Who Was Thaddeus Stevens?
Thaddeus Stevens was a Radical Republican leader and one of the most powerful members in the U.S. House of Representatives. He focused much of his political attention on civil rights, eventually helping to draft the 14th Amendment. He dominated the House during Reconstruction and proposed the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
Thaddeus Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont, on April 4, 1792. He was the second son born to Sarah and Joshua Stevens, who disappeared when his son was a young boy, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves with very little money. Stevens had a difficult childhood; in addition to growing up fatherless, he was poor and had a club foot.
Stevens attended Peacham Academy, where he excelled in his academics, and then enrolled at Dartmouth College. He spent a term studying at the University of Vermont but ultimately graduated from Dartmouth. Stevens completed his undergraduate education and moved to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught classes at a one-room school during the daytime and studied law in the evenings. Two years after moving to Pennsylvania, Stevens was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Gettysburg. Early in his career, he developed a hatred for bondage and, subsequently, defended many fugitives without charging them legal fees.
Stevens entered the political sphere in 1833, serving for four years in the state legislature as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. He supported banks, internal improvements and public schools, and spoke out against slavery; Jacksonian Democrats; and Freemasons, believing that they were contriving plans to unfairly gain government positions.
In 1849, Stevens was elected, as a Whig, to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a congressman, he advocated for tariff increases, opposed the fugitive slave provision of the Compromise of 1850, and later joined the newly formed Republican Party. Stevens became a natural leader in Congress and served as a member of the House until his death in 1868.
In 1848, a third party called the Free Soil Party formed to highlight opposition to extending slavery into western territories that had not yet organized as states. (The Free Soil Party had dissipated by the mid-1850s, and was largely absorbed by the new Republican Party, of which Stevens was a member.) As an important member of the new Republicans, Stevens became actively involved in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada.
The abolition of slavery slowly became Steven's primary political focus and, as a result, he emerged as one of the nation's most militant Radical Republicans. He publicly condemned the Confederacy and even initiated the exclusion of traditional Southern senators and representatives from a congressional meeting in 1865. By 1866, the Radical Republicans had taken significant control of Congress, due in no small part to Stevens's leadership. Their work largely set the course for Reconstruction in the South.
Stevens's Reconstruction efforts were resisted by President Andrew Johnson, which frustrated the congressman and prompted him to fight back against the president; Stevens introduced the resolution for President Johnson's impeachment and chaired the committee responsible for drafting impeachment articles.
Following the Civil War, Stevens served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and played an important role in drafting both the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The 14th Amendment—prohibiting local and state governments from depriving citizens of "life, liberty or property," among other important protections for citizens—later served as a basis for civil rights legislation.
Death and Legacy
Stevens died in Washington, D.C. on August 11, 1868. In failing health, Stevens had requested to be buried in Shreiner-Concord Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because the state accepted all races. He composed his own epitaph, which reads, "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not for 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."
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