What Will Your Death Illustrate?

He was the most powerful congressman in America during the Civil War. He helped unknown hundreds escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. All pictures of him show a man of determination, a man who knew suffering, a man who eased the sufferings of others. His name was Thaddeus Stevens, and he represented Lancaster County, PA, in Congress.
If people remember him today, it is because of his influence on the Emancipation Proclamation and also on the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of him in the movie Lincoln (2012) brought his story to a larger public. Lincoln could not have been Lincoln without Stevens always challenging him to do the right thing.
During a time when racism was rampant in America, Stevens fought for racial equality. His housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was a woman of color, and was certainly his confidant and business partner and possibly his lover. The marker on his grave in Lancaster says:
“I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.”

Photo from Wikipedia

Another way Stevens lived his mission of equality of all people was in his fierce advocacy for public education.
On April 11, 1835, Thaddeus Stevens gave a two-hour speech in support of public education and against the attempt to repeal the act that would make it law in the state. The majority wanted to repeal, but after the “magical effect” of his words settled on the crowd, many legislators changed their votes and saved the bill. Thaddeus Stevens became known as the father of free education in Pennsylvania.
Why did he care so much about public education? Stevens grew up poor and had the additional handicap of a club foot. Education allowed him to enjoy the benefits of democracy and to gain power. He considered that power, however, not his alone but a gift to be shared. He shared his library, saved Gettysburg College from possible extinction, shared his home as a sanctuary and advocated for all children in the state.
Stevens began his 1835 speech by using statistics to show how a state system of free schools was more efficient and ultimately less costly then the existing system. He went on, “When I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and, perhaps as a consequence, hereditary pride are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty.”
When Stevens died in 1868, he was widely mourned. He became the third person to lie in state in the Capitol. Called “The Great Commoner,” by the Pittsburgh Gazette, he was seen by many as the embodiment of the best of democracy.
The story of Thaddeus Stevens’ accomplishments went through a period of neglect after the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation told the story of the Reconstruction period as a disaster and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. The same racism that undergirded slavery now was used to usher in the period of Jim Crow in the South and also to paint Thaddeus Stevens as a radical firebrand whose ideas of equality were dangerous. Even in the North his reputation faded.
Today, however, Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith are getting the attention they deserve, both in Lancaster and throughout the country. The Lancaster County Historical Society has undertaken reconstruction of the home in which they lived and the construction of a museum scheduled to open in 2025. The restoration of the house has uncovered a cistern where many Underground Railroad fugitives were hidden as they sought their freedom.
I highly recommend the movie Lincoln as a place to start a new appreciation of Stevens and of Lydia Hamilton Smith, who makes an imagined appearance worth waiting for. Even if you saw this amazing film in 2012, it may be time to rewatch with new eyes.
Stevens chose a grave and an epitaph that tells the story of his life’s quest for equality.
What do you want your death to illustrate, and how would you like that to happen? I’m eager to hear . . .

Shirley Showalter


  1. Laurie Buchanan on March 26, 2024 at 4:50 pm

    Shirley, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but your post is my first encounter with Thaddeus Stevens. I don’t know how I never heard of him before. Thank you for the introduction.

    You asked your readers to share what we want our death to illustrate and how we’d like it to happen.

    I want my departure from this life to be a testament to the serenity and compassion I’ve endeavored to embody. May it occur gently, like a leaf descending in autumn, witnessed by loved ones as a peaceful transition. Let it illustrate the culmination of a life dedicated to the practice of kindness, where interactions are an opportunity to uplift. I hope my existence is a beacon of positive influence, leaving behind a legacy of benevolence that continues to resonate within the hearts I’ve touched.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2024 at 5:02 pm

      Laurie, thanks for illustrating what I suspected as I wrote. You are not alone in never hearing of him! Stevens has been treated like a footnote in history in the last 100 years. We need his example and his voice as the things he gave his life to — racial equality and public education — are again threatened.

      You have touched me with this beautiful description of how your death and your values may one day be united even as your life and your values are united now. May it be so.

      You are indeed a beacon of positive influence. Thank you for sharing so much of that influence in my life.

