Thaddeus Stevens in the Limelight–Public Life in Pennsylvania

By Paul Chouinard

A portrait of a much younger Thaddeus when he was becoming well known in Pennsylvania.

A portrait of a much younger Thaddeus when he was becoming well known in Pennsylvania.

Thaddeus Stevens’ friendship with Samuel Merrill, who shared his experience of being from Peacham, attending Caledonia County Academy and graduating from Dartmouth College, led him to move from Peacham to York, Pennsylvania, in February of 1815. Merrill, who was preceptor at Dr. Perkins’ Academy in York, recommended his friend for employment, and Thaddeus spent a year teaching while continuing his study of law at the office of David Cossett. His salary as a teacher was about $100 for the year.

By the beginning of the summer of 1816, Thaddeus felt he was prepared to take the bar exam. The members of the York County Bar Association had adopted a rule that no one could be admitted to the bar who had not devoted at least one year exclusively to the study of law. For that reason, Thaddeus made a decision to take the exam in Bel Air, Maryland, the shire town of Hartford County. Toward the end of August, 1816, Thaddeus made his way to Bel Air to take the exam. The examining committee consisted of Chief Justice Hopper Nicholson, Theoderic Bland, Zebulon Hollingsworh and General William H. Winder of the Sixth Judicial District. They met in the dining room of a local inn. The Judge informed Stevens that before questioning could commence, “there must be two bottles of Madeira on the table, and the applicant must order it in.” Stevens complied, the wine was poured, and the questioning began. What law books had he read? He replied that he had read Blackstone, Coke upon Littleton, a work on pleading, and Gilbert on evidence. Three more questions were asked.

When he had finished explaining the difference between executor devices and contingent remainders, Judge Black said: “Gentlemen, you see the young man is all right. I will give him a certificate.” His colleagues nodded in assent, whereupon the Judge told Stevens that when the certificate was delivered it was customary for the recipient to order two more bottles of Madeira. The wine was served, Stevens was toasted and was invited to sit in at a card game known as “fliploo.” He had ventured to Bel Air with $45 in his pocket and he departed with $3.50!

A photo of the McClellan house in Gettysburg. Thaddeus' office was the smaller building attached to the right.

A photo of the McClellan house in Gettysburg. Thaddeus’ office was the smaller building attached to the right.

Having successfully passed the exam, he was admitted to the bar on September 14, 1816. He ended his teaching at Dr. Perkins Academy and moved from York to Gettysburg, taking lodgings at McClellan House (now the Gettysburg Hotel), and rented a small brick building adjoining the hotel to serve as his law office. Once he hung out his shingle, he posted an ad in the local paper informing the public that “Thaddeus Stevens, Attorney at Law…will give diligent attention to all orders in the line of his profession.” Clients were slow in coming. His meager savings were rapidly depleted, then suddenly fortune smiled upon him.

On a small farm a short distance from Gettysburg lived James Hunter, a young bachelor who was considered simple-minded by those who knew him. He tended his plot of land and occasionally hired out to neighboring farmers. At the outset of the summer of 1817, Hunter was ordered arrested for nonpayment of a debt. When constable Heagy arrived to fetch him, he refused to join him peaceably. The constable, with the assistance of his son Henry, forcibly arrested Hunter and locked him up. Shortly after his release from jail, Hunter was hired to help another man mow a meadow. As he went into the meadow with his scythe he recognized that the other mower was Henry Heagy. He had been drinking that morning and was known to be quarrelsome when under the influence of alcohol. The sight of the young man who had helped drag him off to jail infuriated him. Overcome by his rage, Hunter attacked Heagy with his scythe while he was resting, cutting his throat. A week later, he died.

Indignation in Gettysburg and the surrounding country was such that a lynching was feared. Stevens took the case without hesitation to represent Hunter, who was indicted for murder. On the day of the trial, people came from miles around to witness the proceedings. The courtroom was packed and considerable speculation regarding the plea the young lawyer would make. In such a case an insanity plea was a rarity. When Stevens rose to address the jury, it was not long before people were listening intently. He spoke in a conversational manner, pointing out that Hunter was far from normal, which most people who knew him acknowledged. Although his body was that of a man, his mind was that of a child. Had a child committed the crime, would the jury vote to hang him? Stevens questioned that when a man is acknowledged to be irrational, should rational men retaliate by killing him? The sentiment of the community demanded that Hunter be hanged, and he was, but months later, as people discussed the plea Stevens had made, they reached the conclusion that no lawyer in town could have done nearly as well. Stevens’ career changed rapidly; he no longer lacked clients.

Following the Hunter trial, he became a highly recognized attorney in Gettysburg. Nine years after he opened his law office, he was the largest individual owner of real estate in the county. Alexander K. McClure, a famous publicist and lawyer, stated of Thaddeus Stevens: “I have known many of our great lawyers who were great advocates or great in the skillful direction of a case, but he is the only man I can recall who was eminent in all the attributes of a great lawyer.”

In 1821 Stevens represented a slave owner, John Delaplaine, in the case of Butler v. Delaplaine at the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County. Charity Butler had been the property of Norman Bruce, who lived just across the state line in Maryland, a slave state. Bruce had sold Charity to John Delaplaine, a resident of Frederick County, Maryland. She ran away and traveled north across the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania where she met and married Henry Butler, a free African-American. They became the parents of two children, Harriet and Sophia. Delaphaine slipped into Adams county and kidnapped Charity and her children. Henry Butler hired Gettysburg attorney James Dobbin to take legal action to have his family returned to Pennsylvania. Dobbin claimed freedom for Charity and her children on the grounds that she had been living in Pennsylvania for more than six months, the time stipulated by the Pennsylvania emancipation laws of 1780 and 1788.

