Thaddeus Stevens was still just a state representative in 1840 when popular New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley declared him “a leetle too savage a politician.” Indeed, the hard-boiled Stevens was happy to shove his unbending principles in the faces of opponents, and a generation later he proved more than a match for the unscrupulous power brokers, pitiless sectionalists and hard-drinking orators of Capitol Hill.
Emerging from his adopted hometown of Gettysburg, Pa., as a successful landowner, industrialist (as owner of Caledonia Iron Works) and lawyer with a virulent hatred of slavery, Stevens entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848.
He left Washington, D.C., and the crumbling Whig Party four years later, but resurfaced in 1858 to rally disenchanted Pennsylvanians to the crisp new Republican Party banner. In November the state sent him back to Congress.
Tall, lean and grim-faced—almost skeletal in appearance—Stevens limped around on a clubfoot, with a hideous wig atop his head. But the aging bachelor compensated for his physical shortfalls with a sharp tongue; biting sarcasm and dust-dry wit were his weapons. Stevens declared outgoing President James Buchanan “dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.” Mocking free-spending Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Stevens said, “I don’t think he would steal a red-hot stove”—and when Cameron objected, Stevens cooly responded, “I now withdraw that remark.” He derided Conservative Postmaster General Montgomery Blair as an “apostate.” Stevens’ invective withered friend and foe alike, a contemporary noted, but it was “frequently carried on the shafts of his wit and lost in the laughter they provoked.”
Hoping for a seat in President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, Stevens settled instead for the chairmanship of the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee. His outspokenness earned him the allegiance of Radical Republicans such as Owen Lovejoy, George Julian and Speaker of the House Galusha Grow. With civil war approaching, Stevens dismissed Senator John Crittenden’s last-minute proposal to avoid conflict (the famous Crittenden Compromise) as a “delicate piece of satire.”
For secessionists he had no pity. “If their whole country is to be laid waste, and made a desert, in order to save the Union from destruction,” he told his House colleagues, “so let it be. I would rather, sir, reduce them to a condition where their whole country is to be repeopled by a band of freemen.”
Dubbed the “Great Commoner” by admirers, Stevens identified with the downtrodden. As a young lawyer he had even defended runaway slaves for free. On Capitol Hill, however, his hard-line stances often put him at odds with Lincoln, who moved too cautiously for Stevens’ taste. “Old Thad” regarded emancipation as the most powerful tool available against the Confederacy, and demanded that Lincoln unleash it—and black soldiers—on the “damned secessionist provinces.” He led the charge for outlawing slavery in the capital and in the Western territories, and although they were violating federal policy, he hailed progressive steps by Generals Benjamin Butler and John C. Frémont to liberate slaves in the field. He championed the hard-hitting 1862 Second Confiscation Act, which authorized freeing slaves of unrepentant Confederates and any others able to reach Union army lines.
Of course, Stevens inspired revulsion among Southerners. When Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates burned Stevens’ ironworks in 1863 during the Gettysburg Campaign, the Charleston Mercury celebrated the act as “punishment due for his enormous crimes against the happiness of the human race.” And his unyielding politics and creative denigration of conservative Republicans, whom he deemed cowards, and Democrats, whom he presumed pro – slavery, alienated nearly as many Northerners. He was, the New York Herald decided, the “Mephistopheles of Congress.”
But if Stevens’ combativeness earned him enemies, his earnestness and influence helped secure passage and ratification of the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, and, after the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment, which defined citizenship. Such progress soothed the tiring representative’s unfulfilled hopes for higher office. Before his death in August 1868 he wrote with typically wry candor of the last of these bills, and Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated president, with whom he had once battled for civil rights: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.