Thaddeus Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont, on April 4, 1792. He was the second of four sons of Joshua Stevens and Sally (Morrill) Stevens. Born with a club foot that hindered him throughout his life, Stevens’ youth was rife with hardship. His father, an unsuccessful shoemaker, was also an alcoholic. According to different accounts, the elder Stevens either abandoned his family, died at an early age, or was killed during the War of 1812. Whatever the case, the father’s absence left the family in dire financial straits.
In 1807, Stevens’ mother moved her family to Peacham, Vermont, where she earned enough money as a menial laborer to enroll Stevens at the Peacham Academy, also known as Caledonia Grammar School. Upon completing his grammar school studies, Stevens enrolled at Dartmouth College. After spending part of one year at the University of Vermont, Steven graduated from Dartmouth in 1814.
From Educator to Lawyer
Upon his graduation from Dartmouth, Stevens returned to teach at Peacham Academy, while he also studied law at the office of Judge John Mattocks. In 1815, Stevens accepted a teaching position at the York County Academy in southern Pennsylvania. While working there, he studied law with York’s leading attorney, David Casset. Circumventing Pennsylvania’s stricter licensing requirements, Stevens crossed into Maryland in 1816 to gain admittance to the bar. The young lawyer then moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to open his practice.
Although Stevens found business slow at first, his practice began to thrive in the 1820s. During that decade, Stevens also became a prosperous land speculator, often purchasing properties at sheriff’s sales. By 1830, he had become one of the wealthiest residents of Adams County, Pennsylvania.
While living in Gettysburg, Stevens became active in politics as a member of the Anti-Mason Party. In 1832, voters elected him to his first of seven terms in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. After serving one term from 1833 to 1835, Stevens returned to the legislature in 1839, where he served intermittently until 1842. While in the legislature, Stevens was a strong proponent of public education. In 1838, Stevens was a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention, but he refused to sign the final document drafted by that body because it limited the right to vote to whites.
During the 1830s, Stevens suffered a severe financial reversal when two ironworks in which he invested performed poorly, saddling him with debts of over $200,000. In 1838, officials appointed Stevens to the state canal commission. He came under public scrutiny when political opponents accused him of using his public office to promote construction of the Gettysburg (or “Tapeworm”) Railroad to bolster his failing iron businesses and to build political patronage.
In 1842, Stevens retired from public life and moved his law practice to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where his financial standing rebounded. Six years later, he returned to the political arena, when voters in the Lancaster district elected him to represent them in the United States Congress as a member of the Whig Party in 1848. He served in the Thirty-first and Thirty-second Congresses from March 4, 1849 until March 3, 1853.
While in Congress, Stevens vociferously opposed the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law. He also began gaining notoriety as a proponent of equal rights for politically disadvantaged groups, including Native Americans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. An ardent abolitionist, Stevens reportedly harbored fugitive slaves in the basement of his Lancaster law office.
In 1853, Stevens returned to his law practice after choosing not to run for reelection in 1852. Although out of public office during the next few years, he played a prominent role in organizing the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. In 1858, Stevens resumed his political career, when voters from Pennsylvania’s Ninth District returned him to Congress. Stevens served in the Thirty-seventh to Fortieth Congresses.
During the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth congresses (March 4, 1861–March 4, 1865), Stevens chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which drafted legislation that financed the American Civil War. Although he officially supported President Lincoln’s leadership during the war, he often criticized the president for not embracing emancipation and the abolition of slavery more aggressively.
Joint Committee on Reconstruction
Following President Lincoln’s assassination, Stevens grew progressively critical of the Reconstruction policies of the president’s successor, Andrew Johnson. When the first session of the Thirty-ninth Congress convened on December 4, 1865, Stevens introduced a proposal for Congress to form a joint committee of members from the House and Senate to “inquire into the condition of the States which formed the so-called Confederate States of America, and report whether they or any of them are entitled to be represented in either House of Congress.” Both houses of Congress approved Stevens’ proposal, and the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction (more commonly known as the Joint Committee on Reconstruction) met for the first time on January 6, 1866.
During a committee meeting on January 10, 1866, Stevens proposed a constitutional amendment to nullify the Three-fifths Compromise regarding apportionment (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution). Three days later, he proposed another constitutional amendment affirming that “All laws, State and national, shall operate impartially and equally on all persons regardless of race or color.” During the next few months, the Joint Committee’s members considered many Reconstruction measures. On April 21, 1866, Stevens proposed combining several of the recommendations into what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
A little over one week later, Stevens introduced the Joint Committee’s proposed constitutional amendment to the full House on April 30. Stevens also reported a recommendation that Congress enact legislation requiring Southern states to ratify the proposed Fourteenth Amendment as a condition for being readmitted to the Union. When most of the Southern states balked at the ratification requirement, Stevens was instrumental in the enactment of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which imposed military rule in the South and disbanded Southern state governments until they accepted Congressional conditions.
Led by Stevens and dominated by the radical wing of the Republican Party, the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses enacted several Reconstruction bills over presidential vetoes. Congressional Reconstruction policies imposed substantially harsher terms on former Confederate states than those proposed by the president. Stevens had personal reasons for favoring the draconian treatment of the former Rebels. During the Gettysburg Campaign, Confederate General Jubal Early ordered his soldiers to burn Stevens’ ironworks at Caledonia, Pennsylvania to the ground.
Impeachment of President Johnson
Congressional Reconstruction policies championed by Stevens also forcefully addressed the related issues of protecting former slaves in the South and establishing their rights as freedmen. The tension between the two branches of government reached a crescendo on February 24, 1868, when, on the House floor, Stevens introduced a recommendation of the House Select Committee on Reconstruction that “Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors in office.” One week later, the House embraced the committee’s recommendation and enacted eleven articles of impeachment against the president. House members selected Stevens as chairman of the committee appointed to manage the prosecution of the president, but because of his failing health, Stevens played an insignificant role in Johnson’s trial before the Senate.
After Johnson’s acquittal on May 26, Stevens continued his duties in the House, but his health declined even further during the summer. In early August, he developed a case of acute diarrhea, from which he never recovered. Thaddeus Stevens died at his apartment in Washington, D.C., near midnight on August 11, 1868.
After embalming, officials moved Stevens’ body to the Capitol Building, where it lay in state under the watch of a Black Honor Guard (the Butler Zouaves from the District of Columbia). On August 14, officials moved Stevens body to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for funeral services that roughly 20,000 mourners attended. Among them was his African-American housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, with whom Stevens reportedly had a twenty-three-year romantic relationship. Often referred to as “The Great Commoner,” Stevens chose to be buried at the Shreiner’s Cemetery, in Lancaster, because the graveyard was integrated. Stevens composed his own epitaph for his tombstone, which read,
I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, 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.