Born April 4, 1792
Died August 11, 1868
Union political leader, head of the Radical
Republicans in the U.S. Congress
Led the fight to abolish slavery and secure equal
rights for black Americans during the Civil War
Thaddeus Stevens was a highly influential—and also controversial—politician during and immediately after the Civil War. People in the North who opposed slavery hailed him as one of the bravest leaders in American history. No one did more to promote the principles of freedom and equality laid out in the U.S. Constitution. "Every man, no matter what his race or color, has an equal right to justice, honesty, and fair play with every other man; and the law should secure him those rights," Stevens once said. "Such is the law of God and such ought to be the law of man."
But white people in the South hated Stevens. They believed that his radical proposals to free their slaves, take away their land, and put black people in charge of their government would destroy Southern society. Some people in the North also felt that Stevens went too far. They worried that his harsh policies toward the South would prevent the two halves of the country from reconciling their differences after the Civil War. Stevens was a complex man who held strong beliefs and fought for them until the end. "Perhaps if Stevens had been more forgiving, his ideas might have had a better chance in his lifetime," Joy Hakim wrote in Reconstruction and Reform. "Or maybe he was just ahead of his time."
Uses education to escape from poverty
Thaddeus Stevens was born into a poor farming family in Caledonia County, Vermont, on April 4, 1792. His father, Joshua Stevens, was an alcoholic who deserted the family when Thad was five years old. His mother, Sarah Stevens, raised him and his three brothers alone. She encouraged her boys to work hard and get an education. She taught them to read at a young age, using the Bible as a textbook.
Thad was born with a deformed foot and lower leg—known as a clubfoot—that caused him to walk with a limp his whole life. Other children sometimes called him names or imitated the way he walked. But he got back at them with his keen intelligence and wit. Although young Thad could not run and play ball games with other kids, he excelled at swimming and horseback riding.
When a private school opened in nearby Peacham, Vermont, Sarah Stevens sold the farm so that Thad could attend. He was an eager student, although his teachers also called him "headstrong." At the age of nineteen, Stevens continued his education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. With his quick mind and excellent speaking ability, he showed great skill in debate.
Becomes a prominent lawyer
After graduating from college in 1814, Stevens moved to the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and began to practice law. In one of his early cases, he claimed that his client should not be executed for murder because the client was insane. This marked the first time that a lawyer had attempted to use insanity as a defense in a murder case. Stevens lost the case, but he gained a reputation as a tough, innovative lawyer.
Surprisingly, Stevens represented a slaveowner in his first case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1821. The slaveowner was a woman from Maryland (a slave state) who spent each summer in the mountains of Pennsylvania (a free state), along with her slaves. Pennsylvania law said that any slave who lived in the state for six months would be free. One of the woman's slaves carefully counted the days she spent in Pennsylvania until they added up to six months, then refused to return to Maryland and sued for her freedom. Stevens won the case by arguing that the law required a slave to live in Pennsylvania for six continuous months, rather than a total of six months over a longer period of time. The slave was forced to return to Maryland. It is not clear why Stevens took the case or how he felt about the outcome. Within a few years, however, he began speaking out against slavery. In his law practice, he became known for defending runaway slaves to prevent them from being forced to return to their masters.
Over time, Stevens's success as a lawyer made him a wealthy man. He bought land in the area around Gettysburg and started an iron forging business. As his wealth grew, so did his reputation for helping others in need. For example, one time he happened to be riding past a farm that was being sold at auction. He found out that the farm belonged to a widow who was unable to pay off a bank loan, and that the loss of the farm would leave her homeless. He bought the farm himself, gave it back to the widow, then quickly rode away. Stevens also helped others to get an education. He opened his extensive private library to the public, and he allowed many young men to study law in his offices.
Begins his political career
In 1833, Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. He immediately began fighting to establish free public schools for all children. Until this time, most schools were private and only children from wealthy families attended. Poor children had to work from a young age to help support their families, and rarely even learned to read and write. But creating free public schools was not a popular idea. Many people resented having to pay taxes to support the schools. Some wealthy people wanted to keep the advantages of education for themselves. Stevens made several speeches that helped convince the legislature and voters to support the idea. The number of schools in Pennsylvania increased from 800 to 3,400 over the next three years, while the number of students enrolled in school went from 32,000 to 150,000.
In 1842, Stevens left politics to deal with his personal affairs. Financial troubles convinced him to move his law practice to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during this time. In 1848, Stevens was elected to the U.S. Congress. This was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, including slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners, like Stevens, believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
Stevens made his position clear in his very first speech before Congress. He said that slavery was wrong, and that political leaders from the North had an obligation to stand up to the South on the issue. Some Southern legislators claimed that black people were inferior to white people, and said that they were actually better off as slaves than they would be trying to care for themselves. They argued that slaves were well fed and happy, while free blacks in the North were hungry and desperate. But Stevens refused to accept this argument. "If slavery is such a moral, political, and personal blessing, let us give all a chance to enjoy this blessing," he replied. "Let the slaves, who choose, go free, and the free, who choose, become slaves. If these gentlemen believe there is a word of truth in what they preach, the slaveholder need be under no apprehension [fear] that he will ever lack bondsmen [slaves]."
Helps make the Civil War a fight against slavery
By 1861, the ongoing dispute between the two sections of the country convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war. Stevens became even more powerful in the U.S. Congress at this time. He served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War. This meant that he controlled the collection and spending of tax money that allowed the Union to fight the war.
Stevens also understood the personal cost of the war. Confederate troops destroyed his iron factories during the Battle of Gettysburg. He lost $90,000, or the equivalent of his life savings. But he claimed that he was willing to pay any price for victory. "We must all expect to suffer by this wicked war. I have not felt a moment's trouble over my share of it," he stated. "If, finally, the government shall be reestablished over our whole territory, and not a vestige [trace] of slavery left, I shall deem [believe] it a cheap purchase."
