Historical records matching Thaddeus Stevens
About Thaddeus Stevens
Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868), of Pennsylvania, was a Republican leader and one of the most powerful members of the United States House of Representatives. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens, a witty, sarcastic speaker and flamboyant party leader, dominated the House from 1861 until his death and wrote much of the financial legislation that paid for the American Civil War. Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner were the prime leaders of the Radical Republicans during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. A 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 as the 'dictator' of Congress."
Historians' views of Stevens have swung sharply since his death as interpretations of Reconstruction have changed. The Dunning School, which viewed the period as a disaster because it violated American traditions of republicanism and fair government, depicted Stevens as a villain for his advocacy of harsh measures in the South, and this characterization held sway for much of the early 20th Century.
Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4, 1792. His parents had arrived there from Methuen, Massachusetts around 1786. He suffered from many hardships during his childhood, including a club foot. The fate of his father Joshua Stevens, an alcoholic, profligate shoemaker who was unable to hold a steady job, is uncertain. He may have died at home, abandoned the family, or been killed in the War of 1812; in any case, he left his wife, Sally (Morrill) Stevens, and four small sons in dire poverty. Having completed his course of study at Peacham Academy, Stevens entered Dartmouth College as a sophomore in 1811, and graduated in 1814; before doing so, he spent one term and part of another at the University of Vermont. He then 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 in 1816, then in Lancaster in 1842. He later took on several young lawyers, among them Edward McPherson, who later became his protégé and ardent supporter in Congress.
Stevens never married but two of his adult nephews came to live with him. He shared his home and parental responsibilities with his mixed-race housekeeper of twenty years, Lydia Hamilton Smith.
Stevens devoted most of 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 served in congress from 1849 to 1853, and then from 1859 until his death in 1868.
He defended and supported Native Americans, 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. A possible Underground Railroad site (which consists of a water cistern that shows evidence of being modified for human habitation) has been discovered under his office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This office, along with Lydia Smith's home, is located next to the new conference center in the center of Lancaster; they may soon become a museum open to the public.
He was one of the defense attorneys for Castner Hanway, the only person tried, out of 38 indicted, for assisting runaway slaves during the Christiana Riots. It is not clear that Castner Hanway was responsible in any way for what happened. He was a white man, one of the first on the scene. Hanway and his horse provided cover for Joshua Gorsuch and Dr. Pearce, who were wounded. Hanway was tried in federal court in Philadelphia on November 15, 1851 for liberating slaves taken into custody by U.S. Marshal Kline, for resisting arrest, for conspiracy, and for treason. The jury returned a Not Guilty verdict in 15 minutes.
(See A True Story of the Christiana Riot (Google eBook). David R. Forbes. Sun Printing House, 1898 - Riots - 154 pages. Page 36. "Thaddeus Stevens scores a point ..." )
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.
In July 1861 the Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution stating the limited war aim of restoring the Union while preserving slavery; Stevens helped repeal it in December. In August 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.
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. Stevens' coffin lay in state inside the Capitol Rotunda, flanked by a Black Honor Guard (the Butler Zouaves from the District of Columbia). Twenty thousand people, one-half of whom were African-American, 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.
Links to additional material:
Thaddeus Stevens's Timeline
April 4, 1792
Danville, Caledonia, Vermont, United States
Danville, Caledonia, Vermont, USA
August 11, 1868
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, United States