Thaddeus Stevens was born on 4 April, 1792 in Danville, Vermont and died on 11 August, 1868, at midnight, in Washington, D.C., less than 3 months after the acquittal of Johnson by the Senate. Thaddeus Stevens’ coffin lay in state inside the Capitol Rotunda, flanked by a Black Union Honour Guard from Massachusetts. 20,000 people, 1 1/2 of whom were free black men, attended his funeral in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Thaddeus Stevens chose to be buried in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery because it was the only cemetery that would accept people without regard to race.
Thaddeus 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.”
Thaddeus Stevens’ monument is at the intersection of North Mulberry Street and West Chestnut Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Thaddeus Stevens 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, a witty, sarcastic speaker and aggressive party leader, Thaddeus Stevens dominated the House from 1861 until his death and wrote much of the financial legislation that paid for the American Civil War. Thaddeus 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, saviour 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.”
Historians’ views of Thaddeus Stevens have swung sharply since his death as interpretations of Reconstruction have changed. The Dunning School, which viewed the period as a disaster and held racist views of blacks, saw Thaddeus Stevens as a villain for his advocacy of harsh measures in the South, and this characterisation held sway for most of the 20th Century. Austin Stoneman, the naive and fanatical congressman in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, was modelled on Thaddeus Stevens. Additionally, he was portrayed as a villain in The Leopard’s Spots, the 1st novel in the trilogy upon which “Birth of a Nation” was based. Thaddeus Stevens was also portrayed (by Lionel Barrymore) as a villain and fanatic in Tennessee Johnson, the 1942 MGM film about the life of President Andrew Johnson. The congressman’s reputation has been rehabilitated since the rise of the neo-abolitionist school in the 1960s, and Thaddeus Stevens has been praised for his far-sighted views on race relations.
Around 1786, Thaddeus Stevens’ parents had arrived Danville, Vermont from Methuen, Massachusetts. Thaddeus Stevens had 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. Joshua Stevens 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 4 small sons in dire poverty. Having completed his course of study at Peacham Academy, Thaddeus Stevens entered Dartmouth College as a sophomore in 1811, and graduated in 1814; before doing so, he spent 1 term and part of another at the University of Vermont. Thaddeus Stevens then moved to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught school and studied law. After admission to the bar, he established a successful law practice, 1st in Gettysburg, then in Lancaster in 1815. Thaddeus Stevens later took on several young lawyers, among them Edward McPherson, who later became his protegé and ardent supporter in Congress.
Thaddeus Stevens never married but he did adopt 2 nephews. Thaddeus Stevens shared his home and parental responsibilities with his mulatto housekeeper of 20 years, Lydia Hamilton Smith, but historians are unsure whether the relationship was sexual, as was widely rumoured.
At first, Thaddeus Stevens belonged to the Federalist Party, but switched to the Anti-Masonic Party, then to the Whig Party, and finally to the Republican Party. Thaddeus Stevens 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, Thaddeus Stevens was elected to serve in the House of Representatives. Thaddeus Stevens served in congress from 1849-1853, and then from 1859 until his death in 1868.
Thaddeus Stevens defended and supported Native Americans, 7th-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. Thaddeus Stevens was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves in getting to Canada.
During the American Civil War Thaddeus Stevens was 1 of the 3 or 4 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. Thaddeus Stevens’ power grew during Reconstruction as he dominated the House and helped to draft both the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Act in 1867.
Thaddeus Stevens was 1 of 2 Congressmen in July 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, 1861, he supported the 1st 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 1st Congressional leader pushing for emancipation as a tool to weaken the rebellion.
Thaddeus Stevens called for total war on 22 January, 1862:
“Let us not be deceived. Those who talk about peace in 60 days are shallow statesmen. The war will not end until the government shall more fully recognise 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 labour, 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 6 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.”
Thaddeus Stevens led the Radical Republican faction in their battle against the bankers over the issuance of money during the Civil War. Thaddeus Stevens made various speeches in Congress in favour of President Lincoln and Henry Carey’s “Greenback” system, interest-free currency in the form of fiat government-issued United States Notes that would effectively threaten the bankers’ profits in being able to issue and control the currency through fractional reserve loans. Thaddeus Stevens warned that a debt-based monetary system controlled by for-profit banks would lead to the eventual bankruptcy of the people, saying “the Government and not the banks should have the benefit from creating the medium of exchange,” yet after Lincoln’s assassination the Radical Republicans lost this battle and a National banking monopoly emerged in the years after.
Thaddeus Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans who had full control of Congress after the 1866 elections. Thaddeus Stevens largely set the course of Reconstruction. Thaddeus Stevens wanted to begin to rebuild the South, using military power to force the South to recognize the equality of Freedmen. When President Johnson resisted, Thaddeus Stevens proposed and passed the resolution for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Thaddeus Stevens told W. W. Holden, the Republican governor of North Carolina, in December, 1866, “It would be best for the South to remain 10 years longer under military rule, and that during this time we would have Territorial Governors, with Territorial Legislatures, and the government at Washington would pay our general expenses as territories, and educate our children, white and coloured and both.”
Steven Thaddeus School, also known as Thaddeus Elementary School, at 1050 21st Street, NW in Washington, D.C. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thaddeus Stevens dreamed of a socially just world, where unearned privilege did not exist. Thaddeus Stevens believed from his personal experience that being different or having a different perspective can enrich society. Thaddeus Stevens believed that differences among people should not be feared or oppressed but celebrated. In his will he left $50,000 to establish Stevens, a school for the relief and refuge of homeless, indigent orphans. “They shall be carefully educated in the various branches of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits. No preference shall be shown on account of race or colour in their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish or Mahometan, nor any others on account their race or religion of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the same table.”
This original bequest has now evolved into Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. The College continually strives to provide underprivileged individuals with opportunities and to create an environment in which individual differences are valued and nurtured.
In Washington, D.C., the Stevens Elementary School was built in 1868 as 1 of the 1st publicly funded schools for black children and is now the city’s oldest school in continuous operation. (President Carter’s daughter Amy went there.)
Buildings associated with Stevens are currently being restored by the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster, PA with an eye toward focusing on the establishment of a $20,000,000 museum. These include his home, law offices, and a nearby tavern. The effort also celebrates the contributions of his housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith who was involved in the underground railroad.
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