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Thaddeus Stevens Quotes

From the Public School speech of April 11, 1835,
which turned back an attempt to repeal public education in Pennsylvania:

"Such a law should be entitled ‘An act for branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from the rich and the proud” (Speaking about the previous school system)


“He cheerfully pays the tax which is necessary to support and punish convicts, but loudly complains of that which goes to prevent this fellow from becoming criminals, and to obviate the necessity of the humiliating institutions.”

“Sir, when I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and, perhaps, as a consequence, hereditary pride are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and the rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty. Sir, it is a blessing – for if there be any human sensation more ethereal and divine than all others, it is that feelingly sympathizes with misfortune.”


"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." -- the epitaph on the grave of Thaddeus Stevens in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, Lancaster, PA

"I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: 'Here lies one who only courted the low ambition to have it said he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.' " January 13, 1865 in the debate over the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

"Our object should be not only to end this terrible war now, but to prevent its recurrence. All must admit that slavery is the cause of it. Without slavery we should this day be a united and happy people. . . . The principles of our Republic are wholly incompatible with slavery."

--Subduing the Rebellion speech in Congress (January 22, 1862)
"I shall feel myself abundantly rewarded for all my efforts in behalf of universal education if a single child, educated by the commonwealth, shall drop a tear of gratitude on my grave."

--Memorial addresses on the life and character of Thaddeus Stevens, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., December 17, 1868, printed 1869

"Let demagogues note it for future use, and send it on the wings of the wind to the ears of every one of my constituents, in matters of this kind, I would rather hear the approving voice of one judicious, intelligent, and enlightened mind, than to be greeted by the loud huzzahs of the whole host of ignorance."

--from A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1985 (January 31, 1834), (Glatfelter 54)

“There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty. Fanaticism is excessive zeal. There may be, and have been fanatics in false religion – in the bloody religions of the heathen. There are fanatics in superstition. But there can be no fanatic, however warm their zeal, in the true religion, even although you sell your goods and bestow your money on the poor, and go on and follow your Master. There may, and every hour shows around me, fanatics in the cause of false liberty – that infamous liberty which justifies human bondage, that liberty whose ‘corner-stone is slavery.’ But there can be no fanaticism however high the enthusiasm, in the cause of rational, universal liberty – the liberty of the Declaration of Independence.”

--"The California Question" (June 10, 1850), as quoted in The Selected Works of Thaddeus Stevens

“I wish the Indians had newspapers of their own. If they had, you would have horrible pictures of the cold-blooded murders of inoffensive Indians. You would have more terrible pictures than we have now revealed to us [of white people], and, I have no doubt, we would have the real reasons for these Indian troubles. I suppose they would be as accurate as those you have in the letters which have just been read, and which have come in here so opportunely.”

--April 19, 1860

“Every humane and patriotic heart must grieve to see a bloody and causeless rebellion, costing thousands of human lives and millions of treasure. But as it was predetermined and inevitable, it was long enough delayed. Now is the appropriate time to solve the greatest problem ever submitted to civilized man.”

--January 22, 1862

“What an opportunity is presented to this Republic to vindicate her consistency and become immortal. The occasion is forced upon us, and the invitation presented to strike the chains from four million of human beings, and create them MEN; to extinguish slavery on this whole continent; to wipe out, so far as we are concerned, the most hateful and infernal blot that has ever disgraced the escutcheon of man; to write a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and of sages.”

--January 22, 1862

“I care not whether the soldiers are of Milesian, Teutonic, African or Anglo-Saxon descent. I despise the principle that make a difference between them in the hour of battle and of death. The idea the we are to keep up that distinction is abhorrent to the feeling of the age, is abhorrent to the feeling of humanity, is shocking to every decent instinct of our nature.”

--In a speech to give black soldiers equal pay (April 30, 1864)

"Prejudice may be shocked, weak minds startled, weak nerves may tremble, but they must hear and adopt it. Those who now furnish the means of war [slaves], but who are natural enemies of slaveholders, must be made our allies. Universal emancipation must be proclaimed to all. If slaves no longer raised cotton and rice, tobacco and grain for the rebels, this war would cease in six months. It could not be maintained even if the liberated slaves should not lift a hand against their masters."

