Born April 4, 1792
Died August 11, 1868
U.S. congressman, lawyer, and mill owner
"We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the common laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves."
A powerful congressman who fought for the abolition (end) of slavery and for civil rights legislation for freedmen, Thaddeus Stevens was a leading "Radical Reconstructionist." This term describes congressmen who favored strict terms and a carefully supervised program for allowing former Confederate states to reenter the Union after the Civil War (1861–65). Stevens led the battle against President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry), who wanted a speedier and more lenient program for reunification. Stevens led the attempt to impeach (formally accuse of wrongdoing) Johnson and remove him as president; impeachment was successful, but the effort to rid him from office failed by one vote. Throughout his political, legal, and professional careers, Stevens was a champion of people of humble means.
Thaddeus Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont, the youngest of four sons of Joshua and Sally (Morrill) Stevens. Stevens's father was a shoemaker who spent his earnings and then left the family. Some reports suggested he fought and died in the War of 1812 (1812–15). His sudden disappearance left his family in severe poverty. Stevens's mother earned money as a maid and housekeeper. Stevens was sickly as an infant, but his mother raised him into health and worked to ensure he was educated. The family moved to Peacham, Vermont, in 1795. The area was rugged and sparsely settled, but was near an excellent school, Peacham Academy.
Stevens began working at an early age and attended and performed well at the academy. He entered Dartmouth College as a sophomore in 1811, spent one term at the University of Vermont, and graduated from Dartmouth in 1814. Stevens was trained in Greek and Latin, mathematics, and ethics, and wrote and performed with drama clubs. His language and theater skills were evident later when he entered politics and became known as an excellent public speaker.
After graduation, Stevens took a teaching position at a school in York, Pennsylvania, and began studying law. Soon, he crossed the border to Maryland to take his bar exam (a test prospective lawyers must pass to become certified to practice law). Pennsylvania required a specified period of study before one could take the bar exam, but Maryland left it up to the individual. Stevens passed the exam and settled in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1816 at the age of twenty-four to practice law. He never married.
Stevens struggled to make a living as a lawyer for several years. In 1821, his successful defense of a man accused of murder made him the most sought-after lawyer in the county. He won numerous appeals to the state Supreme Court (the losing side in a court case can often appeal the verdict to a higher court). Stevens also defended runaway slaves from neighboring Maryland, winning freedom for many of them.
With money earned from his successful law practice, Stevens became a partner in 1826 at the James D. Paxton & Company, a builder of stoves. Unable to obtain quality metal, the company bought property near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and built a forge (metal shop). The company, which became known as Stevens & Paxton in 1828, was never very profitable. Although dwarfed by competing firms, the company was kept alive by Stevens and continued to provide work for the surrounding community.
Stevens entered politics in the early 1830s. He became a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, which championed the rights of common people. The party derived its name and purpose from distrust of freemasonry—fraternal organizations (brotherhoods) often based in secrecy that many people believed were exerting too much authority in American society. Many of the early presidents, for example, were freemasons, including Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37). Stevens became a political force during the 1831 Anti-Masonic Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, where the party's first presidential candidate, William Wirt (1772–1834), was nominated. Stevens gave an impassioned speech about the dangers of secret societies. In 1833, Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as an Anti-Masonic and went on to serve four terms in the Pennsylvania congress. In addition to having mixed success at investigating and legislating against freemasons, Stevens supported legislation in 1834 that expanded the free public school system of Philadelphia across the state, then made an impassioned defense of free education the following year when taxes supporting the system were threatened to be cut. Stevens's advocacy for state support of education extended to colleges as well.
Stevens was a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837, where the state constitution was reviewed by delegates representing citizens of the state. Stevens fought for a resolution to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., through a constitutional amendment that Pennsylvania would be first to support. The resolution failed, but Stevens emerged as a leading abolitionist as well as a defender of working-class citizens. Stevens joined the Whig Party in the mid-1830s; the Whigs and the Democratic Party were the two major political organizations from the early 1830s to the early 1850s. Stevens campaigned for William Henry Harrison (1773–1841; served 1841) for president in 1836 and 1840.
