Thaddeus Stevens in the Limelight–Congressional Career

By Paul Chouinard

The historical marker located on Danville Green in Danville Vermont.

The historical marker located on Danville Green in Danville Vermont.

Elected as a Whig to Congress in 1848, Stevens served the traditional two terms. While in Congress he delivered several major speeches against the Compromise of 1850, protesting the Fugitive Slave Law and the extension of slavery into the territories. During his first term Stevens gave an emotionally charged speech, “The Slave Question,” in which he challenged his colleagues: “You and I, and the sixteen millions are free, while we fasten iron chains, and rivet manacles on four millions of our fellow men; tear their wives and children from them; separate them; sell them and doom them to perpetual, eternal bondage. Are we not then despots – despots such as history will brand and God abhors?”

Upon the passage of the Fugitive Salve Law of 1850, Stevens defended runaway slaves. In the celebrated 1851 Christiana trial, Stevens served as one of two defense lawyers for thirty-eight blacks accused of murdering a slaveholder. All defendants were acquitted.

By 1852 Stevens resumed his law practice full time. As the Whig Party disintegrated, he became involved with the new anti-immigrant party, known as the American Party, whose members were ridiculed as the Know-Nothings. By 1855 Stevens had joined other ex-Whigs and antislavery Democrats in forming the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and he served as a delegate to its first national convention in Philadelphia.

Thaddeus Stevens ran again for Congress in 1858. It is conjectured that his return to politics was based on a sense of duty to lead the struggle to eliminate slavery, although it may have been to gain a public forum in which to denounce Democratic President James Buchanan, also of Lancaster. Sadly, his oldest brother, Joshua, died April of that year, leaving him as the last remaining member of his family of origin.

Stevens was elected in November of 1858, by a considerable margin, to represent Lancaster and the Ninth Congressional District. Thought he aspired to a cabinet position, he never received an appointment; he was to remain in the House of Representatives, becoming its acknowledged leader during the Civil War and Reconstruction period until his death in 1868.

A power struggle emerged between Stevens and President Abraham Lincoln, as well as other members of Congress, over issues related to slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. This struggle was largely based on their respective philosophies and approach to politics. Lincoln’s views on these issues changed over time and were largely based on political and military considerations. He employed a deliberative approach based on compromise.

slaveUnlike Lincoln, once Thaddeus had formed a clear position on issues related to slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction, he was unrelenting in his determination that immediate action should be taken. Although he was not an active participant in organized religion, his mother’s strong commitment to her Baptist beliefs may have influenced his concept of morality as it related to slavery. His approach was largely influenced by his egalitarian beliefs and his concept of social justice and that “all men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Never a patient man, his frustration with Lincoln and the legislative process may have been further influenced by the fact that by the outset of the Civil War all of the members of his family of origin had died. His health issues undoubtedly reminded him of his own mortality and of the fact that he did not have a lot of time left to accomplish his goals.

Stevens opposed all efforts to conciliate the South to save the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. Once the southern states had seceded, he argued that the Confederacy constituted a separate nation. As the Civil War dragged on, he consistently pushed for emancipation of the slaves and argued for their inclusion in Union forces and equal pay for black troops.

In 1861, Stevens assumed the position of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which gave him control over congressional expenditures. He supported Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s plan to finance the war through “greenbacks,” currency not backed by gold reserves. Following the Civil War, the powerful committee was split into the two that exist today – the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee.

As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, it was his adeptness in steering legislation through these committees that earned Stevens his reputation among Congressional historians as a skillful strategist. Biographer, Hans L. Trefousse characterized him as: “The great Commoner, savior of free public education in Pennsylvania, national Republican leader in the struggles against slavery in the United States and intrepid mainstay of the attempt to secure racial justice for the Freedmen during Reconstruction, the only member of the House of Representatives ever to have been known as the ‘dictator’ of Congress.”

Stevens’ harsh condemnation of the Confederacy led the Confederates to make it a point to destroy his business, the Caledonia Iron Works, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign of June – July 1863. Most of the iron works was burned to the ground by Major General Jubal Early of the Army of Northern Virginia, who claimed that this action was in retaliation for Stevens’ support of the use of a “scorched earth” policy by Union forces. Stevens suffered another family loss when his nephew Alanson was killed at the battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order, freeing the slaves in the rebelling states. In March of 1864, Stevens introduced a constitutional amendment to free the slaves and to make slavery illegal. He shepherded it through Congress toward its passage as the Thirteenth Amendment in January, 1865. The passage was considered essential as the Civil War was coming to an end, and it was necessary to prevent the southern states from challenging the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation once they re-entered the Union.

