Thaddeus Stevens, congressman and key proponent
of Radical Reconstruction, was born in Danville, Vermont, to Sarah Morrill
Stevens and Joshua Stevens, a land surveyor and cobbler. In his youth, Thaddeus
endured poverty, a clubbed foot, and abandonment by his father, all of which may
account for his lifelong affinity with the disadvantaged. In 1814 he graduated
from Dartmouth College, then moved to Pennsylvania where he taught school and
read law. Settling in Gettsyburg, he became one of the townís council members
and leading lawyers.
Stevens joined the Anti-Masonic party in the late
1820s and was elected in 1833 to the Pennsylvania legislature, where his
zealotry earned him a reputation as the "Arch Priest of Antimasonry."
Reelected several times, first as an Anti-Mason, then as a Whig, Stevens backed
internal improvements and centralized banking, while fighting Democratic efforts
to enact anti-black legislation. He left the legislature in 1843 and moved to
Lancaster. Five years later he returned to politics by winning election as a
Whig to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a leading opponent of
slavery. He personally assisted runaway slaves by legal and illegal means, and
served as one of the defense attorneys in the Christiana Slave Riot case in
1852. His clients were acquitted, but Stevens lost his bid for renomination.
Stevens briefly aligned with the American
(Know-Nothing) party before helping establishment the Republican party in
Pennsylvania. In 1858 he was reelected to the U.S. House as a Republican. After
Republicans won control of the House in 1860, he advanced to chair of the
powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight of the federal budget.
Although a radical on racial issues, his stance on economic policies, such as
protective tariffs and centralized banking, were within the Republican
mainstream. A skilled parliamentarian with a surly demeanor and acerbic wit, he
proved to be an effective majority leader. His strong-arm tactics in pushing the
administrationís legislative agenda through the House were deemed crucial to
the success of the Union war effort.
Stevens and other Radical Republicans, however,
were dismayed by President Lincolnís caution concerning emancipation, black
civil rights, the use of black servicemen, and reconstruction. Yet the
Pennsylvania Congressman campaigned vigorously for the presidentís reelection
in 1864. After the war, Stevens proposed one of the most far-reaching plans for
reconstruction of the Union. It treated the former Confederacy as conquered
territory subject to virtually unlimited federal control, and it centered around
land redistribution to undermine the white planter aristocracy and create a
class of small, independent black farmers.
When his radical plan was defeated, Stevens
worked diligently with moderates to pass civil rights legislation, including the
14th Amendment, the extension of the Freedmenís Bureau, and the
Military Reconstruction Acts. A sharp critic of President Andrew Johnson for his
intransigent opposition to Congressional Reconstruction, the Pennsylvania
Congressman pushed for the presidentís impeachment. During the impeachment
proceedings against the president, however, Stevens was so ill that he had to be
carried into the Senate chamber. He died in Washington, D. C., less than three
months after Johnsonís acquittal.
Source consulted: American National Biography