Stevens became very critical of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) during the war years. Lincoln was against slavery, but he wanted to end it gradually. He was also hesitant to grant full civil and political equality to black people. In contrast, Stevens wanted to abolish (put an end to) slavery immediately and completely. And he believed that if black people were free, they should be treated the same as white people.
People like Stevens were considered extreme or radical, while people like Lincoln were considered more cautious or moderate. Stevens and other radicals criticized the president for moving too slowly toward ending slavery and for being too lenient (easy) in his policies toward the South. They kept pushing Lincoln to take dramatic steps toward freeing the slaves and changing the structure of Southern society. But even though Stevens and Lincoln had their political differences, they actually respected and helped each other. As their mutual friend Alexander McClure (1828–1909) described their relationship: "Stevens was ever clearing the underbrush and preparing the soil, while Lincoln followed to sow the seeds that were to ripen in a regenerated Union."
Promotes radical Reconstruction policies
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States continued to struggle with important and complicated issues. For example, Stevens and other federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history was called Reconstruction (1865–77).
President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry)—who took office after Lincoln was assassinated—controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. He pardoned (officially forgave) many Confederate leaders and set lenient conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. But Stevens and other radical Republican members of Congress worried that Johnson's policies would allow the Confederate leaders to return to power and continue to discriminate against black people. They set up a Committee on Reconstruction, with Stevens as its chairman, to study the effects of Johnson's policies. The committee heard numerous stories of discrimination and violence against blacks in the South. As a result, the U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies.
By this time, Stevens was in his seventies and in poor health. In fact, he sometimes had to be carried into sessions of Congress. His voice was weak, but the other members respected his authority so much that they crowded around his desk to hear him when he spoke. Stevens viewed the North's victory in the war as an opportunity to make fundamental changes in Southern society. He argued that the Southern states should only be readmitted to the Union if they gave black men the right to vote and guaranteed that they would be treated equally under the law. He also wanted to punish the Confederate leaders for their rebellion. Stevens's extreme positions on Reconstruction earned him many enemies in the South. Even in the North, many people did not share his views. Some Northerners worried that his hard line would make it more difficult for the nation to settle its differences and return to normal.
One of Stevens's most controversial proposals involved confiscating (taking away) land that belonged to wealthy planters (plantation owners) who had supported the Confederacy. He wanted to distribute this land to former slaves and poor white people in forty-acre parcels. Stevens believed that land was the key to making lasting changes in Southern society. Land ownership would allow former slaves to live independently and support themselves and their families. Otherwise, they would be forced to work for wealthy white landowners again. "The whole fabric of southern society must be changed and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost," he said in a speech before Congress in 1865. "No people will ever be republican [where power resides with the voting public and representatives are responsible to that public] in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless." But Stevens's proposal was rejected by Congress. Many Northerners were hesitant to confiscate property because they feared it could happen to them someday. For example, poor industrial workers might decide to seize factories belonging to wealthy owners. The United States never took meaningful steps to provide land to former slaves.
Leads impeachment proceedings against President Johnson
As Stevens and other radical Republican members of Congress implemented their Reconstruction plans, President Johnson fought them every step of the way. He vetoed (rejected) many bills passed by Congress, although Congress was usually able to gather enough votes (two-thirds of its members) to pass the bills over the president's veto. Stevens emerged as the most vocal opponent of Johnson during this time. In 1868, he led a movement to remove the president from office.
The Constitution says that all federal officials can be impeached (brought up on legal charges) and removed from elected office if they are found guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." All of the branches of the federal government have roles in an impeachment trial. The House of Representatives brings the charges and acts as prosecutor. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial as a judge. The Senate hears the case and votes as a jury. Two-thirds of the senators present must vote to convict in order to remove the impeached official from office.
Most people agreed that the charges against Johnson were not serious enough to remove him from office, but the president was so unpopular that the outcome of the impeachment trial was uncertain. Johnson ended up remaining in office by one vote. Although Stevens had failed in his efforts to impeach the president, he succeeded in passing the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment made black people citizens of the United States. It also prevented individual states from taking away the civil rights of citizens or denying them equal protection under the law.
Dies fighting for equality
After suffering from poor health for many years, Stevens died on August 11, 1868—just a few weeks after the impeachment trial ended. He had never married or had children. His black housekeeper, Lydia Smith, cared for him in his last days. Some of his political enemies claimed that Stevens and Smith had been lovers, but there was never any proof of a romantic relationship between them. Upon his death, Stevens asked to be buried in a remote cemetery that was open to people of all races. He also prepared a message for his gravestone, which read: "I repose [rest] in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding any 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."
For a few years after Stevens's death, black people were allowed to vote and to participate in government in the South. After the federal troops left the South in 1877, however, black people's civil and political rights were taken away bit by bit through intimidation and violence. But nearly one hundred years later, the civil rights movement of the 1960s built upon the Fourteenth Amendment and other laws that Stevens had put in place.
Where to Learn More
Belcher, Edward. Thaddeus Stevens: Commoner. Boston: A. Williams & Co., 1882. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1972.
Meltzer, Milton. Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.
Hakim, Joy. Reconstruction and Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Korngold, Ralph. Thaddeus Stevens. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Miller, Alphonse B. Thaddeus Stevens. New York: Harper, 1939.
Palmer, Beverly Wilson, ed. The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Trefousse, Hans L. The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice. New York: Knopf, 1969. Reprint, Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1975.
Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Woodley, Thomas Frederick. Great Leveler: The Life of Thaddeus Stevens. New York: Stackpole, 1937. Reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.