Jonathan P. Baird: Remembering Thaddeus Stevens, an anti-racist American hero

  • Thaddeus Stevens, in a photo taken sometime between 1860 and 1875. Wikimedia Commons

For the Monitor
Published: 8/17/2020 6:40:17 AM

Among truly great Americans, I would bet Thaddeus Stevens might be the least well known. An extremely controversial figure in his lifetime, Stevens was a leading light of the abolitionist movement both before and immediately after the Civil War.

Because of his heroism, he deserves far more recognition than he has ever received. He threw in his lot with African Americans at a time that was exceedingly rare among any white people. If anyone is looking to put up statues, Stevens is a great candidate.

Born in Vermont, he grew up extremely poor. His father abandoned the family when he was an early adolescent, leaving his mother with four young boys to raise. Thaddeus was born with a clubfoot. There was no treatment for him and he had to live with his deformity and the cruel reaction of other children. He always identified with disabled people and other persecuted minorities.

Since he could not physically labor on the family farm, his mother sacrificed and worked continuously so he could receive an education. He attended the University of Vermont and then Dartmouth College.

In 1815, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania and decided to become a lawyer. He developed a very successful law practice. He had a knack for business and he also started an ironworks, which also did well. He ran for the Pennsylvania state legislature and got elected in 1831.

He was an advocate for free public education in the state and his legislative effort ended in a huge victory. It was 1835. Many states, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, not to mention the entire South, did not have statewide free school systems until after the Civil War. He knew from personal experience the impediment that illiteracy and ignorance were to the poor.

From early in his career Stevens had a reputation for generosity. One story had him coming upon a sheriff’s sale where a widow was about to lose her farm. Stevens joined the bidding and bought the farm. He then wrote a check for the debt owed and ordered the sheriff to make the deed to the widow.

Many requested his help and he gave unstintingly. It is fair to say Stevens had a dark view of humanity though, especially the mercenary side of people. Still, he was an idealist with a sense of pragmatism. He was hell-bent on ending slavery and that always was his moral touchstone. He looked through the lens of whether a particular bill or project would advance the struggle against slavery and racism.

Stevens became an abolitionist in the 1830s. He was active in the Underground Railroad. His home in Lancaster, Pa., had a concealed section where fugitive slaves hid. As a lawyer he defended fugitive slaves and as a legislator he fought pro-slavery legislation.

In 1851, Stevens led a team of four lawyers who defended 38 African Americans accused of treason against the United States. Slavecatchers came into Pennsylvania attempting to hunt down four escaped slaves. Supporters of the escaped slaves came to the rescue and a melee ensued. A Maryland slaveholder was killed.

After a trial held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the jury acquitted the defendants on the treason charge. Fortunately for them, they were not charged under the new Fugitive Slave Act.

Stevens had been a Whig but he decided to become an early member of the Republican Party. Slavery supporters called him a Jacobin. He was a leader of the militant, anti-slavery Radical Republicans, a faction in the party. He got elected to Congress for a second time in 1858. He opposed any concessions to the South. After President Lincoln’s election, he constantly pushed Lincoln on slavery and related issues.

By any accounting, Stevens’s accomplishments in Congress were tremendous. He was appointed chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he played a central role in financing the Civil War for the Union.

As early as November 1861, he introduced a bill in Congress providing for total emancipation of slaves. He believed President Lincoln had the necessary war power to free all the slaves and he repeatedly went to the White House and urged Lincoln to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation, which Lincoln eventually did.

He was one of the first politicians to push for enlistment of Black men into the all-white Union Army. He also successfully advocated for equal pay for the Black soldiers with their white counterparts.

Stevens later played a central role in passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Upon passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, Stevens said: “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’ ”

Stevens did not want the political gains of the Civil War to slip away. His biographer, Fawn Brodie, called him “a father of Reconstruction.” He favored the radical position that the federal government should confiscate the lands owned by the Southern aristocracy and give it to the former slaves as 40-acre farms.

Against great opposition, he fought for universal suffrage. He locked horns with now-President Andrew Johnson over suffrage as well as a raft of other issues. Stevens became an impeachment manager in the effort to impeach Johnson. He said: “The president would have the former Confederacy remain a slave empire under a different name. We cannot allow that or forgive that.”

Called “the Great Commoner,” Stevens always remained a unique character. He was not religious. He loved gambling. He lived with a woman of mixed race, Lydia Smith, which was scandalous at the time. The circumstances of the relationship were a mystery. In his movie Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has Tommie Lee Jones play Stevens and Spielberg made it clear he believed Lydia Smith and Stevens were lovers.

Stevens had a rapier wit which he used to advantage in Congress. He was also a master of parliamentary procedure. In introducing a speaker, he once said, “I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks.”

On one occasion walking a narrow path in Lancaster, he encountered a political enemy who said, “I never get out of the way for a skunk.” Stevens stood aside and replied, “I always do.”

Stevens’s last wish was to be buried in an integrated cemetery in Lancaster. He chose the words for his tombstone: “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.”

In this era of George Floyd, when America is trying to find its soul, the example of Thaddeus Stevens shines.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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