Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

THADDEUS STEVENS
(April 4, 1792–August 11, 1868)

Charles F. Ritter

Thaddeus Stevens, one of the Civil War’s most effective congressmen, was a local Pennsylvania political operator who lived and died by his wits in the maelstrom of Middle Period politics. Starting in 1833, Stevens was in and out of the state legislature and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. But after 1853 he practiced law in Lancaster and, through skill and cunning, barely kept his political fortunes alive. In 1858 public sentiment finally caught up with this ambitious antislavery advocate and sent the sixty-six-yearold Stevens back to Washington after an eight-year hiatus to begin a rapid tenyear ascent during which the Great Commoner became known as the dictator of the House and launched his reputation as a bona fide American idealogue. While dictator may be a misplaced sobriquet, he was a moving force behind the radical program for Reconstruction and a prime mover in the attempt to impeach a president.

Born in Danville, Caledonia County, Vermont, on April 4, 1792, the second of four sons of Joshua and Sally (Morrill) Stevens, Thaddeus had a clubfoot, which some say accounted for his dour outlook and cynical attitude. In addition to this physical embarrassment, the young Stevens family, always lingering on the margins of poverty, suffered the loss of Joshua, a failed shoemaker and a drunk, who ran off and apparently died in the War of 1812. Sally Stevens moved her young brood to Peacham, Vermont, where Thaddeus attended the Caledonia County Academy and then went to Dartmouth, where he graduated in 1814. Eschewing the ministry, which his mother wished him to pursue, Stevens left New England and traveled to York, Pennsylvania, where he taught at the local academy and read law. Admitted to the bar, Stevens opened a small practice in Gettysburg in 1816, living and working there for the next twenty-six years. As his practice prospered, he purchased property in the town and surrounding Adams County and entered the iron business, building the Caledonia Iron Works near Chambersburg.

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