Thaddeus Stevens

Lifelong Opponent of Enslavement Led the Radical Republicans in the 1860s

Engraved portrait of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens
Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Thaddeus Stevens was an influential Congressman from Pennsylvania known for his staunch opposition to the institution of enslavement during the years preceding and during the Civil War.

Considered the leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, he also played a major role at the beginning of the period of Reconstruction, advocating very tough policies toward the states which had seceded from the Union.

By many accounts, he was the most dominant figure in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, and as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee he exerted enormous influence on policy.

An Eccentric On Capitol Hill

Though revered for his sharp mind, Stevens had a tendency toward eccentric behavior that could alienate both friends and foes. He had lost all his hair from a mysterious ailment, and atop his bald head he wore a wig which never seemed to fit correctly.

According to one legendary story, a female admirer once asked him for a lock of his hair, a common request made to 19th century celebrities. Stevens took off his wig, dropped it on a table, and said to the woman, "Help yourself."

His witticisms and sarcastic comments in Congressional debates could alternately smooth over tensions or inflame his opponents. For his many battles on behalf of underdogs, he was referred to as "The Great Commoner."

Controversy persistently attached to his personal life. It was widely rumored that his Black housekeeper, Lydia Smith, was secretly his wife. And while he never touched alcohol, he was known on Capitol Hill for gambling in high-stakes card games.

When Stevens died in 1868, he was mourned in the North, with a Philadelphia newspaper devoting its entire front page to a glowing account of his life. In the South, where he was hated, newspapers mocked him after death. Southerners were outraged by the fact that his body, lying in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, was attended by an honor guard of Black troops.

Early Life

Thaddeus Stevens was born on April 4, 1792 in Danville, Vermont. Born with a deformed foot, young Thaddeus would face many hardships early in life. His father abandoned the family, and he grew up in very poor circumstances.

Encouraged by his mother, he managed to receive an education and entered Dartmouth College, from which he was graduated in 1814. He traveled to southern Pennsylvania, apparently to work as a schoolteacher, but became interested in the law.

After reading for the law (the procedure for becoming a lawyer before law schools were common), Stevens was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and set up a legal practice in Gettysburg.

Legal Career

By the early 1820s Stevens was thriving as a lawyer, and was taking on cases related to anything from property law to murder. He happened to live in an area near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, an area in which freedom seekers would first arrive on free territory. And that meant a number of legal cases related to enslavement would arise in local courts.

Stevens periodically defended freedom seeker in court, asserting their right to live in freedom. He was also known to spend his own money to buy the freedom of enslaved people. The southern region of Pennsylvania, where Stevens had settled, had become the landing place for freedom seekers who had escaped bondage in Virginia or Maryland.

In 1837 he was enlisted to participate in a convention called to write a new constitution for the State of Pennsylvania. When the convention agreed to limit voting rights to White men only, Stevens stormed out of the convention and refused to participate any further.

Besides being known for holding strong opinions, Stevens gained a reputation for quick thinking as well as making comments which were often insulting.

One legal hearing was being held in a tavern, which was common at the time. The quaint proceedings became very heated as Stevens needled the opposing lawyer. Frustrated, the man picked up an inkwell and hurled it at Stevens.

Stevens dodged the thrown object and snapped, "You don't seem competent to put ink to better use."

In 1851 Stevens masterminded the legal defense of a Pennsylvania Quaker who had been arrested by federal marshalls following an incident known as the Christiana Riot. The case began when a Maryland enslaver arrived in Pennsylvania, intent on capturing a freedom seeker who had fled from his farm.

In a standoff at a farm, the enslaver was killed. The freedom seeker who was being sought fled and made his way to Canada. But a local farmer, Castner Hanway, was put on trial, charged with treason.

Thaddeus Stevens led the legal team defending Hanway, and was credited with devising the legal strategy that got the defendant acquitted. Knowing that his direct involvement in the case would be controversial and may backfire, Stevens directed the defense team but stayed in the background.

The strategy devised by Stevens was to mock the federal government's case. The defense counsel working for Stevens pointed out how absurd it was that the overthrow of the government of the United States, a country stretching from coast to coast, would possibly happen by events in a modest apple orchard in the Pennsylvania countryside. The defendant was acquitted by the jury, and the federal authorities abandoned the idea of prosecuting other local residents associated with the case.

Congressional Career

Stevens dabbled in local politics, and like many others in his time, his party affiliation changed over the years. He was associated with the Anti-Masonic Party in the early 1830s, the Whigs in the 1840s, and even had a flirtation with the Know-Nothings in the early 1850s. By the late 1850s, with the emergence of the anti-enslavement Republican Party, Stevens had finally found a political home.

He had been elected to Congress in 1848 and 1850, and spent his two terms attacking southern legislators and doing whatever he could to block the Compromise of 1850. When he fully returned to politics and was elected to Congress in 1858, he became part of a movement of Republican legislators and his forceful personality led to him becoming a powerful figure on Capitol Hill.

Stevens, in 1861, became the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which determined how money was spent by the federal government. With the Civil War beginning, and government expenditures accelerating, Stevens was able to exert considerable influence on the conduct of the war.

Though Stevens and President Abraham Lincoln were members of the same political party, Stevens held more extreme views than Lincoln. And he was constantly prodding Lincoln to completely subdue the South, free the enslaved people, and impose very harsh policies on the South when the war was concluded.

As Stevens saw it, Lincoln's policies on Reconstruction would have been far too lenient. And after Lincoln's death, the policies enacted by his successor, President Andrew Johnson, infuriated Stevens.

Reconstruction and Impeachment

Stevens has generally been remembered for his role as the leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. In the view of Stevens and his allies in Congress, the Confederate states had no right to secede from the Union. And, at the end of the war, those states were conquered territory and could not rejoin the Union until they had been reconstructed according to Congress's orders.

Stevens, who served on the Congress's Joint Committee on Reconstruction, was able to influence the policies imposed on the states of the former Confederacy. And his ideas and actions brought him into direct conflict with President Andrew Johnson.

When Johnson finally ran afoul of the Congress and was impeached, Stevens served as one of the House managers, essentially a prosecutor against Johnson.

President Johnson was acquitted at his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in May 1868. Following the trial, Stevens became ill, and he never recovered. He died at his home on August 11, 1868.

Stevens was afforded a rare honor as his body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He was only the third person so honored, after Henry Clay in 1852 and Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

By his request, Stevens was buried in a cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania which, unlike most cemeteries at the time, was not segregated by race. On his tomb were words he had written:

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not for any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, I have chosen it that I might be enabled to illustrate in my death the principles which I have advocated through a long life — equality of man before his Creator.

Given the controversial nature of Thaddeus Stevens, his legacy has often been in dispute. But there is no doubt that he was an important national figure during and immediately following the Civil War.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Thaddeus Stevens." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Thaddeus Stevens. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Thaddeus Stevens." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).