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In his thirty-five year legislative career, Thaddeus Stevens garnered several reputations. Ex-Confederates called him “the scourge of the South,” an epithet which survived into the twentieth century. In D. W. Griffith’s classic film Birth of a Nation, character Austin Stoneman is unabashedly modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, complete with clubfoot and wig. For his en­deavors to secure freedom and civil rights for former slaves and African Americans, he is remembered as a champion of human rights. Historians of Congress and of the nation’s economy credit Stevens for his masterful legislative leadership, during which he chaired two powerful financial committees. And in Pennsylva­nia, his home state for fifty-three of his seventy-six years, Stevens is acclaimed as the father of Pennsylvania’s public education system.

Born two hundred years ago on April 4, 1792, in Danville, Vermont, he was one of four children. His father, a drifter, soon left his family but Stevens’ mother, Sarah Morrill Stevens, was determined that her children receive a good education. Stevens graduated from Caledonia County Academy in Peacham, Ver­mont, in 1811 and received his bachelor’s of arts degree from Dartmouth College three years later.

A Dartmouth friend who had moved to York, Pennsylvania, to teach, persuaded Stevens to join him. After teaching, Stevens turned to the study of law. As was the custom, he read law with a York attorney and passed the Maryland bar in 1816. Stevens established a law practice in Gettysburg, Adams County, a com­munity he would later represent in the state legislature for six terms, from 1833 to 1842. Today, a plaque on Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg marks the location of his law office.

Throughout his life Thaddeus Stevens pursued various busi­ness interests, but was not always successful. He formed a part­nership with iron manufacturer James D. Paxton in 1826, but after that venture failed he erected the Caledonia Iron Works, a firm he operated with mixed success until his death. As the railroads began to complement the canal system in Pennsylvania in the 1830s, Stevens organized the Wrightsville, York and Get­tysburg Railroad Company, of which he became president in 1840. Ever the entrepreneur, Stevens also purchased large tracts of land and lent money. The Stevens Papers held by the Library of Congress contain many documents reflecting numerous busi­ness activities with which he supplemented his law practice. In the early 1840s he lost most of his investments and moved to Lancaster, where he opened a new law practice and satisfied most of his debts.

It was the Antimasonry cause that first attracted Stevens to politics. Several biographers claim that he was drawn to the protest against secret societies – particularly Freemasonry­ – because he had been denied admission to Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth, but Stevens has left no explanation of his motives. Beginning in 1829, he issued public statements denouncing the Masonic fraternity as aristocratic, exclusive, and secretive, and damning its “disgusting mummery” and “impious ceremonies.” He became actively involved in a national organization, bent on exposing the control Masons allegedly exercised over American institutions. Despite the decline of Antimasonry in the 1840s, Stevens never entirely abandoned the cause, and as late as 1867 he asked a colleague to provide the names of all members of Congress who were Masons.

On an Antimasonic Party platform, Stevens gained a seat in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives in 1833. During his six one-year terms, he grew increasingly important as the legislature debated such issues as the rechartering of the Second U.S. Bank; the financing and construction of canals, railroads, and other public works; and Freemasonry. In the 1830s Stevens became drawn to the political party calling itself Whig. He attended early meetings of this new organization and supported the traditional Whig views of a high tariff and central banking institutions. Although he rarely identified completely with the party’s plat­form, he backed Whig nominees in presidential elections held from 1840 to 1852.

Most historians agree that Thaddeus Stevens deserves his title as the “Father of Pennsylvania’s Public Education System.” In 1834, the state legislature passed an act imposing taxes to support a statewide free public school system. Until that time only private academies existed in most of the state. Irate taxpayers moved the following year to repeal the legislation, and appeared to be successful. However, just before the final House vote on April 11, 1835, Stevens delivered what must have been a superb oration against the repeal. Education’s “cultivation and diffu­sion,” he argued, “is a matter of public concern and a duty which every Government owes to its people …. Why shall Pennsylvania repudiate a system which is calculated to elevate her to that rank in the intellectual sphere, which by the blessing of Providence, she holds in the natural world?” Stevens persuaded a majority of members not to repeal the school law, and Pennsylvania became the first state outside New England to embrace the concept of a public school system. Stevens’ powerful speech, “On the School Law,” has been widely reprinted.

