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Congressional Lions: Thaddeus Stevens


Thaddeus Stevens, a nineteenth century “Radical Republican,” was one of the most effective and passionate men to ever serve in the United States Congress. Aside from influencing wartime policy during the Lincoln administration, he and his fellow Radicals repeatedly battled with President Andrew Johnson over the nature and purpose of Reconstruction. This conflict between the legislative and executive branches led to the first impeachment of an American president in United States history. I discuss his life and career in my soon-to-be-published book, Congressional Lions.

Born to a poor family in Danville, Vermont, on April 4, 1792, he was named for Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, a Polish hero of the American Revolutionary War. Stevens’s parents, Joshua and Sarah, were Baptists who left Massachusetts in the 1780s to settle in Vermont. The second son of four boys, Thaddeus was born with a club foot. An older brother was cursed with two club feet. Later in life, Thaddeus Stevens was completely bald; consequently, he wore a black wig to disguise what he saw as an infirmity.

Joshua Stevens abandoned his wife and family when Thaddeus was 12 years old. Despite her heavy load, Sarah Stevens insisted that her sons acquire a sound education. Her second son attended a local academy before enrolling in the University of Vermont. He later transferred to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and graduated in 1814.

Upon graduation, he taught school in Vermont before moving to York, Pennsylvania, to teach at another school. During his teaching career, Stevens offered courses in Latin, Greek, English, math, science, and moral philosophy. Even as he spent his days in the classroom, the ambitious young man devoted his nights to reading the law. He passed the bar examination and established a law practice in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, beginning in September 1816.

After a slow start in his practice, Stevens earned a reputation as an excellent courtroom advocate. His commanding presence, booming voice, towering intellect, and thorough preparation ensured that he won most of his cases. He even won cases that he would have preferred to lose. One such case, Butler v. Delaplaine, upheld a slave-owner’s right to reclaim his property after his slave had run away. He came to regret winning the case, and it was a turning point in his life and career. Stevens had never taken a public stand on slavery, but he soon announced his opposition to the peculiar institution. Later in his career, he became one of the most vocal opponents of slavery in the United States Congress.

Stevens discovered his first pet cause. During the 1820s, concern grew over the Masons, a secret society boasting of membership among many prominent men, including General Andrew Jackson. Stevens shared these concerns, and he became an ardent anti-Mason and anti-Jacksonian. He joined a short-lived political party, the Anti-Mason Party, becoming an enthusiastic, outspoken member. Owing to his work in the party, Stevens won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. There he established a pattern that would characterize his political career. Through his passion and determination, Stevens attracted attention to a cause that he felt was vitally important. Yet in pursuing that cause, he overreached, galvanizing the opposition and antagonizing even his supporters. The verbal abuse that Steven heaped on suspected Masons during a legislative investigation created a backlash that generated sympathy for the group, and probably cost Stevens his reelection in 1836.

He eventually returned to the state legislature before advancing into the United States House of Representatives as a member of the Whig Party in 1848. By that time, he was already embroiled in a number of scandals. The one that upset many people of the era was Stevens’s relationship with Lydia Hamilton Smith, a mulatto woman who became his housekeeper and long-time companion. Whether the couple engaged in a sexual relationship had never been firmly established, although some contemporaries believed them to be common-law husband and wife. Whatever the case, Stevens treated her with a deference and respect that was unusual for the time. Later in his career, and even after his death, his detractors would castigate the man for shamelessly cavorting with a woman of color.

When he took his House seat late in 1849, Stevens became alarmed about the growing sectional tension. The United States was in the grips of an ongoing crisis regarding slavery and territorial expansion following a war with Mexico. White southerners threatened to secede from the Union if they could not export slaves into the newly acquired area, while anti-slavery men recoiled at the thought of extending human bondage into newly-acquired territories.

