Thaddeus Stevens: “Old Commoner”

The historical marker on Danville Green has been Vermont's only public acknowledgement of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was born in Danville and educated in Peacham.

By Paul Chouinard, President of the Danville Historical Society

On Sunday October 30, The Danville Historical Society and the Danville Chamber of Commerce will honor Thaddeus Stevens in a ceremony for the unveiling of an etching of his portrait that is being presented to the Vermont Statehouse. The ceremony will be held at the Danville Congregational Church and begin at 2:00 PM to be followed by a reception in the Church dining room.

January 10, 2010, Vermont Civil War Historian, Howard Coffin, addressed the Danville Historical Society at its Annual Meeting, focusing on Danville’s involvement in the Civil War. Following delivery of his address, Mr. Coffin suggested that he felt it would be a most appropriate sesquicentennial project for the Danville Historical Society to coordinate an effort to raise funds for commissioning a portrait of Thaddeus Stevens to be presented to the Statehouse for inclusion in its collection of portraits of prominent Vermonters.

It is ironic that in the 219 years since the birth of Thaddeus Stevens that the only memorial in Vermont to his legacy as one of America’s great civil rights advocates is a State Department of Historic Sites marker on Danville Green indicating Danville as the place of his birth. There has never been any public portrait or piece of sculpture honoring the enormous contributions he made on the national level to affect the emancipation of the slaves and to grant them civil rights.

The Danville Historical Society believes that Thaddeus Stevens’ point of view and his values were clearly developed as a result of his personal experience in coping with a disability and in having been raised in poverty in a state which valued and protected individual rights and personal liberties. His formative years in Danville and as a student in Peacham, at Caledonia County Grammar School, clearly influenced his philosophy and values, which were reflected in his public life.

Thaddeus Stevens, the second son of Joshua and Sally Morrill Stevens, was born in Danville, Vermont April 4, 1792. Like his oldest brother Joshua, who had two club feet, Thaddeus was born with a club foot. Following the birth of two additional siblings, Abner and Alanson, their father abandoned the family. Their mother dedicated her life to her sons, struggling to overcome poverty and provide them with an opportunity to receive an education.

Following their father’s departure, Sally moved her family to Morrill Village, what we today know as Greenbank’s Hollow. About 1807, Sally sold her farm in Danville and moved to Peacham so that her boys could attend Caledonia County Grammar School (Peacham Academy). Thaddeus’ infirmity set him apart and made him the object of ridicule and discrimination. He did gain respect as an outstanding student, graduating from Caledonia County Grammar School in 1811 and gaining admission to Dartmouth College as a sophomore. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1814 and returned to Peacham to teach and read law with John Mattock – lawyer, banker and influential politician.

Based on a friendship formed at Dartmouth with a young mentor, Samuel Merrill, who also hailed from Peacham, Thaddeus was convinced to move to Pennsylvania to teach and continue studying law. In 1815 he moved to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught at Dr. Perkins’ Academy. He was admitted to the bar in Bel Air, Maryland, in 1816. He soon established a reputation for himself as an outstanding attorney. In 1833 he was elected to the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania where he become a strong advocate for free public education, which led to the passage of a law to provide free public education to the children of Pennsylvania; it became a precedent which was followed by other states.

He was elected to the United States Congress, serving in the House of Representatives 1849-1853 and 1859-1868. James Albert Woodburn, onetime professor of American history and politics, at Indiana University, has said:

“Thaddeus Stevens was the dominant figure in the American Congress during this notable period (Civil War and Reconstruction). It may reasonably be claimed that no more masterful leader ever directed the politics and legislation of the House of Representatives…and it may be said that for a part of this decade he led both the House and the nation by the sheer force and energy of his mind and will.”

Richard Nelson, professor of history at the University of Illinois, has written that Stevens

“had exerted more influence upon American legislation, during the decade of conflict, than any other person in the United States! . . .War taxes, tariffs, greenbacks, transcontinental railroads, ‘forty acres and a mule,’ the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the reconstruction acts, the impeachment proceedings – these things and many more were largely his handiwork.”

In the Memorial Addresses On The Life And Character Of Thaddeus Stevens delivered in the House of Representatives December 17,1868, Vermont Representative, Luke Poland, stated:

“Mr. Speaker: I rise to second the resolutions offered by the gentleman from Pennsylvania…The people of Vermont always loved to believe that the strong love of freedom and independence for all men exhibited by him (Thaddeus Stevens) – his hatred of all forms of oppression, and his efforts to elevate and benefit the masses,were, to some extent, due to his being born in Vermont. The early history of Vermont was that of a continual struggle against what they deemed to be unlawful and unjust attempts of other states to obtain jurisdiction and exercise governmental power over them. These struggles had ceased, to be sure, prior to the birth of Mr. Stevens; but the heroes and statesmen who were her leaders in those trying days were still alive and gave tone and temper to public sentiment and opinion for many years after. We have loved to believe in Vermont that the free and independent opinions inhaled by him in his youth with the free air of our grand mountains in some degree contributed to make him what he was so emphatically, the friend of the oppressed and the foe of the oppressor. Like other men, he had his faults; but he has done so much for the great cause of humanity that his and all future generations in this land have ample cause to bless and revere his memory.”











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