  2. Marian Beaman on March 26, 2024 at 5:28 pm

    I clearly remember one or two young men from our area attending Stevens Trade School as an alternative to college. Now, I see it has become Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, keeping abreast of the times.

    Your question “What will your death illustrate?” sounds like a follow-up to Mary Oliver’s time-tested query, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day) So, back to your question, “What do I want my death to illustrate?” Simply put: That love always wins! Until the end of my days, I hope my life will show that love always wins! Realizing that sometimes my conviction may go against the grain of what is popular or expedient, I still say LOVE ALWAYS WINS!

    • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2024 at 7:20 pm

      Yes, the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology sounds like just the kind of institution Stevens himself would have approved. The website tells the story of his fight for public education and concludes: “Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology is a living monument to our founder’s legacy. As such, the College continually strives to provide under privileged individuals with opportunities and to create an environment in which individual differences are valued and nurtured.”

      I love that you connect the question about what death illustrates to Mary Oliver’s question about life. “Daily keep your death before your eyes,” admonished St. Benedict, and Oliver herself connects life and death, at least obliquely, with the word “precious.” Life is precious for many reasons, but perhaps the most important, and certainly most final, is that we all die.

      Yes, LOVE WINS. Hallelujah! Thanks for sharing your chosen epitaph on this Holy Week.

    • Lilith Rogers on March 29, 2024 at 2:37 am

      Oh, I Love your thought about Life and Love, Marian…….I will hod on to them as I drift further into my old age…….right now I’m 78 and doing Great!!…..Lilith

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on March 26, 2024 at 7:25 pm

    Shirley, your question hits close to home (almost too close), as my family has just recently (a little over six months now) said their forever farewells to a beloved husband, father and grandfather. Hardy was an encourager, deliberately so. He remembered people’s names and always tried to use them when he spoke with them, even if it was just a business transaction. He was also a perfectionist. When he noticed mistakes he would point them out but always made sure to say something positive and encouraging when he did so. To be honest with people but at the same time encouraging and uplifting is something worth striving for.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2024 at 7:42 pm

      Elfrieda, your loss is so recent and still raw. I hope this post did not cause additional pain.

      Thank you for sharing this unusual combination of characteristics. Hardy’s combination of attention to detail and attention to people was rare and special. I imagine that you have examples of his perfectionism all around you in physical objects he made or improved. I also imagine that the sound of his voice calling your name is deeply embedded inside you. The thread that seems to bind both characteristics together is care. Hardy didn’t just skim over the surface of life. He showed his caring by going deep. I never met him, but you have made him live in your posts about him.

  4. Maren C. Tirabassi on March 27, 2024 at 5:38 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post which I shall keep. I am in the midst of planning/doing all the services for a large church whose pastor left and is waiting for an interim. My brain is not expanding enough to give you a clear answer … only a promise of pondering.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 27, 2024 at 4:04 pm

      When Maren ponders, good things follow. Glad you enjoyed the post. All best with with the major responsibility for a large church in the midst of Holy Week!

  5. Lilith Rogers on March 27, 2024 at 6:37 pm

    Oh, thank You for this important information and insight into Thadeus Stevens……I’m sad to say that even though I was a history major at UT Austin back in the 60’s I had never heard of him……I will now dive deeper into him and th important work that he did…….Lilith Rogers

    Born in Texas in 1946, the state was very segregated and racist and when I went to UT Austin from 1964-68 I joined the fight to end that.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 27, 2024 at 8:32 pm

      Lilith, thanks for the work you did in the 1960s at UT Austin. I was there 1972-76 for my MA and PhD course work. The segregation was not overt in those years, but there still was (and is) work to do. Thaddeus Stevens would want us to persist. You might enjoy the new book on his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith. I put a link to the book in the text above. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate learning more about you.