Stevens retired from politics in 1841. He had hoped to be appointed to a position in Harrison's administration after Harrison won the election of 1840. Meanwhile, Stevens faced huge debts from his failed business. He settled as a lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1842. Stevens rebuilt his finances and returned to politics in 1848, when he was elected to the U.S. Congress. Stevens immediately joined a group of freesoilers—those against expansion of slavery into territories that had not yet become states. Stevens was fiercely against slavery, criticizing slave owners in Congress and those who defended the institution as an issue for states to decide.
Becomes powerful congressman
Stevens was a leading opponent of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed several prospective new states to decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. He was especially angry about the Fugitive Slave Law, which provided federal recognition of the right of slave owners to pursue runaway slaves into nonslave states. In an era when Congress was shaken by loud and angry debates and the country was growing more divided, Stevens was among the harshest critics of slavery.
Along with many Whigs in the early 1850s, Stevens became disgusted with members of his party who continued to support slavery as a states' rights issue. He quit Congress in 1853 and joined the growing movement to establish a new political organization, the Republican Party, made up of Whigs and Democrats against slavery. Stevens helped establish the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. He was a speaker at the Republican National Convention in 1856 and was reelected to Congress as a Republican in 1858. Back in Congress, he railed against Southerners who threatened to secede (separate) from the Union and welcomed the Civil War when it began in 1861.
Following the secession of Southern states that joined the Confederacy and the empty seats in Congress left behind by representatives for those states, Stevens became the most powerful man in Congress. He was chairman of the ways and means committee, a position that oversees all financial bills and, during times of war, all congressional measures relating to the war. Stevens disagreed with President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), a fellow Republican, on many issues. He was one of the two House members who voted against a resolution Lincoln supported that declared that the Civil War was not fought to conquer or to interfere with the established institutions of the South. Stevens instead urged that Confederate property should be seized, slaves should be armed, and that arrests and convictions of Confederates should be quick and punishments should be harsh. Nevertheless, Stevens supported important measures for the Lincoln administration to fight the war, including raising money through taxes, loans, bonds, and the printing of greenbacks (named for their color), the first national paper currency in the United States.
Stevens disagreed with Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction. Called the Ten Percent Plan, Lincoln's program included pardon and amnesty to Confederates who would swear loyalty to the Union. Control of local governments would return to former Confederate states when 10 percent of the 1860 voting population participated in elections. Instead, Stevens wanted more difficult and challenging rules for readmission and believed Congress should set the terms for Reconstruction. The state of Louisiana met the requirements proposed by Lincoln and he supported readmitting the state. When Congress reassembled in December 1864, just after Lincoln was reelected, it pressured Lincoln to drop his support to readmit Louisiana. Reconstruction policy was still being debated when the Civil War ended in April 1865 and Lincoln was assassinated.
Congress battles the president
Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency following Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, just days after the Confederacy surrendered. Congress was not in session, and Johnson believed he should be in charge of Reconstruction. Favoring a limited federal government and wanting to reestablish state governments in the South as quickly as possible, Johnson modified Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan to include a requirement that states ratify the Thirteenth Amendment (which includes the abolishment of slavery). If states met Johnson's demands, the president would recognize their restoration to the Union.
As soon as Congress convened in December 1865, Stevens led Congress in appointing a joint committee (a committee comprising members of the House and the Senate) on Reconstruction. Stevens was named chairman of the House side of the committee. On December 18, 1865, he gave a rousing speech declaring that it was the duty of Congress to supervise Reconstruction and demand tough terms of the former Confederate states ("they must come in as new states or remain as conquered provinces"). Stevens also insisted that Congress protect the rights and help provide opportunities for freedmen (see box) and rejected Johnson's authority to define the terms of Reconstruction.
In February 1866, Congress and the president began clashing over legislation when Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which intended to establish an organization to supervise relief and educational activities relating to war refugees and freedmen. After Stevens and Johnson made speeches attacking one another, Stevens helped push through Congress a civil rights bill and a revised Freedmen's Bureau bill over Johnson's vetoes.
