Thaddeus Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4, 1792. At that time, a physical deformity was seen as a sign that a family had committed a serious secret sin. Thaddeus' older brother was born with two club feet, and Thaddeus himself was born with a club foot. Because of this, his family faced a certain stigma, and his circumstances were made worse by his family's poverty. Stevens' father left the family when he was still a child, and his mother (Sarah Stevens) did chores for other families to make ends meet. Stevens' mother came to the conclusion that an education would greatly improve the quality of life for her children, so she paid to send Thaddeus Stevens to school.
Stevens was initially enrolled at Caledonia Grammar School in nearby Peacham, Vermont. He reportedly had an "overwhelming burning desire to secure an education", and it was there that he also endured teasing from his classmates due to his disability. He afterwards enrolled at Burlington College of the University of Vermont, however, his studies there were briefly halted due to the governments appropriation of campus buildings due to the War of 1812. He would later enroll in Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In spite of his exceptional academic career, he was not elected to Phi Beta Kappa, which disappointed Stevens. However, Stevens was chosen as a commencement speaker, and afterwards, he returned to Peacham and briefly taught there.
Law and political careerEdit
Stevens became an attorney in the state of Pennsylvania, and he would later run for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Republican on the Anti-Mason ticket (Stevens disliked the Masons for their secretive nature and for exclusion based on physical characteristics). Stevens became a proponent of civil rights and free public education. In the 1830s, education was not free, and was largely limited to the wealthy. When a free school bill was introduced to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he was an ardent supporter. The bill was threatened by a petition to repeal it, which gathered 32,000 signatures. Stevens then gave the following speech before the Pennsylvania Assembly:
- "I know how a large portion of the community can scarcely feel any sympathy with, or understand the necessities of the poor; the rich appreciate the exquiste feelings which they enjoy, when they see their children receiving the boon of education, and rising in intellectual superiority above the clogs which hereditary poverty had cast upon them...
- "When I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and perhaps as a consequence, hereditary pride, are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty."
The Assembly voted in favor of public education by a margin of 2 to 1. Pennsylvania would provide statewide free public education an entire generation before the same was offered in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the entire American South.
In August 1861, he supported the Confiscation Act, the first law attacking slavery. Stevens defended and supported Indians, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. He spent a lot of time defending blacks. He was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting in the freeing of as many as 16 fugitive slaves a week.
Stevens also led the Republicans in a battle against banks, warning that a debt-based monetary system would bankrupt the people. However, after the assassination of Lincoln, the Republicans lost the battle, and a national banking monopoly later emerged. The assassination of Lincoln also thwarted Stevens' efforts for a dismantling of the confederate social structure. Lincoln was succeeded by the openly-racist Andrew Johnson, whose 1867 message to Congress expressed his belief that blacks possessed less capacity for government than other races. Stevens attempted to have Andrew Johnson impeached, an effort that failed by a single vote, but reduced Johnson to a mere figurehead until his acquittal by the Senate in 1868, when he was replaced by Ulysses Grant.
Thaddeus Stevens died on August 11, 1868. At his request, he was buried at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a headstone written by himself as follows:
- "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, for from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemetaries 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."
Stevens' legislative legacy is the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which serve as the basis for all civil rights legislation.
In Stevens' will, he left $50,000 to establish a school for the refuge and education of the disadvantaged. Stevens requested:
- "They shall be carefully educated in the various branches of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits. No preference shall be shown on account of race or color in their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish or Mahometan, nor any others on account of race or religion of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the same table."
The legacy of this request is the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Low income students may qualify for the Thaddeus Stevens Legacy Grant, which is designed to provide an education at little to no cost to the recipient.