Thaddeus Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4, 1792. His parents, Joshua and Sarah (Sally) Morrill Stevens, had arrived there from Massachusetts around 1786. Thaddeus was the second of four sons, and was named to honor Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
|Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko|
The fate of his father, Joshua Stevens, an alcoholic, profligate shoemaker who was unable to hold a steady job, is uncertain. By the time Thaddeus was 12, his father had left his wife and four small sons in dire poverty.
Sarah Stevens was a kind woman with great energy, a strong will, and was deeply religious. She held the family together by working day and night. In addition to doing the farm work, she did cleaning and other domestic work for people in the area. Thaddeus loved his mother and was totally devoted to her throughout his life.
He moved to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught school and studied law. After admission to the bar, he established a successful law practice, first in Gettysburg in 1816, then in Lancaster in 1842.
In his first year, he successfully argued nine out of ten cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, an unprecedented feat. Word of his ability and success spread throughout the region and he was inundated with clients. After five years he owned a house and lot, several other properties, and was able to purchase, for his mother, a 250-acre farm with 14 cows. He said that buying her the farm was the "greatest satisfaction of his life". During the next 21 years he would become very wealthy.
|Lancaster, Pennsylvania home|
During his time in the General Assembly, the accomplishment Thaddeus Stevens was most proud of was his effort to institute free public education. In 1830's America, there were practically no free public schools. Those that existed were found in New England and in large cities. Only affluent families could afford to send their children to school. When a Free School Bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Stevens became an ardent supporter. He collaborated with Governor Wolfe to get the bill passed, even though Wolfe was a Mason. However, when the legislators returned to their districts there was an uproar. People believed it was too expensive and some opposed the bill because they had their own religious schools. Over 32,000 individuals signed a petition to repeal the new legislation. The General Assembly was recalled and went into session to reconsider. The Senate quickly passed a repeal bill. The bill then went to the House. Stevens took the floor to defend the original bill. There was standing room only as most of the Senate filled the gallery. Stevens began his speech by using statistics to show how a state system of free schools was more efficient and ultimately less costly then the existing system. After he finished his speech, he limped back to his seat to the cheers of the entire assembly. The House suspended the rules and amended the Repeal Bill into an act that actually strengthened the original Free School Act and passed it. The Senate immediately followed suit. The result was to give Pennsylvania a statewide free public school system an entire generation before New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the entire South.
|Portrait of Lydia Hamilton Smith, |
commissioned by Stevens in the 1840s
|Lydia Hamilton Smith|
He defended and supported Native Americans, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese and women. The defense of runaway or fugitive slaves gradually began to consume the greatest amount of his time. He was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves in getting to Canada. An Underground Railroad site has been discovered under his office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Escaping slaves who reached Stevens were often sent on to Bird-in-Hand, to the home of Daniel Gibbons. Gibbons, a Quaker, was the most noted "stationmaster" of the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Three generations of the Gibbons family operated a major station on the Underground Railroad outside Bird-in-Hand.
|Ruins of Stevens' Caldonia Furnace Ironworks |
|President Andrew Johnson|
President Andrew Johnson's views about the nature of Reconstruction are reflected in this quote from his annual address to Congress in 1867: "Blacks possess less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism."
|Stevens speaking in Senate|
Accused of treason by President Johnson, and convinced that Johnson was using all his executive powers to block a successful implementation of the Reconstruction Acts, Stevens was among the first Republicans to call for the president's impeachment. When Andrew Johnson tried to force his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, out of office, moderate Republicans join the Radicals in voting through articles of impeachment. Stevens proposed and passed the resolution for the impeachment in February 1868. He served on the panel of managers that prosecuted the case before the Senate, but Johnson was acquitted on May 16, 1868 by a single vote.
|Impeachment Vote in Senate|
When Stevens died, Smith was at his bedside, along with his nephews Simon and Thaddeus Stevens Jr., two African American nuns, and several other individuals.
|Stevens Coffin lying in state in Capitol Rotunda|
|Stevens Grave in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery|
This original bequest has now evolved into Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. The college continually strives to provide underprivileged individuals with opportunities and to create an environment in which individual differences are valued and nurtured.
|Stevens Elementary School|
|"The Birth of a Nation": |
Austin Stoneman and Housekeeper
He was also portrayed by Lionel Barrymore as a villain and fanatic in Tennessee Johnson, the 1942 MGM film about the life of President Andrew Johnson.
In Steven Spielberg's 2012 film Lincoln, Stevens is played by Tommy Lee Jones and portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist.
|Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens|