Thad to the Bone
The unflinching radicalism of Thaddeus Stevens
When U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania died in 1868, he was the third person to lay in state at the Capitol Building's Rotunda in Washington, D.C. It was an honor shared before him only by Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. At his Lancaster funeral, the Senate chaplain gave a eulogy asking God to give "Pennsylvania, another statesman … and the world, another man like Thaddeus Stevens." The Great Commoner, as he was known, was a deeply admired politician, viewed by his supporters as a fearless champion of the people, and thousands came to pay their respects.
Of course, not all shared these sentiments. He was equally despised. The very mention of his name was enough to increase a political foe's blood pressure. Even in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, many felt little sorrow over his death. One Erie newspaper editorialized that the "dead Stevens is the best representative of the dead carcass of Radicalism."
Stevens was an abolitionist and a leader of the fiercely antislavery Radical Republicans, and became one of the most powerful people in Congress during the Civil War. He was a politician ahead of his time on many issues: advocating for free and universal education, supporting women's suffrage, and calling for equal rights for Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and religious minorities. He led with empathy, but his opponents often described him as stern, arrogant, and even downright cruel.
He was born on a farm in Vermont in 1792, the second of four boys. Like his older brother, he was born with a club foot which gave him a permanent limp. After his youngest brother's birth, their abusive and alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving their mother working the farm and as a maid to make ends meet. She was determined to help her children escape poverty and paid to enroll Thaddeus in grammar school where he was a dedicated student, but an outcast and made fun of by his peers.
His hard work paid off though and he was accepted to Dartmouth. Once there, he again had trouble finding his place. His roommate described him as "inordinately ambitious," but also "bitterly envious" of his more privileged classmates. He couldn't afford his books, let alone the extravagances of his wealthy peers, and despite his intellect and excellent marks, he was rejected from the honors fraternity. This embarrassed and angered him, but as an early indicator of his oratory skills, he was selected as the commencement speaker in 1814.
He then moved to York, Pa. where he taught and studied law. After passing the bar, he opened a law office in Gettysburg and by 1817, he'd made a name for himself as "a skillful, brilliant, and successful trial lawyer" with a "moral fearlessness." His reputed biting wit and an unwillingness to suffer fools made him in demand and of his first ten cases to reach Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, Stevens won an extraordinary nine. One would haunt him for the rest of his life though: an 1821 case resulting in a woman who had escaped slavery being returned to her enslaver. His regret and guilt almost certainly influenced his impassioned turn toward abolitionism. Stevens began using his own money to buy freedom for the enslaved and defending freedpeople in court without charge.
In 1842, he relocated to Lancaster where he hired as his housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, a recently separated biracial mother of two and savvy businesswoman. The two became active with the Underground Railroad, even hiding those on the run in his home. Smith would remain with Stevens for the rest of his life and while their exact private relationship is unknown, early biographers of Stevens note that neighbors viewed her as his common-law wife, even helping him raise his two adopted nephews. Stevens never denied it.
His success as a lawyer also brought him significant wealth. He owned his home, made local investments with the help of Smith, and was able to purchase his mother a farm. He rode horses, swam, and enjoyed some friendly gambling. "Stevens lost and won with the same apparent indifference," an 1873 newspaper reported, describing his "consummate coolness" and how he "never lost his temper."
While dabbling in local and state politics, he recognized that the most permanent solution to end slavery as an institution would be to work within the system. In 1848, he then ran for and won a seat as a Whig in the U.S. House of Representatives. He didn't waste any time making his intentions known. The nation was already splintering and his first floor speech surprised many with its ferocity. Stevens targeted Southern congressmen for their conspiracy to break up the Union and criticized weak Northern moderates as "traitors of liberty," calling them "tame and servile" for consistent Southern concessions.
"[Congressmen] were accustomed to pleas for peace and to honeyed speeches about the Union," wrote James Albert Woodburn in his 1913 biography. "Stevens showed them another tone."
Many Whigs were gradualists, favoring containing slavery over immediate abolition, but Stevens called for "universal freedom" and "the final extinction of slavery." He attacked the expansion of slavery as a disease that would "render the whole body leprous and loathsome" while criticizing confinement as a "cancer" that would "eat out the vitals." As for doughfaces — Northerners who voted with the South — they were "soulless" and "tools of the slave-driver."
In Bruce Levine's 2021 biography of Stevens, he notes how "southern congressmen gathered around his desk scowling, sneering, and cursing at him," with some observers fearing for his life. He describes Stevens as undisturbed during such confrontations, not raising his voice, but "dropping sentences as though each one weighed a ton" and keeping his hands clasped in front of him with a "calm and deliberate" manner. Levine writes that his attitude combined "substantive aggressiveness and formal impassivity" and was "exasperating to his adversaries."
As Stevens anticipated, his speech deeply upset many Northern colleagues and infuriated Southern lawmakers. They called him "desperate," "reckless," and trying to "frighten the grandmothers and children of Pennsylvania." One Pennsylvania colleague demanded he apologize for "attempt[ing] to excite one section of the union against the other."