--January 22, 1862, from The selected papers of Thaddeus Stevens (Palmer 246)

"Our object should be not only to end this terrible war now, but to prevent its recurrence. All must admit that slavery is the cause of it. Without slavery, we should this day be a united and happy people."

--January 22, 1862, from The selected papers of Thaddeus Stevens (Palmer 248)

“The whole fabric of southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. Without this, this government can never be, as it never has been, a true republic.”

--September 6, 1865

“I wished that I were the owner of every southern slave, that I might cast off the shackles from their limbs, and witness the rapture which would excite them in the first dance of their freedom.”

--At the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention (July 1837)

“I can never acknowledge the right of slavery. I will bow down to no deity however worshiped by professing Christians – however dignified by the name of the Goddess of Liberty, whose footstool is the crushed necks of the groaning millions, and who rejoices in the resounding of the tyrant’s lash, and the cries of his tortured victims.”

--May 4, 1838

“In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age, I had fondly dreamed that when any fortunate chance should have broken up for a while the foundation of our institutions, and released us from obligations the most tyrannical that ever man imposed in the name of freedom, that the intelligent pure and just men of this Republic, true to their professions and their consciences, would have so remodeled all our institutions as to have rid them from every vestige of human oppression, of the inequity of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich. In short, that no distinction would be tolerated in this purified Republic but what arose from merit and conduct. This bright dream has vanished ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision.’ I find that we shall be obliged to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept through by the tempests, the frosts, and the storms of despotism.
   Do you inquire why, holding these views and possessing some will of my own, I accept so imperfect a proposition? I answer, because I live among men and not among angels; among men as intelligent, as determined, and as independent as myself, who not agreeing with me, do not choose to yield their opinions to mine. Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.”

--On the alteration of his original proposal for the 14th Amendment (June 13, 1866)

“I have done what I deemed best for humanity. It is easy to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. But it is a great labor to protect the interests of the poor and downtrodden. It is the eternal labor of Sisyphus, forever to be renewed. I know how unprofitable is all such toil. But he who is earnest heeds not such things. It has not been popular. But if there be anything for which I have entire indifference; perhaps I might say contempt, it is the public opinion which is founded on popular clamor.”

--From speech on readmission of states (July 28, 1866), (Palmer 2: 178)

“Let demagogues note it for future use, and send it on the wings of the wind to the ears of every one of my constituents, in matters of this kind, I would rather hear the approving voice of one judicious intelligent, and enlightened mind, than be greeted by the loud huzzahs of the whole host of ignorance.” 

--In support of granting $18,000 to Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College (February 1834)

“It is my purpose nowhere in these remarks to make personal reproaches; I entertain no ill-will toward any human being, nor any brute, that I know of, not even the skunk across the way to which I referred. Least of all would I reproach the South. I honor her courage and fidelity. Even in a bad, a wicked cause, she shows a united front. All her sons are faithful to the cause of human bondage, because it is their cause. But the North -- the poor, timid, mercenary, driveling North -- has no such united defenders of her cause, although it is the cause of human liberty. None of the bright lights of the nation shine upon her section. Even her own great men have turned her accusers. She is the victim of low ambition -- an ambition which prefers self to country, personal aggrandizement to the high cause of human liberty. She is offered up a sacrifice to propitiate southern tyranny -- to conciliate southern treason.”  

--In a speech before Congress on the Fugitive Slave Act (June 10, 1850), (Palmer 1: 123)

"Believing then, that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it. I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times. It may be that time will not come while I am here to enjoy the glorious triumph; but that it will come is as certain as that there is a just God."

--In speech about the 14th Amendment (May 8, 1866)

"My sands are nearly run, and I can only see with the eye of faith. I am fast descending the downhill of life, at the foot of which stands an open grave. But you, sir, are promised length of days and a brilliant career. If you and your compeers can fling away ambition and realize that every human being, however lowly-born or degraded, by fortune is your equal, that every inalienable right which belongs to you belongs also to him, truth and righteousness will spread over the land, and you will look down from the top of the Rocky mountains upon an empire of one hundred millions of happy people."

--As part of presentation on impeachment resolution after Johnson had been acquitted (July 7, 1868)

"The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

--from Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight For Negro Rights (Meltzer 159)

"Mr. President, Andrew Johnson is a rank demagogue, and I suspect at heart a damned scoundrel."

