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Stevens, Thaddeus

Born: 1792-04-04 Caledonia County, Vermont

Died: 1868-08-11 Washington, D.C.

Flourished: Washington, D.C.

Thaddeus Stevens was a Pennsylvania politician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The son of a cobbler/land surveyor, Stevens was born into a poor family living on the Vermont frontier. Abandoned by his father and also born with a clubfoot, Stevens poured his energies into academics. In 1807, his mother moved the family to nearby Peacham, Vermont, where Stevens attended Peacham Academy. He subsequently attended the University of Vermont and Dartmouth College, graduating from the latter in 1814. The following year he moved to York, Pennsylvania to teach school and read law with a local attorney. In 1816, he earned admittance to the bar, and moved to Gettysburg, where he commenced the practice of law. He soon gained distinction as an attorney, and as his practice grew, he was able to accumulate substantial land and business holdings. In 1822, he entered local politics, winning the first of five terms on the Gettysburg Council. In the later 1820s, Stevens entered state politics, joining the Pennsylvania Anti-Masonic Party. Stevens won election as a Anti-Mason to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1833. Voters re-elected him in 1834 and 1835. Stevens became a champion of public education, speaking eloquently against efforts to nullify the state's first public education law, and he spearheaded the movement to charter the Second Bank of the United States in Pennsylvania and to investigate Masonry. His zealous pursuit of Masonry cost him a fourth term in 1836. Although re-elected in 1837, Stevens experienced a premature demise of his political power the next year during Pennsylvania's so-called Buckshot War. While absent from the General Assembly, he served as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, where he fought efforts (unsuccessfully) to disenfranchise the state's free blacks. Though returned to the Pennsylvania House in 1839 and 1841, Stevens saw his influence diminish sharply. Facing political and financial bankruptcy, Stevens moved from Gettysburg to Lancaster in 1842 to resume his law practice and recoup his losses. The demise of the Anti-Masonic movement left Stevens without a party, and his views on race had him at odds with most Democrats and Whigs. In 1848, however, he succeeded in cobbling together a coalition of Whigs and won a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. From 1849 to 1853, Stevens became a leading opponent of slavery in the House, railing against the "Slave Power" and the Compromise of 1850, and working feverishly to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law. His uncompromising nature and strident ideology cost him the nomination for a third term in 1852. In 1858, Stevens returned to the House as a Republican, and remained a member until his death. As chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on Appropriations, Stevens shepherded through the House important legislation, including the confiscations acts, the Legal Tender Act of 1862, and the National Banking Act of 1863. He also spearheaded efforts at emancipation, securing emancipation in the District of Columbia and eventually the Thirteenth Amendment. He became best remembered as chairman of the managers selected by the House of Representatives in 1868 to conduct the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Stevens had no children of his own, but in the late 1840s he adopted two teenage nephews, with whom he had a turbulent relationship. Although he never married, he shared his home and parental responsibilities with his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a mulatto widow who came to work for him in the 1840s and remained with him for the remainder of his life. Little evidence exists to prove or refute the common belief that they were romantically involved.

Gravestone, Shreiner's Cemetery, Lancaster, PA; Hans L. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 33-61, 69-70, 76-86, 110-123, 131, 152-53; Josh Zeitz, "Stevens, Thaddeus," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20:711-14; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 1882.