Stevens recognized that something had to be done, but he was upset with the Compromise of 1850 proposed by the master legislator, Henry Clay. In June of that year, he disparaged Clay’s effort to save the Union by mollifying southerners with protections for human bondage. “This word ‘compromise’ when applied to human rights and constitutional rights I abhor. We are not asked, but commanded, to compromise away the Constitution,” he remarked. Stevens was only a freshman congressman, but he was never reluctant to speak his mind. Much to his displeasure, the measure eventually passed.

Stevens won reelection in 1850, but his political future was anything but assured. The Whig Party, which had never vigorously accepted Stevens, was splintering between Conscience Whigs and Cotton Whigs. The former believed that slavery was the central issue of the day, while the latter sought to focus on the lucrative cotton trade with southerners and de-emphasize sectional strife. Cotton Whigs looked at Stevens with horror, believing that his intemperate language and uncompromising stance on slavery threatened the well-being of the Union. His increasingly shrill comments ensured that he would not win a third term in 1852.

Out of office, Stevens returned to his law practice in Pennsylvania, where he was a much sought-after attorney. He remained defiant and unapologetic, accepting cases that championed the cause of abolitionists against slave-owners. Always interested in politics, he kept up with current events, expressing his opinion on pressing issues. He also joined the Native American Party, nicknamed the Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant, nativist organization that met in secret (hence, the members’ reply, when he asked if they knew anything about party deliberations: “I know nothing”). Party members’ intolerance as well their shadowy meetings made the Know Nothings a poor fit for Stevens, especially since he had railed so vehemently against the secretive Masons decades earlier. He soon left the party and searched for a new political base.

As the Whig Party disintegrated, Stevens gravitated to the newly-formed Republican Party, which had adopted an anti-slavery platform. He served as a delegate to the 1856 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia where the Republicans nominated John Charles Frémont, a well-known soldier and explorer, as the party’s first presidential candidate. Frémont had not been Stevens’s first choice, but he dutifully supported the nominee against the Democrats’ choice, James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian from Lancaster, Stevens’s home. Alas, Buchanan won the election.

The ferocious anti-slavery Stevens won another House seat in 1858, returning to Washington, D.C., the following year. He was still serving in the House when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and southern states seceded from the Union within a few months of the election. The rebels in South Carolina fired on a federal military installation, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor in April 1861, Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, and the United States was engaged in civil war.

Stevens became a leading congressional symbol of the Radical Republicans, that branch of the president’s party that rejected moderate calls for a quick return to the Union as it was. Stevens and his fellow Radicals believed that the slave masters in the rebellious states had triggered the conflict, and now they must be made to pay. No longer should timid federal officials tiptoe around southerners’ hurt feelings. No longer should slavery be afforded a place in American political life. No longer should accommodations be made for slave states and free states. The rebels had fired on Fort Sumter and announced that they were no longer a part of the Union created by the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787. So be it. The rebellious states had taken themselves out of the Union; therefore, they could no longer avail themselves of constitutional protections. They should be treated as a hostile foreign power to be conquered and subjugated. The northern will could then be imposed on the southern states without regard for the wishes and desires of those states’ residents. The myth of a brotherhood between the sections could be dispensed with, and the process of administering rough justice could begin. Southerners must be made to feel the wrath of a righteous, angry northern government—and its army.

It was a brutal, unremitting approach to resolving the rebellion. At the outset, Lincoln would have none of it. He believed that a lighter touch was called for in the early days of 1861. If the good, decent people in the rebellious states could be shown the light, they would come back into the Union voluntarily, without much bloodshed. Hot-headed southern leaders—“fire-eaters” they were called in some quarters—had caused the rebellion, but citizens who harbored Unionist sentiments could still be found. Appealing to the “better angels of our nature” in his inaugural address, Lincoln had urged calm, deliberative reason as the most effectives way to eclipse the passionate, fiery words of extremists. (Aside from his noble sentiments, he did not have an army to speak of. With the loss of numerous southern soldiers and leaders, the peacetime army, which had never been large to begin with, was virtually depleted.)

