Historical Markers
Thaddeus Stevens [Politics] Historical Marker
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Thaddeus Stevens [Politics]

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
W. Chestnut St. at Shreiner's Cemetery, Lancaster.

Dedication Date:
March 24, 1950

Behind the Marker

A man in formal dress is seated.
Thaddeus Stevens, by John Sartain, 1835.
Possessed of an acerbic wit and aggressive parliamentary skills, Thaddeus Stevens was a leader in the House of Representatives during an age in which Congress, not the President, held the real political power in America. From the start of the Civil War until his death in 1868, Stevens championed causes that ignited nationwide fervor and controversy. His role during the Civil War and Reconstruction earned him a national legacy, but it his political legacy in the state of Pennsylvania began decades before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Born in Vermont, Stevens graduated from Dartmouth College in 1814 and worked briefly as a teacher until his move to Pennsylvania, where he soon became a very successful lawyer. Stevens viewed education as the means by which even the poorest Americans could elevate their station. As a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, he strongly supported the Free Public School Act of 1834, which granted tax support to schools. When citizens presented the state legislature a petition for repeal, out of fear of rising taxes, it met no opposition in the Senate and found few objectors in the House, except for Stevens, who rushed back to Harrisburg from a committee investigation to argue his case. Despite being told that his was a lost cause, Stevens took to the podium and gave a speech he later described as his life's "crowning utility."
Oil on canvas of Governor Joseph Ritner, (December 15, 1835 - January 15, 1839), c. 1835, Unidentified Artist
Joseph Ritner, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1835 - 1839, circa 1835.

Stevens used Pennsylvania's favorite son, Benjamin Franklin, as an example of a young man who greatly benefited from New England's public-school system, and painstakingly argued against every point of contention raised in the petition for repeal. In the wake of Stevens' speech, the movement for repeal dissipated, and publicly funded education in Pennsylvania survived.

From 1830 to 1842, when he temporarily retired from public life, Stevens presented hundreds of petitions and proposed measures to the Pennsylvania legislature, covering topics as diverse as soldiers' pensions and divorce laws. His almost ceaseless activity was matched only by a debating skill that made even the most seasoned politicians fear to tangle with him. In 1840 Stevens rallied the Pennsylvania voters who helped elect William Henry Harrison as President, only to have Harrison rescind his promise to make Stevens a member of his cabinet. In 1842, Stevens left politics to focus on his legal practice. Six years later, however, he aggressively campaigned for, and won a seat in Congress.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Stevens proved himself a vociferous and uncompromising advocate of abolitionism, and after the outbreak of hostilities placed constant pressure on President Lincoln to emancipate and arm the slaves. Like many of his other causes, Stevens' ideas were initially unpopular among his constituents - until Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. Stevens and his allies helped convince Lincoln to free the slaves, and Lincoln's decision, in turn, helped to ensure Stevens' reelection.
Black and white photograph of Thaddeus Stevens.
Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, photograph by Matthew Brady, circa...

Stevens gained more influence in the national government when he became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which was responsible for financing the Union effort. In the wake of the war, his hard-line view on the defeated Confederate states garnered him both devoted allies and embittered enemies, even provoking one British journalist to call him "the Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America, all rolled into one." His steadfast adherence to racial equality earned him acclaim as a major motivating force behind the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which freed the slaves and declared the principle of equal rights under the law.

Although Stevens had always advocated a slow approach to black suffrage, giving due time for education and economic advancement, when the debate for the Fifteenth Amendment arose he put all of his waning energy into its passage. Elderly, infirm, in constant pain, and nearing death, he feared what would happen should the amendment not be adopted by Congress before his death. In 1868, Stevens played a leading role in President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, believing that Johnson had betrayed the will of the people and trampled upon the rights of Congress. In tune with his lifelong political truculence, the ailing Stevens arranged to be carried into Congress on a litter to watch the proceedings. Only months after Johnson was acquitted of the charges, Thaddeus Stevens passed away.

Negro Civic Congress poses in front of the Thaddeus Steven's monument in Lancaster, Pa
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Members of the Negro Civic Congress pose in front of the Thaddeus Steven's monument...
Stevens had been both hated and revered in life. His death after a long illness in 1868 left some of the nation in mourning. Strong personal beliefs and unparalleled political determination earned Stevens sobriquets like "the Great Leveler" and the "Old Commoner," endearing him to the downtrodden and earning the grudging respect of his opponents. After a state funeral attended by many African Americans, Stevens was buried in the racially integrated Shreiner's Cemetery.

The inscription on his head stone, which Stevens wrote, reads as follows: "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."

Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Stevens was generally regarded as a vindictive, power-hungry demagogue. In D. W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation (1915), most notoriously, Stevens was depicted with a mixed-race partner, a clubfoot, and an ill-fitting wig (he was bald and wore one). Today, scholars acknowledge him as a heroic and pioneering champion of civil rights. Stevens' monument is at the intersection of North Mulberry and West Chestnut streets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

To learn more about Steven's early political career in Pennsylvania and his own scandal with the "Tapeworm" Railroad,marker click here

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