Name:  Thaddeus Stevens

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Born:  April 4, 1792
Died:  August 11, 1868
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
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











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