His efforts for public schools reflected the visionary Stevens, but he could also be an astute – if not clever and manipulative­ – politician. An ignominious episode occurred during what is popularly called the “Buckshot War” of December 1838. Stevens’ candidate and colleague, Gov. Joseph Ritner, was defeated by David Porter, the Democratic Party’s contender. The race was dose, and certain legislative seats were contested as disgruntled critics claimed fraud. Because the legislature had to certify the gubernatorial winner, the debate became so acrimonious that rival legislative bodies organized. Mobs formed and Governor Ritner summoned troops. When members of the legislature appeared to physically threaten Stevens and two colleagues, they escaped from the House chamber through a window. Porter was subsequently declared the elected governor, and an investigation of election irregularities followed. The Democrat-dominated House of Representatives voted on May 24, 1839, to not seat Stevens for attempting to thwart Porter’s election, but three weeks later he was re-elected by his loyal constituents.

Thaddeus Stevens served one more term in the state legisla­ture, and in 1842 retired from politics to devote himself to his flagging business investments. He moved to Lancaster in Au­gust, opening an office and setting up housekeeping at 47-49 Queen Street, one block from Center Square. He remained a Lancaster resident for the rest of his life.

Stevens never married. He adopted two nephews, the sons of his brother Abner, in the late 1850s. Biographers have long spec­ulated about Steven’s relationship with his mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who came to work for him in 1848 and remained in his employ until his death twenty years later. In Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, the novel on which Birth of a Nation was based, Stoneman’s housekeeper, Lydia Brown, is portrayed as a temptress who cajoles her master into punishing former slaveholders. Most scholars agree that no evidence exists to prove that Smith – a widow with two sons – was anything more than Stevens’ housekeeper. What has survived are letters from family members to “Uncle Thad” sending regards to “Mrs. Smith,” and expressions of pleasure in having met her. Only one letter written to Lydia Hamilton Smith by Stevens has been un­covered to date. In this characteristically brief note, Stevens ad­dresses her with the greatest respect and courtesy, and comments briefly on the recent battle of Bull Run. It appears that whatever relationship Stevens and Lydia Smith had, she was treated as an equal and not as a servant or an inferior.

Thaddeus Stevens enjoys an enduring national reputation for his lifelong dedication to equal rights. His antislavery sentiments emerged as early as 1836 when he introduced resolutions in the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives protesting the exten­sion of slavery. In his role as legislator he frequently presented antislavery petitions from Adams County constituents. At the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837 he proposed an amendment that black males holding property should not be denied the right to vote, and he refused to sign the revised con­stitution when the convention excluded that provision. Upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 Stevens defended runaway slaves. In the celebrated 1851 Christiana trial, Stevens served as one of two defense lawyers for thirty-eight blacks ac­cused of murdering a slaveholder. All defendants were acquitted.

Elected as a Whig to Congress in 1848, Stevens served the traditional two terms. While in Congress he delivered several major speeches against the compromise measures – popularly known as the Compromise of 1850 – protesting the Fugitive Slave Bill and the extension of slavery into the territories. Not long after beginning his first term, Stevens gave an emotionally charged speech, “The Slave Question,” in which he challenged his colleagues: “You and I, and the sixteen millions are free, while we fasten iron chains, and rivet manacles on four millions of our fellow men; tear their wives and children from them; separate them; sell them and doom them to perpetual, eternal bondage. Are we not then despots – despots such as history will brand and God abhors?”

After retiring from Congress in 1852, Stevens resumed the practice of law full-time. During the politically fluid 1850s, as the slavery issue commanded the attention of all political parties and the Whig Party disintegrated, he became involved with the new anti-immigrant party, formally known as the American Party, whose members were ridiculed as the Know-Nothings. Several biographers believe that he actually joined the party, and con­temporary newspaper accounts document that he attended and even spoke at Know-Nothing rallies. However, his association with the Know-Nothings was brief. By 1855 Stevens had joined other ex-Whigs and antislavery Democrats in forming the Repub­lican Party in Pennsylvania, and he served as a delegate to its first national convention in Philadelphia.

