Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 8th & 9th district
March 4, 1849 – March 3, 1853
March 4, 1859 – August 11, 1868
|Preceded by||John Strohm|
Anthony E. Roberts
|Succeeded by||Henry A. Muhlenberg|
Oliver J. Dickey
|Born||April 4, 1792|
Danville, Vermont, USA
|Died||August 11, 1868|
Washington, D.C., USA
|Political party||Federalist, Anti-Masonic, Whig, Republican|
Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868), was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. With Charles Sumner, they were the powerful leaders of the Radical Republicans during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His biographer characterizes him as, "The Great Commoner, savior of free public education in Pennsylvania, national Republican leader in the struggles against slavery in the United States and intrepid mainstay of the attempt to secure racial justice for the freedmen during Reconstruction, the only member of the House of Representatives ever to have been known, even if mistakenly, as the 'dictator' of Congress."
Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4, 1792. He suffered from many hardships during his childhood, including a club foot. His father was an alcoholic who was unable to hold a steady job and who abandoned the family before dying in the War of 1812. Stevens attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1814; he moved to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught school and studied law. After admission to the bar, he established a successful law practice, first in Gettysburg, then in Lancaster in 1815. He later took on several young lawyers, among them Edward McPherson, who later became his protégé and ardent supporter in Congress.
At first, Stevens belonged to the Federalist Party, but switched to the Anti-Masonic Party, then to the Whig Party, and finally to the Republican Party. He devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power, that is the conspiracy he saw of slave owners to seize control of the federal government and block the progress of liberty. In 1848, while still a Whig party member, Stevens was elected to serve in the House of Representatives. He defended and supported Indians, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. However, the defense of runaway or fugitive slaves gradually began to consume the greatest amount of his time, until the abolition of slavery became his primary political and personal focus. He was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves in getting to Canada, sometimes as many as sixteen a week.
During the American Civil War Stevens was one of the three or four most powerful men in Congress, using his slashing oratorical powers, his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, and above all his single-minded devotion to victory. His power grew during Reconstruction as he dominated the House and helped to draft both the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Act in 1867.
Stevens was one of two Congressmen in July of 1861 opposing the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution stating the limited war aim of restoring the Union while preserving slavery; he helped repeal it in December. In August of 1861, he supported the first law attacking slavery, the Confiscation Act that said owners would forfeit any slaves they allowed to help the Confederate war effort. By December he was the first Congressional leader pushing for emancipation as a tool to weaken the rebellion. He called for total war on January 22, 1862:
"Let us not be deceived. Those who talk about peace in sixty days are shallow statesmen. The war will not end until the government shall more fully recognize the magnitude of the crisis; until they have discovered that this is an internecine war in which one party or the other must be reduced to hopeless feebleness and the power of further effort shall be utterly annihilated. It is a sad but true alternative. The South can never be reduced to that condition so long as the war is prosecuted on its present principles. The North with all its millions of people and its countless wealth can never conquer the South until a new mode of warfare is adopted. So long as these states are left the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may expend the blood of thousands and billions of money year by year, without being any nearer the end, unless you reach it by your own submission and the ruin of the nation. Slavery gives the South a great advantage in time of war. They need not, and do not, withdraw a single hand from the cultivation of the soil. Every able-bodied white man can be spared for the army. The black man, without lifting a weapon, is the mainstay of the war. How, then, can the war be carried on so as to save the Union and constitutional liberty? Prejudices may be shocked, weak minds startled, weak nerves may tremble, but they must hear and adopt it. Universal emancipation must be proclaimed to all. Those who now furnish the means of war, but who are the natural enemies of slaveholders, must be made our allies. If the slaves no longer raised cotton and rice, tobacco and grain for the rebels, this war would cease in six months, even though the liberated slaves would not raise a hand against their masters. They would no longer produce the means by which they sustain the war."
Stevens was so outspoken in his condemnation of the Confederacy that Major General Jubal Early of the Army of Northern Virginia made a point of burning much of his iron business, at modern day Caledonia State Park to the ground during the Gettysburg Campaign. Early claimed that this action was in direct retaliation for Stevens' perceived support of similar atrocities by the Union Army in the South.
Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans who had full control of Congress after the 1866 elections. He largely set the course of Reconstruction. He wanted to begin to rebuild the South, using military power to force the South to recognize the equality of Freedmen. When President Johnson resisted, Stevens proposed and passed the resolution for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Thaddeus Stevens died at midnight on August 11, 1868, in Washington, D.C., less than three months after the acquittal of Johnson by the Senate. The public expression of grief in Washington was second only to that following the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Stevens' coffin lay in state inside the Capitol Rotunda, flanked by a Black Union Honor Guard from Massachusetts.
Twenty thousand people, one-half of whom were free black men, attended his funeral in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He chose to be buried in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery because it was the only cemetery that would accept people without regard to race.
Stevens wrote the inscription on his head stone that reads: "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."
Stevens monument is at the intersection of North Mulberry Street and West Chestnut Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bowers, Claude Gernade. The tragic era: the revolution after Lincoln. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, 2001. ISBN 9781931541497
- McCall, Samuel W. Thaddeus Stevens. American statesmen, v. 31. New York: AMS Press, 1972. ISBN 9780404508814
- Smith, Gene. High crimes and misdemeanors: the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: Morrow, 1977. ISBN 9780688030728
- Trefousse, Hans Louis. Thaddeus Stevens: nineteenth-century egalitarian. Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. ISBN 9780807823354
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