Stevens had campaigned for Lincoln, but he soon concluded that the president was too vacillating and cautious in his approach to the war. Fortunately for the congressman, he had at last ascended to a position of power in the House of Representatives, and he could influence war policy, stepping into the breach where the spineless chief executive dared not go. The speaker of the House, Galusha Grow, shared Stevens’s opinion that the war must be prosecuted vigorously, and without all the remorse and anguish evinced by the kindly, wish-washy Lincoln. Reflecting his confidence in the Pennsylvania congressman, Grow appointed Stevens chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax policy for the country. From this perch, Stevens became one of the most powerful and influential congressmen in American history. The chairman shepherded key legislation through his committee to fund the war. In the process, he fundamentally influenced government policy on excise taxes, bonds, tariffs, banking, the issuance of greenback currency, and the establishment of western railroad land grants.

Stevens and Lincoln enjoyed an uneasy relationship during the four long years of war. The former constantly urged the latter to be bold and unrelenting, but the president was never a radical. Lincoln insisted at the outset that the war was aimed at preserving the Union, not eradicating slavery. That goal gradually changed. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln was toying with issuing an emancipation proclamation.

Stevens and the Radicals were pleased when the president finally issued the proclamation, but they feared that it was too limited in scope. As Lincoln said when he announced the preliminary proclamation in September 1862, it was an expedient wartime measure, freeing only those slaves in the rebellious states. What would happen when the war ceased? Would the freed slaves in the conquered Confederacy be enslaved again? Could black men who aided the war effort in the North be expected to resume their place as second class citizens of the republic, effectively stripped of their citizenship and personhood? How could anyone in the nation justify such a large sacrifice of blood and treasure if the monstrous institution were not abolished forever?

To resolve the lingering questions, Stevens became a prominent voice calling for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Such an amendment required a favorable vote of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states to ensure ratification. An initial draft amendment passed in the Senate, but failed in the House. With Lincoln’s considerable assistance behind the scenes, members of Congress eventually succeeded in winning the requisite vote early in 1865. In a widely repeated but probably apocryphal story, Stevens, reflecting on all the promises and patronage the president had expended to ensure passage of the amendment, remarked that the “greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” The Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery was ratified on December 18, 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s assassination.

Despite their continued disagreements with the president, most Radicals supported Lincoln’s reelection in the fall of 1864. He was a flawed candidate, to be sure, but he was the party’s standard-bearer. Stevens was unhappy, however, when he learned that Lincoln’s original vice president, the reliable Republican Hannibal Hamlin, had been removed from the ticket and replaced with Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee and a Democrat. The congressman grumbled, “can't you get a candidate for vice-president without going down into a damned rebel province for one?” Yet for all of his displeasure, Stevens was a pragmatist. He desperately wanted Lincoln to defeat the Democratic nominee, former Union General George B. McClellan, a notorious racist who favored an end to the war short of unconditional surrender, and a man who could not be counted on to abolish slavery.

Much to Stevens’s relief, McClellan lost the election, and Lincoln remained in office. Yet the rapprochement was short-lived. Stevens was furious about Lincoln’s decision to meet with Confederate leaders during the so-called Hampton Roads Conference on February 3, 1865, to discuss possible peace terms. The congressman wondered if perhaps the Republicans should have dumped Lincoln before the fall election and thrown their support behind a stronger, more resolute candidate. It was too late, of course. They were stuck with the hapless bumpkin.

Stevens visited with Lincoln in March 1865, after Congress had adjourned, and urged the old man to press on toward ultimate victory against the South. Recent battlefield successes suggested that the rebels were exhausted and on the run. It would not be long before the Confederate army capitulated. Stevens was worried that the kindly, weak, well-meaning Lincoln, motivated by pity and exhibiting his characteristic lack of resolve, would allow the traitors to escape justice. The president reputedly said, “Stevens, this is a pretty big hog we are trying to catch and to hold when we catch him. We must take care that he does not slip away from us.” Never a fan of Lincoln’s folksy homilies, Stevens departed, as ever, disgusted with the president’s command, or lack thereof.

It was their last meeting. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the back of the head as Lincoln watched a play, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The mortally wounded man, unconscious, slumped in his chair. A group of onlookers carried him across the street to a boarding house where he died at 7:22 the next morning.