  6. Judith Valente on March 28, 2024 at 5:54 pm

    Your post reminds me of a section in 7 Habits of Highly Successful People where Stephen Covey asks us to imagine our funeral and what people might say in trying to eulogize us. I would hope someone would mention my dedication to showing hospitality, a great Benedictine value, and something I also saw modeled by my Italian American family. My friends know there is always a place at my table for them. I wonder too if someone might not mention my writing, in which I’ve always tried to put into words what all of us feel but perhaps don’t know how to express. And finally I like to think people will remember me as someone who always saw the person on the margins, the person no one was talking to at a party, a picnic and that is the person I would go up to and try to engage with. These are perhaps the three main things I hope would be part of my legacy. Thanks for sharing the story of Thaddeus Stevens and for asking such a pertinent queston. Sending Easter blessings.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 29, 2024 at 6:30 pm

      Yes, Judith. I remember the Stephen Covey comment. And it also reminds me of two others. One very dear to your heart: “Daily keep your death before your eyes.” Saint Benedict. And David Brooks’ recent distinction between “resumé values” versus “eulogy values.” I have felt your hospitality even though we have never met in person. I hope some day we will. And the other two gifts you have given, and are giving, to the world resonate deeply with me too. Your list has inspired me. Happy Easter to you also! Thanks for spending some of Holy Week here.

  7. Sara Wenger Shenk on March 28, 2024 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you Shirlee for this remarkable post featuring Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith. Our Wenger family, sibs and spouses, had a tour of the museum in formation just last month with those from the historical society who are providing leadership and are great friends of my brother Phil. I was embarrassed and saddened to know so little about this pivotal piece of Lancaster and US history. But even more grateful to hear that it will soon be receiving much more attention. There were even hints that a major movie by none other than Steven Spielberg might be under consideration. You are an inspiration. Thank you for your leadership. Gerald and I on your suggestion, went back to watch Lincoln again, and have much greater appreciation of Stevens role given our recent visit. Carry-on, dear sister.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 29, 2024 at 6:36 pm

      How wonderful, Sara, that you were able to get a sneak preview of the new museum. So glad to know your brother is a supporter of the project. It is high time the country heard more about this remarkable pair. I hope you also have read Mark Kelley’s new book about Lydia Hamilton Smith. It is very good. It would be exciting to see Steven Spielberg tackle a movie with Thaddeus and Lydia as major characters. Thanks for the visit and your kind words. You carry on too, dear sister.

  8. Carol Bodensteiner on March 29, 2024 at 10:49 am

    I first read about Thaddeus Stevens in the December 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine. They offered an excellent article titled: “Why America is just learning to love Thaddeus Stevens, the ‘Best-Hated Man’ in U.S. History. Here is the link. I hope it does’t cause me to be unable to post. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/america-just-now-learning-love-thaddeus-stevens-best-hated-man-us-history-180983235/

    Like Marian, I hope that people will remember me as someone on the side of love. I’ve tried to lift people up, encourage them, help them to succeed, both through my career (and theirs) in public relations and in recent years as a volunteer reading to children and teaching adult immigrants and refugees to read, write, and speak English. I also hope my grandchildren, in particular, will remember me as someone who found joy in learning and trying new things. I hope they’ll have the courage to go with joy and love, too.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 29, 2024 at 6:41 pm

      Oh thank you, Carol, for sending me this tip. I’ll have to look it up on Libby, the public library app. Sounds like an excellent article. It’s been a deep pleasure to stay in touch with you all these years as you have developed new ways to love and spread joy with new and different groups of people. Those “country girl” roots of ours have given us a strong base from which to share our lives with each other and others. I’m with two of my grandchildren as we write these words. And I could not agree with you more.

  9. Shirley Showalter on April 1, 2024 at 2:11 pm

    I have to add this self-epitaph from Ruth Bader Ginsberg from Heather Cox Richardson’s blog today: “Setting an example for how to advance the principle of equality, she told the directors of the documentary RBG that she wanted to be remembered “[j]ust as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.”

    I also love these words from Mary Oliver from the Library of Congress website:

    Poem 102: When Death Comes
    When death comes
    like the hungry bear in autumn;
    when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

    to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
    when death comes
    like the measle-pox;

    when death comes
    like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
    and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
    and I consider eternity as another possibility,

    and I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular,

    and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
    tending, as all music does, toward silence,

    and each body a lion of courage, and something
    precious to the earth.

    When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.
    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

    When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
    if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
    I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
    or full of argument.

    I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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