Stevens argued on behalf of the owner that the residence of Charity and her children was not continuous as required by the law. He won the judgment against the distraught mother. The Butler case played an important role in Stevens’ life. Up to that time, he had not taken a stand on slavery. Soon after, he denounced slavery. At the Fourth of July celebration in 1823 he offered a toast: “The next President—May he be a freeman, who never riveted fetters on a human slave.” From that point on, he made his services available to defend fugitive slaves of whom there were many in the border region in which Gettysburg was located.

As Stevens developed a heightened awareness of slavery and its negative implications, he came to believe that it was a form of pure evil. According to Hans Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian; following Stevens’ involvement in the Butler case, his “commitment to equal rights for African-Americans—an idea that was anathema even to many abolitionists—would be unwavering.” Between 1821 and 1830 he tried ten cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and prevailed in all but one. The adversarial nature he had acquired as a boy was at times evident in the courtroom as it was later in the legislature and in Congress.


In addition to his law practice, Thaddeus Stevens pursued various business interests, with mixed success, throughout his life. July 6, 1821 Thaddeus purchased a large farm on East Hill in Peacham, VT, from John Emerson of Norwich, VT. He presented the farm as a gift to his mother, Sarah, and his brother, Alanson. Throughout his lifetime he expressed gratitude to his mother for her love and commitment to him.

iron worksHe entered a partnership with iron manufacturer James D. Paxton in 1826. That venture failed. He then erected the Caledonia Iron Works, a firm he operated with mixed success until his death. As the railroads began to complement the canal system in Pennsylvania in the 1830s, Stevens organized the Wrightsville, York and Gettysburg Railroad Co. in 1835, of which he became president in 1840. Stevens also purchased large tracts of land and lent money. In the early 1840s he lost most of his investments and moved to Lancaster, where he opened a new law practice and rose to success once again.

It was the Anti-Masonry cause that first attracted Stevens to politics. Freemasonry violated his egalitarian concept of equality. He perceived the Masonic fraternity as aristocratic, exclusive and secretive, seeking advantage for those who were privileged to become members. To many, the Masonic fraternity violated the fundamental concept of “equality” as it had been articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence; it was seen as a movement toward the creation of a society based on the concept of an aristocracy of privilege. Stevens was not alone in his opposition. A powerful national Anti-Masonic movement arose during the early 19th century.

Stevens ran on an Anti-Masonic Party platform and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1833. He was re-elected to six, one-year terms during which time he grew increasingly important as the legislature debated such issues as the re-chartering of the Second U.S. Bank, the financing and construction of canals, railroads and other public works and Anti-Masonry. Although his independent nature rarely allowed him to identify completely with a party’s platform, he backed Whig nominees in the presidential elections from 1840 to 1852.

It is commonly agreed that Stevens’ most important contribution as a state legislator in Pennsylvania involved passage of a law in 1834 imposing taxes to support a statewide free public education system. Until that time only private academies existed in most of the state. In 1835 irate taxpayers tried to repeal the legislation. Just before the final House vote on April 11, 1835, Stevens delivered a superb oration against the repeal. Education’s “cultivation and diffusion,” he argued, “is a matter of public concern and a duty which every Government owes to its people…”

thaddeus and boy

This statue of Thaddeus and a young boy can be found on the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology campus located in Lancaster, PA.

Stevens persuaded a majority of the legislators not to repeal the school law, and Pennsylvania became the first state outside of New England to embrace the concept of a public school system. As a result of his unyielding support for this measure, he became known as the “Father of Pennsylvania’s Public Education System.” It is reasonable to assume that the priority which his mother had placed on education for her sons and the advantages that they gained as a result, lifting them out of poverty, influenced Stevens’ commitment to the concept of a free public education system. Stevens served in the legislature until 1842 when he retired from state politics to devote himself to his business interests and his law practice.

He moved to Lancaster in August, opening an office and setting up housekeeping at 47-49 Queen Street. He remained a Lancaster resident for the rest of his life. Stevens never married, although there has been much speculation over his relationship with his mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who began working for him in 1848 and remained with him until his death twenty years later. In 1848 he adopted Alanson, Jr. and Thaddeus, Jr., the sons of his brother Abner (known as Morrill) who had attended Dartmouth Medical School and become a physician in St. Johnsbury, VT, and died in March of 1847. His brother Alanson, who had been living and farming with his mother Sarah, died in December of 1847. His mother continued living on the farm Thaddeus had purchased for her on East Hill in Peacham until her death on October 5, 1854. Thaddeus sold the farm to Robert and Janet Gilfillan of Peacham on April 25 of 1855.























This entry was posted in Historical events, Historical people, Historical sites, NSM articles. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thaddeus Stevens in the Limelight–Public Life in Pennsylvania

  1. Thaddeus,a mother? says:

    I have been in the farm house on East Hill in Peacham. It is now owned by Raymond Welch. In the kitchen there is the largest wood cook stove I have ever seen. Could it also bee used by Theddeus,,mother?

  2. Janice Smith says:

    I’m ever fascinated by our 18th & 19th century travelers in the states. For instance, I know that Stevens traveled from Lancaster PA to Danville Vt on occasion. By what conveyance? How long did it take? It comes up so casually in books about Stevens (& in other bios I read). A quote: “Thaddeus returns from Vermont [to Gettysburg PA].” Returns! Good grief, that’s a 9-hour drive today! So casual. This back & forth across states when roads were often mere paths. How did they do it?! I remember reading about Susan B. Anthony going by sleigh from New York to Cleveland OH in dead of winter. I’d love a book about the how-to and length of time traveling of the famous of this era. Horseback? Carriage? I’m thinking about the back and forth in conducting business—political and otherwise. (Never mind the stagecoaches out west.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.