The Radicals grieved for the loss of their president, but they also recognized an opportunity to push for a harsh, punitive reconstruction policy that Lincoln never would have approved. A new president occupied the executive mansion, and he might be well-suited for the task ahead. The Radicals met with Andrew Johnson several times to discern his plan for reconstruction, and he spoke all the right words. “Robbery is a crime; rape is a crime; treason is a crime; and crime must be punished,” he said. “The law provides for it; the courts are open. Treason must be made infamous and traitors punished.” This was exactly the sort of vituperative rhetoric that Thaddeus Stevens had been longing to hear. President Johnson would do what Lincoln could not or would not: He would make the South pay dearly for its treachery.

Unfortunately, Johnson failed to live up to his harsh rhetoric. For the next three years, he and the Radicals faced off against each other in a series of escalating crises. The Radicals pushed through several bills to punish the South and reconstruct the Union. Johnson vetoed them all. In most cases, the Radicals overrode the vetoes. It was only a matter of time before their confrontations created a constitutional crisis.

The standoff between Johnson and the Radicals finally came to a head concerning the Tenure of Office Act. When Lincoln died in April 1865, Johnson inherited a cabinet that he had not chosen. Many of the men looked on the new president as a pretender to the throne, and some were openly contemptuous. Edwin M. Stanton, the haughty secretary of war, regarded virtually everyone as his inferior. He had been dismissive of Abraham Lincoln during the early days of the administration, but he had come to respect and even revere the country lawyer from Illinois. His opinion of Johnson, however, had spiraled downward with time.

On August 12, 1867, the president suspended Stanton and placed General Grant in his stead, at least temporarily. Stanton grumbled about the decision, but he stepped aside. “Under a sense of public duty I am compelled to deny your right under the Constitution and laws of the United States, without the advice and consent of the Senate and without legal cause, to suspend me from office as Secretary of War,” he remarked. “But inasmuch as the General Commanding the armies of the United States has been appointed ad interim, and has notified me that he has accepted the appointment, I have no alternative but to submit, under protest, to superior force.”

Johnson should have avoided further bickering with the Radicals, but he was a combative personality who refused to back away from a political fight. He removed several military officials even as Congress reviewed his reasons for suspending Secretary Stanton. Invoking the Tenure of Office Act--which required Senate approval when a president dismissed a cabinet officer--the Senate voted 35 to six to retain Stanton in office despite the president’s wishes.

Johnson believed that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. If the Framers of the Constitution had desired Senate approval before a cabinet officer was dismissed, they would have included such a provision in the text. Because they did not, Johnson believed that he was acting within his constitutional authority as president. On February 21, 1868, he sent a note to Stanton: “Sir: By virtue of the power and authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and laws of the United States, you are hereby removed from office as Secretary for the Department of War, and your functions as such will terminate upon the receipt of this communication.” He also appointed Major General Lorenzo Thomas as interim secretary of war. When Thomas showed up to take office, he and Stanton quarreled about who legitimately should occupy the office. The latter soon barricaded himself in his office, staunchly refusing to vacate the premises. It might have seemed comical if the subject matter weren’t so serious.

Now that Johnson had flagrantly violated the Tenure of Office Act, Stevens spied a prime opportunity to go after his enemy. The Grand Old Man spoke to his moderate friends who had repeatedly urged him to be cautious in his tone and judicious in his manner. “Didn’t I tell you so? What good did your moderation do you? If you don’t kill the beast, it will kill you,” Stevens roared. At his insistence, the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson on February 24, 1868. It was a straight party-line vote, 126 to 47, with 17 members not voting, in favor of filing articles of impeachment against Johnson.

The leadership filed 11 impeachment articles, mostly related to Johnson’s firing of Stanton and the installation of General Thomas as the interim secretary of war. Article 10 condemned Johnson’s “inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against Congress. The last article summarized the accusations: “On Monday, February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, resolved to impeach Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors, of which, the Senate was apprised and arrangements made for trial."