An Excerpt from Stevens's Address to Congress on December 18, 1865
In a stirring speech on December 18, 1865, Thaddeus Stevens forcefully spoke out in favor of Congress taking charge of the Reconstruction efforts. The following is an excerpt taken from the From Revolution to Reconstruction Web site:
Nobody, I believe, pretends that with their old constitutions and frames of government [the former Confederate states] can be permitted to claim their old rights under the Constitution. They have torn their constitutional States into atoms, and built on their foundations fabrics of a totally different character. Dead men cannot raise themselves. Dead States cannot restore their existence "as it was." Whose especial duty is it to do it? In whom does the Constitution place the power? Not in the judicial branch of Government, for it only adjudicates [judges] and does not prescribe laws. Not in the Executive, for he only executes and cannot make laws. Not in the Commander-in-Chief of the armies, for he can only hold them under military rule until the sovereign legislative power of the conqueror shall give them law. Unless the law of nations is a dead letter, the late war between two acknowledged belligerents severed their original compacts and broke all the ties that bound them together. The future condition of the conquered power depends on the will of the conqueror. They must come in as new states or remain as conquered provinces. Congress … is the only power that can act in the matter.…
But this is not all that we ought to do before inveterate [habitual] rebels are invited to participate in our legislation. We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the common laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads, and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage.
If we fail in this great duty now, when we have the power, we shall deserve and receive the execration [curse] of history and of all future ages.
When more Republicans won congressional seats in the election of 1866, Congress came to dominate the president. Stevens tried twice to begin impeachment hearings against Johnson, but neither attempt succeeded. Stevens was further incensed censed after a riot in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 30, 1866. A mob attacked a meeting of Republicans and killed thirty-eight people, including thirty-four African Americans, and many more were injured. New Orleans mayor John T. Monroe (1823–1871) and members of the police and fire forces encouraged the attack. A congressional committee investigating the riots suggested that President Johnson knew of the planned attack and did nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, Johnson made fiery speeches against Congress as he campaigned for Democratic candidates before the congressional elections of 1866.
When Johnson attempted to fire his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (1814–1869; see entry), in violation of the Tenure of Office Act Congress passed in 1867, Stevens pushed and won a resolution from Congress to begin impeachment hearings. (The Tenure of Office Act concerned federal officials appointed by the president that required confirmation by the Senate. These officials could not be removed from their position by the president without the approval of the Senate under the Tenure of Office Act. If the Senate was in recess, the president could suspend an official, but once the Senate returned to session, it had to approve the removal or the president would would be required to reinstate the official.) Stevens was a member of the committee that drafted articles (charges) of impeachment, but his health began to fail. He took little part in the impeachment trial of Johnson that occurred in March 1868. Johnson avoided removal from office by one vote.
Stevens was too ill to leave Washington, D.C., to return home, and he died on August 11, 1868. Stevens was buried in a small graveyard in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His tombstone bears an epitaph he wrote for himself: "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but, finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, 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 More Information
Brodie, Fawn McKay. Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1959.
Palmer, Beverly Wilson, ed. The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
"The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson." HarpWeek.http://www.impeachandrewjohnson.com/11BiographiesKeyIndividuals/ThaddeusStevens.htm (accessed on July 30, 2004).
"Thaddeus Stevens' Legacy." Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.http://www.stevenscollege.edu/about/history.htm (accessed on July 30, 2004).
"Thaddeus Stevens: Speech of December 18, 1865." From Revolution to Reconstruction.http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1851-1875/reconstruction/steven.htm (accessed on July 30, 2004).
Thaddeus Stevens was a leading Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the American Civil War (1861–65). During Reconstruction , the period after the war when the Southern states were being readmitted to the Union , he was a fiery advocate of strong measures to ensure civil rights for blacks in the South and to limit the power of former leaders of the Confederate States of America .
Childhood and education
Stevens was born on April 4, 1792. He grew up on a farm in Vermont . His father left the family when Stevens was a young boy, leaving his mother and brothers to take care of the farm and earn a living. Stevens was born with a clubfoot and could not help on the farm, but even as a child, he was able to help his mother with her work as a nurse. Through this work, he gained knowledge of suffering and poverty that would shape his life. His mother later sold the farm and moved to town so her sons could attend school. Eventually Stevens graduated from Dartmouth College.
After graduation, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania where he studied for the bar, the exam taken to become an attorney. By 1833, he was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, in which he served six terms. He also had a very successful law practice.
In 1849, Stevens won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He worked tirelessly for causes in which he believed. He had long spoken for complete citizenship for slaves. He opposed the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Laws , which required authorities in free states to return runaway slaves to their owners in slave states. Stevens also campaigned passionately for public education. Because he pressed for issues that would help remove class differences, he became known as the “Great Leveler.”