Why did Thaddeus Stevens choose to again run for Congress in 1858? Some accounts attribute his return to a sense of duty to lead the struggle to eliminate slavery. Others argue that he sought a public forum in which to denounce his fellow Lancas­trian, Democratic President James Buchanan. Tt seems that his motives were more complex, characteristically a combination of personal and idealistic goals. Stevens’ correspondence during the mid-1850s reflects his heavy involvement in state politics as he sought to control local elections. In his terse – and cryptic­ – letters, he did not reveal his desires. After he had been nomi­nated for the congressional term, he wrote Salmon P. Chase in September 1858 that although “ahead of the people in Anti­-Slavery – still I expect to be elected.” Stevens was elected by a considerable margin the following month, and he continued to represent Lancaster and the Ninth Congressional District with little opposition in four succeeding contests.

Throughout his political career Stevens aspired to a more prestigious position. He longed for a cabinet post, and sought one as early as 1840 in the administration of Pres. William Henry Harrison. When Abraham Lincoln (whom Stevens did not ini­tially support) was elected president in 1860, Stevens once again lost out, this time to his long-time rival and Lancaster native, Simon Cameron, as Lincoln’s Secretary of War. As late as 1867 he contrived to secure a seat in the United States Senate. Although he never left the House of Representatives, Stevens jockeyed his position into a powerful one, and he became its acknowledged leader during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Not surprisingly, Stevens opposed all efforts to conciliate the South and save the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. Once the southern states had seceded, Stevens argued that the Con­federacy, in effect, constituted a separate nation, an argument he used during Reconstruction as the basis for imposing punish­ment on the defeated states. As the Civil War dragged on, Stevens consistently pushed for emancipation of slaves and argued for the employment and equal pay of Black troops fight­ing for the Union cause.

In 1861 Stevens assumed the important position of chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and controlled all congres­sional expenditures. Naturally, a substantial part of these ex­penditures was disbursed for military operations. Stevens supported Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s plan to finance the war through “greenbacks,” currency not backed by gold reserves. Following the Civil War the powerful committee was split into the two that exist today – the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and Stevens became chairman of the latter. It was his adeptness in steering legislation through these committees (and later the House of Representatives) that earned Stevens his reputation among Con­gressional historians as a skillful parliamentary strategist. In fact, an official video chronicling the history of the two hundred year old Ways and Means Committee features Stevens as one of its significant leaders.

In history books, Stevens is portrayed as the major Recon­struction leader, a role which stemmed directly from his activities during the Civil War. In March 1864 he introduced a constitu­tional amendment to free the slaves, and he shepherded it to­wards its passage as the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865. As the returning Congress debated the best way to reconstruct the former Confederate states in December 1865, Stevens intro­duced a resolution to form the Joint (House-Senate) Committee on Reconstruction, and as one of its fifteen members, he became a key player in all Reconstruction legislation. He drafted a consti­tutional amendment giving citizenship and due process rights to the freed slaves. When key senators objected to certain parts of the measure, he revised it. Speaking about another part of this amendment which he considered “dear to my heart,” Stevens told members of the House that, “when I came to consult the committee of fifteen and found that the States would not adopt it, I surrendered it.” That Thaddeus Stevens could return a failed proposal to his committee and draft a new version in order to win the approval of Congress and the ratifying states attests not only to his agility but his willingness to compromise as well.

During the winter of 1867, Stevens repeatedly forced the House to focus on the suffering of Unionists and Blacks in the South who lived in a condition he called “anarchy.” Once again Stevens saw that he must amend and rewrite bills in order to win Congressional support, and the resulting series of acts, the Re­construction Acts of 1867, established military governance and universal male suffrage in the seceded states. A study of the 1867 congressional debates on Reconstruction shows Stevens’ control of the agenda. As he gauged the prevailing mood of his colleagues, he proposed substitute motions, moved to table, and called for or requested delays in taking a final vote. He nimbly shifted ground so that some suitable measure would pass. Above all, he feared congressional inaction, which would allow “anar­chy” in the South to continue. The consummate realist advised the House in 1866, “Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.” Only one Reconstruction program Stevens introduced failed to gain any approval at all: to confis­cate southern property and redistribute it to the freedmen.

Not long after Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln, Stevens recognized the president as his enemy. He began concocting ways for Congress to control Reconstruction legislation. When Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in February 1866, the two broke publicly, and in a Washington’s Birthday speech, Pres­ident Johnson denounced Stevens for damaging the nation more than the ex-Confederates. Stevens easily matched the president’s rhetoric; in 1867 he accused Johnson of “the murder of Union men, and … despising Congress and flinging into our teeth all that we seek to have done.”