--In a conversation with Abraham Lincoln in early 1864 about Johnson possibly being Lincoln's vice president, from Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (Brodie 217)

"Can't you get a candidate for vice-president without going down into a damned rebel province for one."

--In late 1864 when Thaddeus Stevens was told by Alexander McClure that Lincoln wanted the Pennsylvania Republican delegation to support Johnson for vice president, from Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (Brodie 220)

"Do not, I pray you, admit those who have slaughtered half a million of our countrymen until their clothes are dried, and until they are reclad. I do not wish to sit side by side with men whose garments smell of the blood of my kindred."

--In a Congressional speech on the 14th Amendment (May 10, 1866), (Palmer 2: 139)

Asked during the May 10, 1866 speech if he wanted to build a jail to hold 8 million people in the south, Stevens replied: "Yes, sir, a penitentiary which is built at the point of the bayonet down below, and if they undertake to come here we will shoot them. That is the way to take care of those people. They deserve it, at least for a time." --(Palmer 2: 140)

Those who suppose that the [southern] leaders were actuated by a desire to redress grievances, either real or fancied, greatly mistake the real object of the traitors. They have rebelled for no redress of grievances, but to establish a slave oligarchy which would repudiate the odious doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, and justify the establishment of an empire admitting the principle of king, lord, and slaves.

--From Subduing the Rebellion speech (January 22, 1862), (Palmer 1: 241)

"But I have another objection to the amendment of my friend from Ohio. His proposition is to apportion representation according to the male citizens of the states. Why has he put in the word 'male?' It was never in the Constitution of the United States before. Why make a crusade against women in the Constitution of the nation? Is my friend as much afraid of their rivalry as the gentlemen on the other side [Democrats] are afraid of the rivalry of the Negro? I do not think we ought to disfigure the Constitution with such a provision. I find that every unmarried man is opposed to the proposition. Whether married men have particular reason for dreading interference from that quarter I know not. I certainly shall never vote to insert the word 'male' or the word 'white' in the national Constitution. Let these things be attended to by the states."

--Congressional speech (January 31, 1866)

Quotes about Thaddeus Stevens:

"Our enemy has a general now. This man is rich, therefore, we cannot buy him. He does not want higher office, therefore we cannot allure him. He is not vicious, therefore, we cannot seduce him. He is in earnest. He means what he says. He is bold. He cannot be flattered or frightened."

--Howell Cobb, Democratic speaker of House (June 1850)

"He never flattered the people; he never attempted to deceive them; he never "paltered with them in a double sense;" he never courted and encouraged their errors. On the contrary, on all occasions he attacked their sins, he assailed their prejudices, he outraged all their bigotries; and when they turned upon him and attacked him he marched straight forward, like Gulliver wading through the fleets of the Lilliputians, dragging his enemies after him into the great harbor of truth."

--Minnesota Congress Ignatius Donnelly in Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Thaddeus Stevens, House of Representatives (December 1, 1868).

"That which gives Mr. Stevens the great power which he wields in the House -- a power which is almost irresistible -- is his emphatic and earnest denunciation of treason. The country has suffered as much in the past from vacillation, that it greatly admires any thing which looks thorough and straightforward. Mr. Stevens's words have a gladiatorial strength which would have done honor to the boldest of Rome's orators. They sway men by their sledge-hammer strokes -- they are words of iron. Whatever be the verdict of posterity in regard to the wisdom of Mr. Stevens's acts and speeches, future generations can not fail to render him the tribute which is always yielded to extraordinary force of character."

--Harper's Weekly, April 7, 1866

In his book, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy called Thaddeus Stevens the "crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement." But after having to deal with southerners as President, Kennedy changed his mind about Stevens. "I'm coming to believe that Thaddeus Stevens was right. I had always been taught to regard him as a man of vicious bias. But when I see this sort of thing [the violence in Birmingham, AL], I begin to wonder how else you can treat them." he told Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., special assistant to the President, in June 1963.

"He [Stevens] was to become the most powerful dictatorial party and congressional leader with one possible exception in American history, and to impose his revolutionary theories upon the country by sheer determination." Claude Bowers in the Tragic Era, a 1929 book attacking the giving of rights to Blacks after the Civil War. 

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