Stevens, Thaddeus (1792–1868)

Author:Paul Finkelman

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A Pennsylvania lawyer, state legislator (1833?1841), and congressman (1849?1853, 1859?1868), Thaddeus Stevens was the most powerful Republican congressman throughout the CIVIL WAR and beginning of RECONSTRUCTION. Stevens was the earliest and most consistent congressional supporter of black rights and opponent of slavery. Stevens initiated, sponsored, or helped pass all key Reconstruction acts from 1865 to 1868. More than any other individual, Stevens was responsible for making the ex-slaves citizens.

After reading law, Stevens began practicing in 1816. In 1817 his unsuccessful defense of an accused murderer with the then novel plea of insanity brought Stevens fame and clients. After an initial case in which he represented a master in regaining fugitive slaves, Stevens never again defended slavery. Throughout the rest of his career Stevens took numerous cases on behalf of fugitive slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists. As one congressman said after his death, Stevens "was an abolitionist before there was such a party name." By 1831 he was one of Pennsylvania's most successful lawyers and a national leader of the Anti-Masonic movement. In 1835 Stevens single-handedly convinced the legislature to create a system of free public education for Pennsylvania. His passionate defense of public education stemmed from his own poverty-stricken background.

In 1848 Stevens was elected to Congress as a Whig, campaigning against slavery in lands ceded by Mexico. In Congress he was an acerbic, sarcastic, unrelenting opponent of slavery. Opposing the COMPROMISE OF 1850, he predicted it would be "the fruitful mother of future rebellion, disunion, and civil war." One of the first bloody fruits of the Compromise was the Christiana Riot, in Stevens's own county; a slaveowner was killed attempting to seize his fugitive slaves. Stevens helped organize the successful defense of Caster Hanway who was indicted for TREASON for refusing to help the master. A backlash against the riot and abolition cost Stevens his congressional seat the following year. After a short time in the Know-Nothing Party, he became a Republican in early 1855. In 1858 he was again elected to Congress, as a staunch opponent of his fellow Pennsylvanian, President JAMES BUCHANAN.

At the beginning of the Civil War Stevens became a leader of congressional Republicans. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee he influenced all legislation requiring appropriation...

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