Thaddeus Stevens in the Limelight–The School Years

By Paul Chouinard

An artist's rendition of the old school. The site of the building is marked in Peacham at the top of the hill near the cemetery.

An artist’s rendition of the old school. The site of the building is marked in Peacham at the top of the hill near the cemetery.

Common schools were organized in Danville in 1790 with the creation of five school districts, which included Danville Center. They attended school in Danville before moving to Peacham. Around the year of 1807, Sarah moved her family to Peacham, so her boys could have the benefit of attending Caledonia County Academy, later known as Caledonia County Grammar School and most recently, Peacham Academy.

Sally Morrill moved her family to Peacham and stayed at what is now known as the Graham place. It is located below the village and the walk up the hill, especially in winter, would have been arduous for Thaddeus and his older brother.

Sally Morrill moved her family to Peacham and stayed at what is now known as the Graham place. It is located below the village and the walk up the hill, especially in winter, would have been arduous for Thaddeus and his older brother. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

According to Ernest Bogart, author of Peacham’s history The Story of a Vermont Hill Town, the primary requirement for admission was: “No person shall be admitted to study reading, spelling or grammar or any higher branch who shall not already have acquired as much knowledge of the English language as to read in any common English book as correctly as to be able to study English grammar to advantage.” Thaddeus’ mother had prepared him well to meet this challenge by the time he was admitted at age 15.

The Academy was open to all students from Caledonia County. A monthly tuition fee of 12 1/2 cents per month was charged in 1808. The Stevens family lived in what was known as the Graham place, now owned by Raymond Welch, about one and one-half miles from Peacham Corner. For the privilege of living there with her family, it is believed that Sally provided housekeeping services for the owners of the home. In 1808 Sarah received the support of her father, Abner, when he returned from Stanstead, Quebec to live with her family following the death of her mother. Thaddeus walked to school, which given his physical disability, was no small accomplishment. The distance to the Academy was about one and one-half miles uphill. The walk was long and arduous in the winter since the roads were rolled rather than plowed. During a thaw one would sink into the deeply packed snow.

The principal, referred to as the preceptor, was responsible for providing all instruction in every discipline to about one hundred pupils, ranging in ages from eight to twenty. A classical curriculum was taught. Notwithstanding his infirmity, Thaddeus excelled at swimming and horseback riding. He was a highly competitive student; however, he was not happy in school. His infirmity set him apart. One of his schoolmates said that “boys would laugh at him boy-like, and mimic his limping walk.” As a result of his experience with peers, he developed a tartness of speech and a combativeness of manner that remained with him throughout life.

Thaddeus did well at the Academy, where he joined one of the two clubs—one was scholastic and the other political. It did not take him long to become the leader of the latter, competing with the rival group led by Wilbur Fisk, later the president of Wesleyan University and a famous Methodist minister. While a student at the Academy, Thaddeus demonstrated that he was willing to challenge authority if he felt the rules were unjust. Contrary to the rules of the Academy, he took part in the performance of a tragedy, a form of drama that was unacceptable to the school’s Trustees, whose expectation was the performance of an original play. The twelve students further violated the rules by presenting the tragedy on the evening of September 4, 1811, instead of the scheduled daytime performance at the Trustees’ annual meeting. For this act, he and his fellow students were reprimanded by the Board of Trustees, which required them to sign an apology.

Thaddeus’ caustic wit showed itself in another instance. The story is told that one day John Mattocks, one of Peacham’s most accomplished and respected citizens of the time, lived in a house in the middle of the village, at the base of the hill that led to the academy. Mattocks’ law office was opposite his home on the other side of the road. Mr. Mattocks observed Thaddeus staring at the houses. Leaning out of the window he called to him, “Well, my boy, do you think you are in Paradise?” To which Thaddeus retorted, “I did until I saw the Devil looking out of the window.”

Mattocks' home in Peacham where young Thaddeus first met the lawyer. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

Mattocks’ home in Peacham where young Thaddeus first met the lawyer. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

Mattocks bore no ill-will to Stevens for his impertinence. It is reported that before leaving Peacham for Dartmouth, Thaddeus had a chance encounter with John Mattocks who said: “Here Thad,” handing him ten dollars, “take this and buy some books and go to college without a hat.” Mattocks’ kindness to Thaddeus continued in that when he returned to Peacham in 1814 to teach, Mattocks gave him the opportunity to study law in his office.

After completing his studies at Caledonia County Academy in 1811, Stevens enrolled in the sophomore class at Dartmouth College. By 1811 Dartmouth had 124 students. For some reason Thaddeus did not remain at Dartmouth and spent his junior year at Burlington College now known as the University of Vermont. The admission requirements of the college included: “good moral character” as well as an examination by the president and tutors in Latin and Greek particularly in the six books of the Aeneid, four of Cicero’s orations against Catiline, and four gospels in the original Greek. Chapel attendance on Sunday mornings and evenings was obligatory.

This is the original Dartmouth College where Thaddeus went to school. It is still located on the Dartmouth green. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

This is the original Dartmouth College where Thaddeus went to school. It is still located on the Dartmouth green. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

One of his noted accomplishments at Burlington College the writing of a tragedy in three acts titled The Fall of Helvetic Liberty, which was performed prior to commencement in 1813. But, once again he managed to get into trouble. It happened that a neighboring farmer’s cows used the unenclosed campus as a pasture. Prior to commencement, their owners were warned to keep them away. The farmers did not comply, and when Stevens and a fellow student were walking under the trees a week before graduation and saw a cow, they decided to kill it.

Borrowing an axe from a fellow student, they did so and when the owner complained to the president, the innocent owner of the axe fell under suspicion and was about to be expelled on the day of graduation. This possible outcome horrified Stevens and his friend. Placing themselves at the mercy of the owner of the cow, they promised to pay him twice its value if he would help them. The farmer agreed and told the college authorities that soldiers had killed the animal. The accused student was cleared and allowed to graduate. Stevens later did pay the farmer, who sent him a hogshead of cider in return. Thaddeus’ conscience apparently did not allow him to have an innocent man suffer the consequences of his behavior.

He returned to Dartmouth in 1814 for his senior year. That year the emphasis was on metaphysics, theology, and political law. The curriculum also included composition and public speaking. Stevens graduated after taking part in a conference on the topic: “Which has been more deleterious to society—war, luxury, or party spirit?”

A roommate at Dartmouth remembered that Thaddeus “was then inordinately ambitious, bitterly envious of all who outranked him as scholars, and utterly unprincipled.” One can assume that the roommate’s assessment of his character and ability might not be completely objective, as he continues: “he showed no uncommon mental power, except in extemporaneous debate. He indulged in no expensive vices, because he could not afford them, and because his ambition so absorbed him that he had little taste for anything that did not promise to gratify it. He was not popular enough with the class to get into Phi Beta Kappa, or even to be nominated for membership. This was a source of great vexation for him, though he was very careful not to express his vexation. Yet it burst out once, in our room, in an unguarded moment.”

Mattocks' law office in Peacham where Thaddeus studied law under him.

Mattocks’ law office in Peacham where Thaddeus studied law under him. PHOTO BY PAUL CHOUINARD

After his graduation from Dartmouth, Thaddeus returned to Peacham and served as preceptor at Caledonia County Academy for the winter term of 1814. He took the place of David Chassell, who was absent on account of poor health. While in Peacham he also studied law with John Mattocks before leaving for Pennsylvania in February 1815.

(Sources listed after third installment)

 

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