Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian

Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian

Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian

Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian


One of the most controversial figures in nineteenth-century American history, Thaddeus Stevens is best remembered for his role as congressional leader of the radical Republicans and as a chief architect of Reconstruction. Long painted by historians as a vindictive "dictator of Congress", out to punish the South at the behest of big business and his own ego, Stevens receives a more balanced treatment in Hans L. Trefousse's biography, which portrays him as an impassioned orator, an indefatigable advocate of racial equality, and a leader in the struggle against slavery. Trefousse addresses the riddle of Stevens's personality - his seeming harshness toward his foes, his kindness toward the poor and powerless, his stern manner and biting sarcasm - and explores the motivations for this leader's lifelong commitment to racial equality. He offers a fascinating portrait of the man whose impassioned opposition to slavery helped move his more moderate congressional colleagues toward the implementation of egalitarianism.


In a small cemetery located off the beaten track in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, there is a tombstone with an arresting inscription:

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 which I advocated
Through a long life
equality of man before his creator.

The stone marks the last resting place of Thaddeus Stevens, the Great Commoner, savior of free public education in Pennsylvania, national Republican leader in the struggles against slavery in the United States and intrepid mainstay of the attempt to secure racial justice for the freedmen during Reconstruction, the only member of the House of Representatives ever to have been known, even if mistakenly, as the "dictator" of Congress.

What kind of man was this amazing fighter for human rights and leader of the House during the Civil War and Reconstruction? a native of Vermont, born to a poor family and abandoned by his father, he was handicapped from the very beginning because of a clubfoot. At an early age he lost all of his hair, so that ever after he wore an ill-fitting wig. Never married, he was accused of illicit connections with many women, including his mulatto housekeeper. He came to Pennsylvania when he was twenty-two, established himself as a lawyer of considerable skill and power, first in Gettysburg and then in Lancaster, and, after serving in the state assembly with some interruptions from 1833 until 1842, was elected to Congress in 1848 and 1850 as well as in 1858 and then continuously until his death ten years later. As a member of the House of Representatives he acquired so much influence that he was considered the strong man of Congress; his wit and sarcasm was such that colleagues feared to tangle with . . .

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