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Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), American congressman, was the leading Radical Republican in the Civil War era.

Thaddeus Stevens, the son of an unsuccessful farmer who subsequently deserted his family, was born on April 4, 1792, in Danville, Vt. Despite his impoverished background and a deformity of the feet, he graduated from Dartmouth in 1814 and became a successful lawyer in Gettysburg, Pa. An Anti-Mason, he became a Whig when that party absorbed his in the mid-1830s. Elected to the state legislature in 1833, he remained for 8 years, becoming noted for his campaign to extend the state's free school system. An early and intense opponent of slavery, he defended fugitive slaves in the courts and, at the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837, unsuccessfully fought black disenfranchisement.

Stevens's intelligence and absolute mastery of political invective made him a frequent spokesman for his party, but his occasional erratic and impulsive actions and his singular ability to end up on the losing side in intraparty struggles kept him from achieving high office. In 1841, failing to get a post in President William Henry Harrison's Cabinet, he retired from the legislature and moved to Lancaster.

Stevens was elected to Congress in 1848 and 1850, becoming noted for his attacks on the South during debates on the Compromise of 1850. Once the slavery question seemed settled, Stevens's antislavery stance seemed inopportune, and he was not renominated in 1852. Revitalization of the slavery issue after 1854 brought him back into politics as a Know-Nothing and then as a Republican when that party emerged in the 1850s. In 1858, again elected to Congress, he renewed his bitter enmity toward Southern slaveholders.

In 1861 Stevens became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and helped to secure passage of the legislation needed to finance the Civil War. He and other Radical Republicans urged Abraham Lincoln to pursue an uncompromising war policy to restore the Union, secure freedom for the slaves, and destroy the political power of the slaveholders. Stevens advocated military emancipation, use of African American troops, and confiscation of Confederate property. He insisted that the Southern states not be restored to the Union until they had been thoroughly reconstructed, arguing that by seceding they had lost all rights under the Constitution and were conquered provinces subject to congressional control. Stevens particularly wanted the economic and political power of the planters decreased and schools, land, and ballots provided for the freedmen.

Stevens served on the crucial Joint Committee on Reconstruction in the postwar period, guiding much of its legislation, including the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing civil rights for the freedmen, through the House. An adroit parliamentarian, Stevens intimidated opponents. Yet many of his more radical proposals were never passed. Many Northerners were simply not ready to accept the social implications of radical measures designed to uplift the blacks.

Stevens's views on Reconstruction clashed with President Andrew Johnson's more conservative course. The President's veto of the civil rights and Freedmen's Bureau bills in 1866 and his violent personal attack on Stevens prompted Stevens and other Republicans to break openly with Johnson and to push through a much more stringent congressional Reconstruction program over the President's opposition.

In 1868 Stevens served on the committee that drafted the articles of impeachment against Johnson and was a manager of the case before the Senate. Johnson was acquitted in May, and Stevens died on August 11 in Washington. He requested that he be buried in a black cemetery to "illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life—Equality of Man before his Creator." Stevens's tragedy lay in the nation's unreadiness to begin the social and economic reforms necessary to make legal guarantees for blacks meaningful.

Further Reading

Richard N. Current, Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Ambition (1942), is a scholarly, somewhat hostile analysis that finds Stevens primarily motivated by political ambition. Ralph Korngold, Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great (1955), and Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (1959), are sympathetic to Stevens, as is Hans Trefousse, The Radical Republicans (1969), a useful analysis of the ideas and political situation of that group. □