Following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Confederacy, at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865, Stevens introduced a resolution to form the Joint (House/Senate) Committee on Reconstruction in December, 1865. He became a key leader of the fifteen member committee to consider the best way to reconstruct the former Confederate states. He drafted a constitutional amendment giving citizenship and due process rights to the freed slaves. When key senators objected to certain parts of the measure, he revised it. Stevens told members of the House that, “when I came to consult the committee of fifteen and found that the States would not adopt it, I surrendered it.” Despite his impatience, he was willing to compromise.

During the winter of 1867, Stevens repeatedly forced the House to focus on the suffering Unionists, referred to by southerners as “Carpetbaggers,”and blacks in the South who lived in a condition he called “anarchy.” Once again Stevens was forced to amend and rewrite bills in order to win Congressional support for the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, establishing military governance and universal male suffrage in the seceded states. He was motivated by his fear of congressional inaction, which would allow “anarchy” to continue in the South.

He advised the House in 1866, “Mutual concession, therefore is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.” Only one Reconstruction program Stevens introduced failed to gain any approval at all, which was the confiscation of southern property and its redistribution to the freedmen.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, in April of 1865, and Andrew Johnson’s ascendency to johnson and thaddeus boxingthe presidency, Stevens recognized Johnson as his enemy in the Reconstruction process. The two broke publicly when Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in February 1866. Stevens was not alone in his opposition to Johnson, which resulted in a bitter power struggle between Congress and the President, leading to a House vote in February 1868 to impeach him. Although his health had failed dramatically by the spring of 1868, Stevens possessed enough influence to be named one of the impeachment managers. When the Senate voted to acquit Johnson in May, Stevens was bitterly disappointed.

Thaddeus continued fighting for what he believed was right to the end. Because of poor health, he had to carried in the House.

Thaddeus continued fighting for what he believed was right to the end. Because of poor health, he had to carried in the House.

Up until three weeks before his death, Thaddeus Stevens was speaking out in the House on such matters as financing the purchase of Alaska and interest rates on bonds. But rheumatism and the rigors of a stressful life had weakened him. He died on August 11, 1868, just following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing citizenship, due process rights and equal protection under the law. Stevens had seen its passage as essential for protecting the rights of the freedmen and empowering them. Although he did not live to witness the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, he laid the groundwork for it prior to his death. He was insistent that it was essential to insure the rights of the freedmen to vote. It was passed on February 3, 1870 and is considered one of the Reconstruction amendments, along with the Thirteenth and Fourteenth.

Stevens’ coffin laid in state inside the Capitol Rotunda, flanked by a black honor guard, the Bulter Zouaves from the District of Columbia. Twenty thousand people, about one-half of whom were African American, attended his funeral in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He chose to be buried in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, because it was the only cemetery in Lancaster that would accept people without regard to race.

Members of the Negro Civic Congress pose in front of the Thaddeus Steven's monument in Shreiner's Cemetery, Lancaster, PA, circa 1920.

Members of the Negro Civic Congress pose in front of the Thaddeus Steven’s monument in Shreiner’s Cemetery, Lancaster, PA, circa 1920.

Stevens wrote the inscription on his headstone that reads: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, 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.”

There is clearly no doubt regarding Thaddeus Stevens’ devotion to his family, to those in need, in his commitment to his beliefs and to civil rights. He was among the principle leaders of the nineteenth century Civil Rights movement. In America, that stalled following his death. The Civil Rights movement struggled to make progress during the nineteenth century until in the 20th century the Supreme Court handed down the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA in 1954, overturning the concept of segregation. His commitment to blacks and to the advancement of their civil rights is unquestioned.

His interpersonal relations may have been adversarial at times and his comments acidic, but Stevens qualifies as “the Old Commoner.” In notes found among his papers he wrote: “Learn to rely through life upon your own unaided efforts. Trust not the professions of friendship which will everywhere greet you so long as you do not need them, but whose hollow sycophancies will be apparent in your first hour of adversity.” Throughout his life Stevens demonstrated the courage to remain committed to his values and his lifelong dedication to equal rights for all people, regardless of the response he received from his harshest critics.


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I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens Elsie Singmaster

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Thaddeus Stevens by Ralph Korngold

Thaddeus Stevens by Hans L. Trefousse

Thaddeus Stevens In Gettysburg: The Making Of An Abolitionist by Bradley R. Hoch

Thaddeus Stevens : Scourge of the South by Fawn M. Brodie

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