Stevens was not alone in his opposition, of course, and the bitter struggle between Congress and the president resulted in the House vote in February 1868 to impeach Andrew Johnson. Although his health had failed dramatically by the spring of 1868, Stevens possessed enough influence to be named one of the impeachment managers. He insisted on adding Article XI to the official list of offenses, charging the president with high crimes and misdemeanors because he thought the original ten lacked sufficient grounds for impeachment. Stevens was too weak to give his speech on Article XI on April 27, but on other days his health allowed him to speak on other Reconstruction issues. When the Senate voted to acquit Johnson in May, Stevens was bitterly disappointed and, perhaps, even more bitter as he realized his enemy would outlive him.

Up until three weeks before his death, Thaddeus Stevens was speaking out in the House on such matters as financing the purchase of Alaska and interest rates on bonds. But rheumatism and the rigors of a stressful life had weakened him and he died on August 11, 1868. After a public viewing in the Capitol Ro­tunda, Stevens was buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in downtown Lancaster, a few blocks from Center Square where he had fre­quently addressed his constituents. Stevens had chosen the cemetery because it was one that did not discriminate against Blacks. He had asked that a telling inscription be emblazoned on his tombstone.

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:

Despite his remarkable contributions to the cause of civil rights, Thaddeus Stevens received practically no attention in the award-winning television series devoted to the Civil War. He was mentioned only once, and then misidentified as “Senator Stevens” (which he would have enjoyed). Even in 1864, as a colleague wrote a friend, “Nothing is read now which does not concern the army, blood & battle.” More credit needs to be given to the less dramatic – but equally effective – legislative work that continued throughout the war. The Black troops extolled so viv­idly in the PBS series created by Ken Burns fought only because Stevens and his colleagues enacted appropriate legislation. Abra­ham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation may have freed the slaves in the seceded states, but the Thirteenth Amendment freed all of them – and irrevocably. The Fourteenth Amendment gave freedmen and all Americans the right to due process, a constitutional protection that is still widely cited in legal deci­sions. For these measures Pennsylvania and the nation can thank Thaddeus Stevens.


For Further Reading

Brodie, Fawn. Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959.

Chambrun, the Marquis Adolphe de. Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War. New York: Random House, 1952.

Current, Richard Nelson. Old Thad Stevens. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.

Dorris, Jonathan Truman. Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. 1935. New York: Russell and Russell, 1956.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Harris, Alexander. A Review of the Political Conflict in America, from the Commencement of the Anti-Slavery Agitation to the Close of Southern Reconstruction. Westport, Conn.: Negro Univer­sities Press, 1970.

Hoelscher, Robert J. “Thaddeus Stevens as a Lancaster Politician, 1842-1868.” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. 1978, 157-213.

Kendrick, Benjamin. The Journal of the Joint Committee on Recon­struction. 1914. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Korngold, Ralph. Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1955.

McCall, Samuel W. Thaddeus Stevens. New York: AMS Press, 1972.

Miller, Alphonse B. Thaddeus Stevens. New York: Harper and Broth­ers, 1939.

Silva, Fred, ed. Focus on the Birth of a Nation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Singmaster, Elsie. I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947.

Smith, Donald Jerome Cram. Thaddeus Stevens and the Politics of Educational Reform, 1825-1868. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1987.

Smith, Elbert B. The Death of Slavery: The United States, 1837-1865. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Smith, Gene. High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com­pany, 1976.

Trefousse, Hans L. The Radical Republicans: Lincoln’s Vanguard for Racial Justice. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Tyson, Raymond Warren. The Congressional Speaking of Thaddeus Stevens. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1987.

Woodley, Thomas F. Thaddeus Stevens. Harrisburg, Pa.: Telegraph Press, 1934.


Beverly Wilson Palmer of Claremont, California, serves as editor of the Thaddeus Stevens Papers. She received her bachelor of arts degree in history from the College of William and Mary in 1958, and her master of arts degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1961. In addition to teaching at Pomona College in Claremont, she has taught at several California institutions. Her articles have appeared in New England Register, Harvard Library Bulletin, Ohio History, and Readers Companion to American History. The author is a member of the Association for Documentary Editing, American Studies Association, and Organization of American Historians.