814), York (1815), Lancaster (1842-1858), or Washington, D.C. (1859-1868). As with many pathbreakers in American History, there may be much more to Thaddeus Stevens than we ever knew.


  1. Very well researched. If you'd like to research further, contact Ross Hetrick, president, Thaddeus Stevens Society at

  2. Thanks for your comment! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the post! :)