The Old Commoner finally makes a visible presence in the Vermont State House
After many months of work, Thaddeus Stevens has been honored in his home state of Vermont by having his likeness hung in the State House. In a lovely ceremony in the historical Cedar Creek room, his portrait was unveiled and celebrated on March 28, 2012.
Curator David Schutz opened the ceremony. Three Vermont Civil War Hemlocks surrounded the draped image while Schutz explained where the portrait was to be hung and what he had discovered about Stevens during his own investigation of the man and his times.
Paul Chouinard, former president of the Danville Historical
Society and the main force behind the effort to bring this event to fruition, then stepped to the lectern and introduced Lt. Governor Phil Scott and Senator Jane Kitchel. Both spoke briefly to the gathered assembly, commending the efforts to honor Stevens who was a major force in recognizing the civil rights of all citizens.
Chouinard then spoke of Stevens’ accomplishments and background. Much of what was included in his speech was taken from research he had conducted and included in the following letter he wrote in January of 2010 after historian and author Howard Coffin challenged Danville at its annual meeting.
Dear David Schutz:
The Danville Historical Society respectfully requests that you make arrangements with the Legislative Committee On The State House to consider our request to include a portrait of Danville native, Thaddeus Stevens, in the State House collection.
On January 10, 2010, 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 State House for inclusion in its collection of portraits of prominent Vermonters.
Thaddeus Steven, the second son of Joshua and Sally 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. 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. To show the estimate in which Mr. Stevens was held by the people of Vermont, I ask to have the Clerk read the following resolutions, which were unanimously adopted by the Vermont legislature at their recent session.
The Clerk read as follows:
Mr. Varnum, of Peacham, offered the following joint resolution:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives, that so great a loss to the nation as the death of Hon. THADDEUS STEVENS deserves, and should receive, of the representatives of the people of his native State in general assembly convened, a befitting and appropriate recognition.
Resolved, That we mourn and deeply sympathize with those of his adopted State, whom he so faithfully represented in the councils of our nation, and by whom he was so nobly sustained, in this their great bereavement and irreparable loss, of one so firm, so devoted to the interests, the welfare, and the honor of the people.
Resolved, that his patriotism, his devotion to the principles of liberty, justice and equality, his unswerving fidelity to the trusts of his State and the trusts of the Union, have left an honorable and ineffaceable impression on the pages of history and on the records of a great Republic.
Resolved, That we will remember him as a son of Vermont, and will cherish his memory, and point with pride to his life as an example of patriotism for ourselves and our posterity.
Resolved, That the governor be requested to transmit a copy of these resolutions to the governor of Pennsylvania.”
The Danville Historical Society believes that Thaddeus Stevens’ point of view and his egalitarian 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.
We respectfully request that The Legislative Committee On The State House consider the information we have submitted in making their determination regarding the acceptance of Thaddeus Stevens’ portrait for display in the State House.
Thank you for giving this matter your careful consideration.
Paul A. Chouinard, President, Danville Historical Society
After Paul spoke, Howard Coffin was welcomed to the lectern to say a few words. Those present were invited to look in a glass case at the back of the room, which included a handwritten letter by Stevens owned by Mr. Coffin. Then it was time to chat, admire and enjoy the lovely refreshments prepared and placed by the State House team.
The Danville Historical Society wishes to thank:
- Danville Chamber of Commerce for supporting the effort financially
- Ross Hetrick, President of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, who was supportive in all aspects of the effort, including speaking in Danville and connecting the Society with the Historic Preservation Society, who manages the original plate from which the portrait was struck
- The Vermont Civil War Hemlocks, who lend authenticity and dignity to the remembrance of the Civil War and its value to us as a nation
- and all the local citizenry who attended and contributed to the celebrations, both in Danville and Montpelier