1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Stevens, Thaddeus

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STEVENS, THADDEUS (1792-1868), American political leader, was born in Danville, Vermont, on the 4th of April 1792. He graduated at Dartmouth College in 1814, removed to York, Pennsylvania, was admitted to the bar (in Maryland), and for fifteen years practised at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He was a leader of the Anti-Masons in Pennsylvania, and was prominent in the national Anti-Masonic Convention at Baltimore in 1831. He served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, first as an Anti-Mason and later as a Whig, in 1833-1835, 1838-1839 and 1841-1842. On the 11th of April 1835 he made an eloquent speech in defence of free public education. A partner's venture in the iron business having involved him in a debt of $217,000, he retired from public life in 1842 and practised law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with such success as within six years to reduce this debt to $30,000. He frequently appeared in behalf of fugitive slaves before the Pennsylvania courts, and previously, in the state constitutional convention of 1837, he had refused to sign the constitution limiting the suffrage to white freemen. In 1840 he did much in Pennsylvania to bring about the election of W. H. Harrison, and in the campaign of 1844 Stevens again rendered marked services to the Whig ticket. He was a Whig representative in Congress in 1849-1853, and was leader of the radical Whigs and Free-Soilers, strongly opposing the Compromise Measures of 1850, and being especially bitter in his denunciations of the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1855 he took a prominent part in organizing the Republican party in Pennsylvania, and in 1856 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, in which he opposed the nomination of John C. Frémont. He returned to the National House of Representatives in 1859 and bitterly criticized the vacillation of Buchanan's administration. He became chairman of the ways and means committee on the 4th of July 1861, and until his death was, as James G. Blaine said, “the natural leader who assumed his place by common consent.” During the Civil War he was instrumental in having necessary revenue measures passed in behalf of the administration. He was not, however, in perfect harmony with Lincoln, who was far more conservative as well as broader minded and more magnanimous than he; besides this Stevens felt it an injustice that Lincoln in choosing a member of his cabinet from Pennsylvania had preferred Cameron to himself. During the war Stevens urged emancipation of the slave, and earnestly advocated the raising of negro regiments. He not only opposed the president's “ten per cent. plan” in Louisiana and Arkansas (i.e. the plan which provided that these states might be reorganized by as many as 10% of the number of voters in 1860 who should ask for pardon and take the oath of allegiance to the United States), but he also refused to accept the Wade-Davis Bill as being far too moderate in character. On the motion of Stevens (Dec. 4, 1865), the two houses appointed a joint committee on reconstruction, and Stevens was made chairman of the House committee. In his speech of the 18th of December 1865 he asserted that rebellion had ipso facto blotted out of being all states in the South, that that section was then a “conquered province,” and that its government was in the hands of Congress, which could do with it as it wished. He introduced from the joint committee what became, with changed clause as to the basis of representation, the Fourteenth Amendment, and also the Reconstruction Act of the 6th of February 1867. He also advocated the Freedmen's Bureau bills and the Tenure of Office Act, and went beyond Congress in favouring the confiscation of the property of the Confederate States and “of the real estate of 70,000 rebels who own above 200 acres each, together with the lands of their several states,” for the benefit of the freedmen and loyal whites and to reimburse, it was said, the sufferers from Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, during which Stevens's own ironworks at Chambersburg had been destroyed. He led Congress in the struggle with the president, and after the president's removal of Secretary of War Stanton he reported the impeachment resolution to the house and was chairman of the committee appointed to draft the articles of impeachment. He was one of the managers appointed to conduct the case for the House of Representatives before the Senate, but owing to ill-health he took little part in the trial itself. He died at Washington, D.C., on the 11th of August 1868, and was buried at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.[1]

Stevens was an extreme partisan in politics; and his opponents and critics have always charged him with being vindictive and revengeful toward the South. Instead of obtaining political and social equality for the negro, his policy intensified racial antagonism, forced practically all of the white people of the South into the Democratic party, and increased the difficulties in the way of a solution of the race problem; the policy, however, was the result of the passions and political exigencies of the time, and Stevens cannot be held responsible except as the leader of the dominant faction in Congress. He was an able, terse, forcible speaker, master of bitter sarcasm, irony, stinging ridicule, and, less often used, good-humoured wit.

See S. W. McCall's Thaddeus Stevens (Boston and New York, 1899), in the American Statesmen Series, a sympathetic, but judicious biography; also J. F. Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, especially vol. v. (New York, 1904).


  1. In accordance with his own wish he was buried in a small graveyard rather than in one of the regular city cemeteries, and on his tombstone is the following epitaph written by himself: “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 I advocated through a long life — Equality of man before his Creator.” He bequeathed a part of his estate to found a home for white and negro orphans — the present Thaddeus Stevens industrial school — at Lancaster.