Thaddeus Stevens

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.

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Further Reading on Thaddeus Stevens

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.