Southern politicians cited the "happy slave" who would voluntarily return to enslavement if freed. Stevens scoffed. "Well, if this be so, let us give all a chance to enjoy this blessing," he quipped. "Let the slaves who choose, go free; and the free, who choose, become slaves. If these gentlemen believe there is a word of truth in what they preach, the slaveholder need be under no apprehension."
For those who defended slavery with Christianity, he saved his harshest criticism, saying they belonged in a new inner circle of Dante's Inferno alongside Lucifer and Judas. He openly derided "absurd and blasphemous" Southern clergy as "reverand parasites" for praising slavery as benevolent and divine. When called a "fanatic" in response, he responded that there could be no compromise when it came to human rights.
There was a compromise. Known as the Compromise of 1850, it passed that September. Stevens was enraged. The inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which passed after a floor showdown between Stevens and fellow Pennsylvanian James Thompson of Erie, particularly angered him. This law required Northern states and citizens to cooperate with the capture and return of enslaved people on the run or be subjected to fines and imprisonment.
Thompson had previously met in secret with Speaker of the House Howell Cobb, a Georgia enslaver and future Confederate leader, who asked that he take the floor in support of the Fugitive Slave Act. Thompson could then motion to close debate and move it to a vote "without discussion, consideration, or amendment."
When Thompson did as planned, Stevens requested he withdraw the motion so that he could reply. While the exact conversation was not recorded, there was some back and forth between Stevens, Thompson, and Speaker Cobb and when Stevens sensed he was running out of options, he moved to postpone the bill instead. This motion was defeated and the bill passed.
Around 50 lawmakers, including Whigs, intentionally chose not to vote. After its passage, Stevens "gravely rose" and mocked these vote-dodgers, saying that Speaker Cobb could send a messenger to let them know they could come back in. His remarks were met with laughter.
Stevens attempted to rally support for a repeal, but when Whig leadership balked, he was disgusted and left the party and politics outright. He returned to law, but in 1855, he joined the newly-formed antislavery Republican Party. At a Lancaster rally the following year, he referred to Democratic Party presidential candidate (and fellow Lancaster resident) James Buchanan, as being "dead of lockjaw" and a "bloated mass of political putridity."
Thaddeus Stevens' funeral - Arrival of the Remains at the Railroad Depot, Washington, D.C., on the Way of Lancaster, PA 1868
Buchanan was elected and unable to rise to the moment. Violence was spreading throughout the states from Bleeding Kansas to Harpers Ferry to even the Senate floor with the brutal, near-fatal caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. Stevens decided to run again and won easily.
When Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, Stevens declared that voters made their choice. It was inexcusable to expect Northerners to agree to more concessions and compromises. Before Lincoln was even inaugurated, South Carolina declared secession, specifically citing the North's refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and an increased "hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery." Buchanan did not act. More states followed.
Only a few months after the South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, starting the war, Stevens assumed the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, the equivalent to the modern majority leader, and throughout the war, he kept intense pressure on Lincoln and fellow lawmakers. As the war neared its end, he helped shepherd the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments through Congress, abolishing slavery nationally and expanding citizenship and voting rights.
When the Confederate-sympathizing Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following Lincoln's assassination, Stevens was his greatest adversary. He demanded that Congress revolutionize and break up Southern institutions or "all of our blood and treasure have been spent in vain" and further rallied colleagues to overturn Johnson's vetoes of Radical Reconstruction policies.
Even in the North, Stevens faced pushback. The editor of one Erie newspaper called Stevens a "strange Radical god," a "hardened old infidel," and someone who "was and always has been a dangerous politician." They argued that Radical Republicans were the "worst enemies that the negro had" because they "cannot compete with the white race." The paper falsely claimed that white people's brains were ten times larger and that the freed slaves were dying because when "thrown out on the world, without the guidance of a master, they are as children." The paper predicted that "the [Black] race will in time become extinct … [now] that they are deprived of the protection of the white man" and personally attacked Stevens for living "in open adultery with a mulatto woman … [who] manages his households … speaks of Mr. Stevens and herself as 'we,' and enjoys the rights of a lawful wife." Stevens rarely seemed to register such personal attacks, even from Northerners and seldom responded.
By 1867, the Radical Republicans were beginning to lose influence and power. Stevens meanwhile became increasingly sick. He even had trouble speaking during Johnson's impeachment. When Johnson was acquitted, he was increasingly despondent, especially as violence increased in the Southern states to restore white rule.
"My life has been a failure," the sick Stevens told one lawmaker. To a reporter, he said that his only regret was that he "lived so long and so uselessly." On the evening of Aug. 11, 1868, with Smith, a nephew, two preachers, and some friends at his side, Thaddeus Stevens died.
"Let the future statesmen of America learn that it is never safe to do wrong," fellow Pennsylvania Congressman John Martin Broomall eulogized on the House floor. "Retributive justice is sometimes slow, but it is always sure. The memory of Thaddeus Stevens needs no monument."
Thaddeus Stevens had not accomplished all of his goals, but he had not failed. As his casket sat in the Capitol Rotunda at the base of Lincoln's statue, thousands of mourners ensured that the legacy of Pennsylvania's most radical and unflinching representative would be remembered.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org