Thaddeus Stevens is often overlooked compared to other heroes of the Civil War Era. Lincoln led the nation through its darkest hour, Grant took charge on the battlefield, finding success where others had failed, and abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison gave voices to the voiceless. While his heroic deeds were not accomplished on the battlefield, his efforts in Congress during Reconstruction have made a lasting impact.
Thaddeus Stevens was born on April 4, 1792 in Vermont. Stevens and his three brothers were raised by their mother. Their father abandoned the family, never to return. Stevens was born with a club foot, but he did not let this hold him back. After graduating from the Caledonia Grammar School, Stevens attended Dartmouth University. He continued his education at York Academy, passing the bar and earning his certificate to practice law. He moved to Gettysburg in 1816 and started a practice there.
Stevens got involved in politics under the Anti-masonic party, and was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1833. While serving, Stevens was an outspoken advocate for free education. In 1848 he ran for Congress as a member of the Whig Party. He served two terms, speaking out against slavery and any legislation that supported or protected it including the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. After serving two terms, Stevens returned to his law practice. He spent time as an active member of the Know Nothing Party, and ultimately ran again as a member of the Republican Party, winning a seat in Congress again in 1858 and serving until his death.
During the Civil War Stevens worked to fund the Union Army, helping pass the Legal Tender Act of 1862 and the National Banking Act in 1863. Stevens was also outspoken on the issue of slavery, pushing for emancipation as early as 1861. While he often agreed with Lincoln on emancipation, he was very vocal about his frustration with the speed with which Lincoln moved towards it.
After the war, Stevens led a group in Congress known as the “Radical Republicans”. Stevens and his allies worked diligently to write and pass the 13th and 14th amendments, and the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Stevens was especially critical of President Andrew Johnson, arguing that he was too lenient with the South. Stevens believed that Johnson was focused more on reuniting the country than addressing the issue of slavery and punishing the Confederacy for the war. The Radical Republicans even attempted to impeach Johnson, however, he was ultimately acquitted.
Thaddeus Stevens died on August 11, 1868. His body lay in state at the Capitol, carried by both white and black pallbearers. He was buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where people of all races were allowed to be buried. His epitaph read, “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not for 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."