Stevens was too ill to deliver a speech in support of impeachment, but he had the clerk read his statement aloud. It was a typical Stevens speech, brimming with fiery, exaggerated rhetoric and prophesies of doom if impeachment failed. He outlined the case against Johnson, and concluded in uncompromising terms. “As we deal with the first great political malefactor so will be the result of our efforts to perpetuate the happiness and good government of the human race,” he wrote. “The God of our fathers, who inspired them with the thought of universal freedom, will hold up responsible for the noble institutions which they projected and expected us to carry out. This is not to by the temporary triumph of a political party, but it is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.” Following the vote, the House immediately sent the impeachment case to the Senate for trial.

The Radicals, smugly self-righteous at the outset, felt confident that Johnson would be convicted and removed from office. As the Senate trial dragged on, and days turned to weeks, the tide shifted in Johnson’s favor. The impeachment managers’ speeches degenerated into barely coherent, interminable, bitterly partisan harangues. Anticipating genuine drama and sensational headlines, newspaper reporters had attended the opening sessions anxious for exciting news. They soon drifted away, realizing that the proceedings had evolved into a slow-moving, virtually impenetrable morass of legalisms and shrill statements. In the meantime, Johnson finally heeded his advisers’ sage advice and stayed out of the limelight, refraining from uttering public comments or engaging in provocative acts while the trial occurred.

The impeachment managers slogged through their summations late in April. Only Stevens’s oration was widely anticipated. Although visibly weak, Old Thad decided that he would address the senators without assistance. He struggled to his feet, speaking in a “voice [that] has that dreadful low, grating sound that we hear from deathbeds,” according to the Cincinnati Commercial. Sipping brandy, the aged legislator gripped the rostrum and promised that he would summarize the evidence in “no mean spirit of malignity or vituperation, but to argue them in a manner worthy of the high tribunal before which I appear and of the exalted position of the accused.” Personal attacks or political vendettas, he said, “would ill become this occasion, this tribunal, or a proper sense of the position of those who discuss this question on the one side or the other.”

Having assured the senators that he would not engage in scurrilous attacks on Andrew Johnson, Stevens did exactly that. On and on he went, listing the outrages that Johnson had occasioned, but offering no evidence of criminal activity. It was vintage Stevens; he reserved no invective, and pulled no punches when it came to describing his hatred for the president. Comparing Johnson with the vanquished Confederate leadership, Stevens insisted that he and the other impeachment managers “have put the chief of them upon his trial, and demand judgment upon his misconduct. He will be condemned, and his sentence inflicted without turmoil, tumult or bloodshed, and the nation and prosperity without the shedding any further of human blood and with a milder punishment than the world has been accustomed to see, or perhaps than ought now to be inflicted.”

Other speeches followed, but the Radicals had already lost. They held out hope for a conviction until the bitter end, but it was not to be. Seven senators expressed misgivings about impeaching a president for political transgressions that did not rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor. No matter how inept the current chief executive was, they would not set such a potentially dangerous precedent.

When the votes were tallied on May 16, 1868, 35 senators voted for removal and 19 against. The Senate recessed for 10 days to consider other articles of impeachment, but the vote remained the same when the senators reconvened and voted again. Thirty-six votes were needed for conviction, and so the Radicals fell one vote short. Much to their dismay, Andrew Johnson would serve out his term as president of the United States until March 4, 1869.

For Thaddeus Stevens, it was a bitter conclusion to his political life—and to his physical life as well. When he learned of the verdict, he cried out, “the country is going to the devil!” He fell into a deep depression. “My life has been a failure,” he told a fellow Pennsylvania politician. “With all this great struggle of years in Washington, and the fearful sacrifice of life and treasure, I see little hope for the Republic.” He told a reporter that “[m]y life-long regret is that I have lived so long and so uselessly.”

He died on August 11, 1868, less than three months after the impeachment vote. Always a contrarian, he directed that his earthy remains be buried in the black section of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, cemetery. Old Thad died as he had lived—according to his own rules.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez