Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thaddeus Stevens, born April 4, 1792

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
Thaddeus' older brother, Joshua, was born with two clubfeet that made it very difficult for him to walk. In the late 1700's any physical deformity was seen as a sign from God that the family had committed some serious secret sin. Such a deformity was called the "Mark of the Devil" and as a consequence the family was ridiculed and shunned. When Thaddeus was also born with a clubfoot, it made things even worse for the family.

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. 

Sarah realized that the only hope for her eldest two sons was education. She scraped enough money together to enroll them in the nearby one-room Peacham School. 

Thaddeus was frail, poor, limped severely, and was not particularly attractive. He was teased and taunted mercilessly by other children throughout his childhood. He became shy and sensitive. Thaddeus excelled in school. It became obvious that he had great intelligence and a special aptitude for debating.  

He was 69 years old when the Civil War began.

Dartmouth College
Having completed his course of study at Peacham Academy, Stevens entered Dartmouth College as a sophomore in 1811, and graduated in 1814.  He was the poorest student at the College, never having enough money for books let alone money to go out and socialize with his rich classmates. As a result he was an outcast, just as he had been throughout his childhood. Even though he was more qualified than most of his peers, he was not nominated for Phi Beta Kappa, an honors fraternity.

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
In 1821, a Maryland slaveowner, Norman Bruce, hired Stevens to recover a slave, Charity Butler, and her two children. Butler was a runaway slave who lived in Pennsylvania. Butler claimed that since she had resided in a free state for more than six months, she could be declared free under state law. Stevens won the case by showing that Butler had not lived in Pennsylvania for six consecutive months. When reflecting on how his legal skill returned three people to slavery, Stevens was appalled. He became a devoted abolitionist.

At first, Stevens belonged to the Federalist Party, but switched to the Anti-Masonic Party,  then to the Whig Party, and finally to the Republican Party.  In 1833, he was elected on the Anti-Masonic ticket to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where he served intermittently until 1842.

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
Stevens never married, though there were rumors about his 23-year relationship (1845–68) with his widowed quadroon housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith (1813-1884).  Carl Sandburg described Smith as "a comely quadroon with Caucasian features and a skin of light-gold tint, a Roman Catholic communicant with Irish eyes ... quiet, discreet, retiring, reputed for poise and personal dignity."  Smith had two sons, William and Isaac, by her late husband, Jacob Smith, and she and Stevens raised the latter's nephews, whom he adopted in the 1840s.
Lydia Hamilton Smith
During her time with Stevens—neighbors considered her his common law wife, and she was frequently called "Mrs. Stevens" by people who knew her, according to Sandburg—she invested in real estate and other businesses and owned a prosperous boarding house. No evidence exists as to the exact nature of the relationship between Stevens and Smith. In the one brief surviving letter from Stevens to her, Stevens addresses her as Mrs. Lydia Smith. The letter shows Stevens did not view Smith only as a servant, but at the least as a very close friend. Letters to Stevens from other family members show Smith was a friend to them and have "frequent warm and cordial references" to her.

Stevens devoted most of his enormous energies to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power —the conspiracy he saw of slave owners to seize control of the federal government and block the progress of liberty. In 1848. while still a Whig party member, Stevens was elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives.  He served in congress from 1849 to 1853, and then from 1859 until his death in 1868.

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.
Daniel Gibbons
In July 1861 Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution stating the limited war aim of restoring the Union while preserving slavery; Stevens helped repeal it in December. In August 1861, he supported the Confiscation Act, which said owners would forfeit any slaves they allowed to help the Confederate war effort. By December he was the first congressional leader pushing for emancipation as a tool to weaken the rebellion.

Stevens was so outspoken in his condemnation of the Confederacy that General Jubal Early  of the Confederate Army made a point of burning much of his iron business to the ground during the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863. Early claimed that this action was in direct retaliation for Stevens' perceived support of similar actions by the Union Army in the South.
Ruins of Stevens' Caldonia Furnace Ironworks 
outside Gettysburg
Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans, a varied group, though his own views were not shared by them all.  His support for the confiscation of the leading planters' estates found little support even among Radicals and had no chance of passage. His theory of Reconstruction was equally outspoken. Known as the "conquered provinces" idea, it asserted that the Confederacy had in practical fact created a separate nation, however illegal doing so under the Constitution might be. They could therefore be treated as if they were a foreign nation that had been conquered, permitting the United States full power to remake southern society as it saw fit. (At the same time, Stevens's theory meant that Confederate leaders could not be tried for treason, because they had not made war on their own country, and Stevens himself was prepared to act as defense counsel for Jefferson Davis, if the occasion arose.)

W.W. Holden, the Republican governor of North Carolina, later wrote that in December 1866 Stevens told him, "it would be best for the South to remain ten years longer under military rule, and that during this time we would have Territorial Governors, with Territorial Legislatures, and the government at Washington would pay our general expenses as territories, and educate our children, white and colored." 

Stevens took alarm at President Johnson's Reconstruction program almost at once, partly because it permitted new governments to be elected on an exclusively white suffrage, but also because of his intense disapproval of a Reconstruction initiated by executive authority: Stevens was a fierce defender of Congressional prerogatives.
In the 39th Congress, Stevens served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, but found moderate members of his party predominating. In the House, he called for a reconstruction in which leading Confederates would be deprived of the vote and former slaves, at least the adult males among them, would be enfranchised. 

He found the Fourteenth Amendment's final provisions, with a limited disqualification from office for some former Confederates, deeply disappointing, but accepted it as the best terms possible. 

After the 1866 elections, Stevens pressed for a long probation period for the Confederate states, under military oversight, until they had been changed enough to be safe for readmission to Congress, but the so-called Military Reconstruction Acts of February and March, 1867, fell short of his wishes and set up a mechanism by which those states might be eligible for readmission within months. 
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
By that time, Stevens feared that Reconstruction would fail. When the Republican national platform failed to endorse universal suffrage, he called it "lame and cowardly." 

His last efforts in Congress came in helping pass the appropriation to pay for William Henry Seward's purchase of Alaska. Though the two men differed sharply on Reconstruction, they worked together well on foreign policy matters.

Thaddeus Stevens died at midnight on August 11, 1868, in Washington, D.C., less than three months after the acquittal of Johnson.  He was 76 years old.

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. 

Eight years before he died, Stevens deeded substantial property behind his house to Smith for $500. Stevens already had built a brick house on that property, facing on East Vine Street, for Smith and her sons.  Under Stevens's will, Smith was allowed to choose between a lump sum of $5,000 or a $500 annual allowance; she was also allowed to take any furniture in his house. With the inheritance, she purchased Stevens's house, where she had lived for many years, and the adjoining lot.

Stevens' coffin lay in state inside the Capitol Rotunda, flanked by a Black honor guard (the Butler Zouaves from the District of Columbia).  
Stevens Coffin lying in state in Capitol Rotunda
Twenty thousand people, one half of whom were African American, attended his funeral in Lancaster, PA.  He chose to be buried in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, because it was the only cemetery that would accept people without regard to race.

Stevens Grave in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery
Stevens wrote the inscription on his headstone that 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."

In his will he left $50,000 to establish Stevens, a school for the relief and refuge of homeless, indigent orphans.  "They shall be carefully educated in the various branches of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits. No preference shall be shown on account of race or color in their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish or Mahometan, nor any others on account of their race or religion of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the same table."

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.

In Washington, D.C., the Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School was built in 1868 as one of the first publicly funded schools for black children. President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy Carter, attended the school.

Stevens Elementary School
Buildings associated with Stevens are currently being restored by the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with an eye toward focusing on the establishment of a $20 million museum. These include his home, law offices, and a nearby tavern. The effort also celebrates the contributions of his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who was involved in the underground railroad.

Austin Stoneman, the villainous, fanatical and naive congressman in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, was modeled on Stevens.  Additionally, he was portrayed as a villain in The Clansman, the second novel in the trilogy upon which Birth of a Nation was based. 

"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

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