After two terms in Congress, the outspoken Stevens had few friends in or out of government, and he was defeated in his quest for a third term. But at the age of sixty-seven, he was again elected a U.S. representative. He reentered Congress in 1859 with a better knowledge of government procedures than anyone else in government at that time. He used his skills to obtain chairmanships on important committees, such as the House Ways and Means Committee. He had acquired a great deal of power in Congress by the time the Civil War began in 1861.
Laws of war
Two years into the war, Stevens began to consider the conditions under which the Southern states would be readmitted to the Union. In his view, by withdrawing from the Union, the South had given up its rights under the Constitution . Under what he called the “laws of war,” these ex-states would be considered conquered territories and would have to meet conditions of good citizenship in order to be readmitted. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) agreed, but he felt that reuniting the Union was the job of the president, while Stevens thought it was the job of Congress.
Just prior to Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Stevens pressed for stricter readmission standards for Southern states. Stevens's policy called for a majority of a state's citizens to vote for readmission and to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union. The new state would have to agree to accept the Thirteenth Amendment , which abolished slavery , and a large number of former Southern leaders would be excluded from holding public office, such as officials of the Confederacy, Confederate officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel or navy lieutenant, and businessmen, who had supported the war effort of the South.
The president or Congress?
Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) became president upon Lincoln's death. Like Lincoln, he believed that the president, not Congress, should oversee the readmission of Southern states into the Union. Ignoring Stevens's calls for a strict policy, Johnson began to readmit each state according to his own mild plan. Under Johnson's plan, leaders in the new state governments included high-ranking officials of the former Confederacy, Confederate generals, and wealthy landowners.
Under Stevens's guidance, Congress refused to accept the representatives from states readmitted to the Union by Johnson and established an “ironclad oath” as a condition of readmission to the Union. The oath held that anyone elected or appointed to federal office from the former rebel states had to be someone who had never plotted to secede.
Stevens's plan for Reconstruction
Stevens was determined that Congress, not the president, would direct Reconstruction. He instructed the House of Representatives to create a Committee on Reconstruction, which he chaired.
The entire South was placed under Union military control just after the war because of the post-war turmoil. Confederate soldiers were returning home to find their farms, towns, and local governments destroyed. As a short-term solution, Stevens proposed to create territories in the South and establish territorial governments.
Living conditions for millions of former slaves were very bad in the years after the war; many died from lack of food and other necessities. Stevens proposed that the government break up the South's large plantations and distribute the land in such a way that each freed male slave could have 40 acres (16 hectares); the rest of the land could be used to restore the national finances destroyed by the war. Under the Stevens plan, all national and state laws would apply equally to all citizens regardless of race or color.
In 1865, the Committee on Reconstruction recommended a bill declaring that no senator or representative could be admitted to Congress from any of the Southern states until Congress decided that the state was entitled to representation. Congress passed the bill. Johnson vetoed it. The president let it be known that he planned to veto every bill until Congress admitted that it had no right to interfere with his plan for Reconstruction.
In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment , which declared that blacks were citizens of the United States. When President Johnson vetoed it, Stevens and his following in Congress prepared for a heated contest with the president. By that time, conditions were getting even worse in the South. More than a thousand blacks had been killed since the war with no one held accountable. Johnson had lost favor with the American public, while Congress gained support.
Impeaching the president
In his showdown with the president, Stevens ushered the Tenure of Office Act through Congress in 1867, which required the president to get congressional approval before he could fire or remove from office certain government workers; Congress, after granting approval, would choose the replacement.
In violation of Congress's Tenure of Office Act, Johnson continued to fire people in government positions, most of whom were Republicans supported by his opponents in Congress. When Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814–1869), who had been appointed by Lincoln, it violated the Tenure of Office Act and infuriated Stevens. In February 1868, Stevens moved that the president be impeached (officially charged with misconduct). The House of Representatives voted in favor of impeachment, and impeachment proceedings took place in the Senate in May 1868. The Senate could not quite muster the two-thirds majority vote that was required to remove the president from office. Johnson remained in office, but he was never again an effective leader.
Stevens died in 1868. Military rule of the South continued for nine more years. Had Stevens lived, he would no doubt have continued to strongly influence Reconstruction.
Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), American congressman, was the leading Radical Republican in the Civil War era.
