Who was Thaddeus Stevens
Thaddeus Stevens, the most powerful congressman
during and after the Civil War, changed the fabric of
the United States government, helping to push it
towards the promise of equality for all.
Immortalized in the movie Lincoln, by Steven
Spielberg, Stevens was a fearless champion of
freedom and equality. During his lifetime, Stevens’s
fame rivaled that of Abraham Lincoln and when he
died in 1868, his body lay in the Capitol Rotunda --
an honor previously given only to Lincoln and Sen.
Henry Clay. 20,0000 people attended Stevens’s
funeral in Lancaster, PA.
He was the Father of the 14th Amendment -- the
single most important amendment to the Constitution
-- and Savior of Public Education in Pennsylvania. He
also helped pressure Lincoln into freeing the slaves,
developed Reconstruction policies, spearheaded the
impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, and participated in the Underground Railroad.
Born in Danville, Vermont in 1792, his father left his family when Stevens was a child, leaving his
upbringing to his mother, Sarah Stevens, who made sure he received a good education. After
graduating from Dartmouth College, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania in 1814 where he was a teacher
for a short time in York before passing the bar and becoming a lawyer. He moved to Gettysburg in
1816 where he was elected to the state legislature in 1833. Yet, he latched onto the most improbable
of causes, the Anti-Mason party, a movement that blamed most of the problems of the country on
the old fraternal order of the Masons. But because of his political skills, Stevens was able to make
the Anti-Masons a force in Pennsylvania and kept it alive long after it had died elsewhere in the
One of his most famous acts in the legislature was a speech he gave on April 11, 1835, which is
credited with turning back a repeal effort of the state’s fledgling public school system. He urged his
fellow legislators to “build not your monuments of brass or marble, but to make them of ever living
mind.” For that speech, he is called the Savior of Public Education in Pennsylvania.
During his time in Gettysburg, he was a large property owner, started two iron mills, including one
in Caledonia near Chambersburg, PA, and helped establish Gettysburg College by getting it a state
grant of $18,000 in 1834. He served on the college’s board for 34 years and prevented it from
moving from Gettysburg in 1854.
But he had his share of fiascos. In 1838, Stevens and his political allies tried to steal a state
election, but the plan backfired when the Democrats brought in mobs from Philadelphia that took
over the capitol building in Harrisburg by force. During the so-called Buckshot War, Stevens and
others had to jump out a window to escape the mob. There was also Stevens’s “Tapeworm
Railroad” through the mountains of Pennsylvania, named because of its zig-zag course. After the
state pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project, it was abandoned uncompleted after
Stevens lost political power in the Buckshot War.
Stevens’s Caledonia iron works also lost money and by 1842 he was more than $200,000 in debt,
forcing him to leave Gettysburg and move to Lancaster, PA, where he could make more money as
an attorney. In his new home, Stevens was elected to Congress as a Whig from 1849 to 1853 and
then again as a Republican from 1859 until his death in 1868. It was during these last 10 years of his
life, which were plagued by health and financial problems, that he did his greatest work.
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens guided through measures that
were essential to finance the war. He was unrelenting in his pressure on Lincoln to free the slaves
and to use them as soldiers. As the undisputed master of the House of Representatives, he was a key
mover of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, and he was the Father
of the 14th Amendment, which requires equal treatment under the law and extends civil liberties to
the state level. Because of these actions, some historians suggest Stevens deserves the title of the
Great Emancipator as much as Lincoln.
The Civil War also brought financial disaster to Stevens. Confederate General Jubal Early burned
Stevens’s Caledonia iron works to the ground in June 1863, costing Stevens $75,000. But Stevens
took it philosophically: “If finally, the government shall be reestablished over our whole territory
and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a chap purchase.”
In a crucial, yet little known episode, Stevens and Edward McPherson, the clerk of the House of
Representatives and a Stevens protege, were able to prevent the takeover of Congress by southern
and northern Democrats immediately after the war. By the end of 1865, President Andrew Johnson
had issued pardons wholesale to Confederate leaders, who were then elected to Congress. On
December 4, the unrepentant secessionists showed up to take their seats, and take over the
government. This would have caused dire consequences, such as allowing the South to reinstate
slavery through the use of the newly enacted Black Codes.
But Stevens had instructed McPherson, a former Gettysburg congressman, not to call the names of
the southerners during the roll call. This was met by howls of indignation, but Stevens called for
order until the roll was finished. This barred the southerners from Congress and allowed the
Republicans to pursue their Reconstruction plans.
Stevens was unsuccessful in his most ambitious plan to confiscated land from rich Confederates
and redistribute it to freed slaves. Called the “forty-acres and mule” plan, Stevens hoped to provide
economic opportunity to the penniless freed slaves. But it is doubtful that the freedmen would have
been able to keep the land after Reconstruction ended in 1877, considering the wave of violence
against blacks and their disenfranchisement. Stevens also failed to remove President Johnson from
office for obstructing Reconstruction efforts.
Even in death, his commitment to equality continued. Buried in the only integrated cemetery in
Lancaster, his epitaph 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.”