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Stevens, Thaddeus

Thaddeus Stevens, 1792–1868, U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania (1849–53, 1859–68), b. Danville, Vt. He taught in an academy at York, Pa., studied law, and was admitted to the bar in Maryland. He practiced law in Gettysburg (1816–42) and then in Lancaster, Pa. He also entered the iron business. Stevens first achieved political prominence as an Anti-Mason, and from 1833 to 1841 he served in the Pennsylvania legislature. An aggressive, uncompromising man possessing a formidable, sardonic wit, he helped defeat a bill abolishing the state's public-school system and was a vigorous proponent of a protective tariff. In his first two terms in Congress, Stevens was a Whig but also a forthright abolitionist, and he quit in disgust at his party's moderate stand on the slavery issue. A leading organizer of the Republican party in Pennsylvania, he returned to Congress in 1859. As chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, he was a powerful figure throughout the Civil War. Stevens secured huge appropriations for the Union forces and succeeded in having paper money authorized as legal tender. His hatred of the South seems to have been based on principle. After Henry W. Davis was defeated for reelection in 1864, Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate were the leaders of the radical Republicans in Congress who opposed President Lincoln's moderate plan of Reconstruction. In Stevens's view, the Southern states defeated in the Civil War were "conquered provinces" and as chairman of the joint committee on Reconstruction he intended that they be treated as such. Victorious in the congressional elections of 1866, the radicals nullified the Reconstruction program of President Andrew Johnson, placed the South under military occupation, proscribed most ex-Confederates, and enfranchised African Americans. Stevens himself proposed the Fourteenth Amendment. Sincere in his devotion to the betterment of African Americans, Stevens nevertheless frankly admitted that the legislation guaranteeing them suffrage was designed to keep the Republican party in power. He dominated the committee that drew up the impeachment charges against Johnson and was one of the House managers in the subsequent trial before the Senate. Stevens requested that he be interred in a cemetery with African Americans rather than in a burial ground closed to them.

See biographies by S. W. McCall (1899, repr. 1972), J. A. Woodburn (1913), T. F. Woodley (rev. ed. 1937, repr. 1969), A. B. Miller (1939), R. N. Current (1941), R. Korngold (1955), F. M. Brodie (1959, repr. 1966), and H. L. Trefousse (1997, repr. 2005); T. H. Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals (1942, repr. 1960).

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Stevens, Thaddeus

Stevens, Thaddeus (1792–1868), radical Republican and leader of the House of Representatives.Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont, graduated from Dartmouth, and established himself as a lawyer in Gettysburg and later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an excellent parliamentarian who served (with few interruptions) in 1833–42 as an Anti‐Mason in the Pennsylvania legislature, where he was instrumental in saving the bill for compulsory free education. Elected to Congress in 1848 as a Whig, he took a determined antislavery stand and retired in 1853, only to be reelected in 1858 as a Republican.

As a strong opponent of the secessionists, in 1861, Stevens became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a position that enabled him to frame and implement important legislation during the Civil War. Stevens constantly pressured President Abraham Lincoln to institute an antislavery policy. He believed that only the laws of war, not the Constitution, applied to the seceded states, which he considered conquered provinces and in which he advocated confiscation of rebel property. His adept congressional leadership enabled him to raise the necessary funds for the Union forces, particularly by the introduction of paper currency “greenbacks,” which he favored throughout his career.

After the war, Stevens was the main proponent in the House of Radical Reconstruction. Largely responsible for denying seats to Southern members and for the establishment of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, he became the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment; the Reconstruction Acts, which initially remanded the Southern states to military rule; and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Often called vindictive and a dictator of Congress, Stevens was in fact opposed to the death sentence and did not succeed with many of his measures that fell short of his desires. Nevertheless, his advocacy for equal rights for the freedmen was an important inducement for Republican Reconstruction measures. He died in 1868, disappointed at his failure to procure the conviction and removal of President Johnson.
[See also Civil War: Domestic Course.]

Bibliography

Fawn M. Brodie , Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South, 1959.
Hans L. Trefousse , Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian, 1997.

Hans L. Trefousse

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"Stevens, Thaddeus." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Stevens, Thaddeus." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stevens-thaddeus

Stevens, Thaddeus

Stevens, Thaddeus (1792–1868) US political leader. As representative from Pennsylvania (1849–53, 1859–68), he was one of the fiercest opponents of slavery in Congress. He successfully opposed the lenient policy of Andrew Johnson on Reconstruction and managed the president's impeachment.

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