Thaddeus Stevens, the son of an unsuccessful farmer who subsequently deserted his family, was born on April 4, 1792, in Danville, Vt. Despite his impoverished background and a deformity of the feet, he graduated from Dartmouth in 1814 and became a successful lawyer in Gettysburg, Pa. An Anti-Mason, he became a Whig when that party absorbed his in the mid-1830s. Elected to the state legislature in 1833, he remained for 8 years, becoming noted for his campaign to extend the state's free school system. An early and intense opponent of slavery, he defended fugitive slaves in the courts and, at the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837, unsuccessfully fought black disenfranchisement.
Stevens's intelligence and absolute mastery of political invective made him a frequent spokesman for his party, but his occasional erratic and impulsive actions and his singular ability to end up on the losing side in intraparty struggles kept him from achieving high office. In 1841, failing to get a post in President William Henry Harrison's Cabinet, he retired from the legislature and moved to Lancaster.
Stevens was elected to Congress in 1848 and 1850, becoming noted for his attacks on the South during debates on the Compromise of 1850. Once the slavery question seemed settled, Stevens's antislavery stance seemed inopportune, and he was not renominated in 1852. Revitalization of the slavery issue after 1854 brought him back into politics as a Know-Nothing and then as a Republican when that party emerged in the 1850s. In 1858, again elected to Congress, he renewed his bitter enmity toward Southern slaveholders.
In 1861 Stevens became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and helped to secure passage of the legislation needed to finance the Civil War. He and other Radical Republicans urged Abraham Lincoln to pursue an uncompromising war policy to restore the Union, secure freedom for the slaves, and destroy the political power of the slaveholders. Stevens advocated military emancipation, use of African American troops, and confiscation of Confederate property. He insisted that the Southern states not be restored to the Union until they had been thoroughly reconstructed, arguing that by seceding they had lost all rights under the Constitution and were conquered provinces subject to congressional control. Stevens particularly wanted the economic and political power of the planters decreased and schools, land, and ballots provided for the freedmen.
Stevens served on the crucial Joint Committee on Reconstruction in the postwar period, guiding much of its legislation, including the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing civil rights for the freedmen, through the House. An adroit parliamentarian, Stevens intimidated opponents. Yet many of his more radical proposals were never passed. Many Northerners were simply not ready to accept the social implications of radical measures designed to uplift the blacks.
Stevens's views on Reconstruction clashed with President Andrew Johnson's more conservative course. The President's veto of the civil rights and Freedmen's Bureau bills in 1866 and his violent personal attack on Stevens prompted Stevens and other Republicans to break openly with Johnson and to push through a much more stringent congressional Reconstruction program over the President's opposition.
In 1868 Stevens served on the committee that drafted the articles of impeachment against Johnson and was a manager of the case before the Senate. Johnson was acquitted in May, and Stevens died on August 11 in Washington. He requested that he be buried in a black cemetery to "illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life—Equality of Man before his Creator." Stevens's tragedy lay in the nation's unreadiness to begin the social and economic reforms necessary to make legal guarantees for blacks meaningful.
Richard N. Current, Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Ambition (1942), is a scholarly, somewhat hostile analysis that finds Stevens primarily motivated by political ambition. Ralph Korngold, Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great (1955), and Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (1959), are sympathetic to Stevens, as is Hans Trefousse, The Radical Republicans (1969), a useful analysis of the ideas and political situation of that group. □
As a strong opponent of the secessionists, in 1861, Stevens became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a position that enabled him to frame and implement important legislation during the Civil War. Stevens constantly pressured President Abraham Lincoln to institute an antislavery policy. He believed that only the laws of war, not the Constitution, applied to the seceded states, which he considered conquered provinces and in which he advocated confiscation of rebel property. His adept congressional leadership enabled him to raise the necessary funds for the Union forces, particularly by the introduction of paper currency “greenbacks,” which he favored throughout his career.
After the war, Stevens was the main proponent in the House of Radical Reconstruction. Largely responsible for denying seats to Southern members and for the establishment of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, he became the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment; the Reconstruction Acts, which initially remanded the Southern states to military rule; and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Often called vindictive and a dictator of Congress, Stevens was in fact opposed to the death sentence and did not succeed with many of his measures that fell short of his desires. Nevertheless, his advocacy for equal rights for the freedmen was an important inducement for Republican Reconstruction measures. He died in 1868, disappointed at his failure to procure the conviction and removal of President Johnson.
[See also Civil War: Domestic Course.]
Hans L. Trefousse