Thaddeus Stevens was born on April 4, 1792 in rural Danville, Vermont. His father left the family soon thereafter. His mother moved the family to Peacham, Vermont in order to enroll the children at the Caledonia Grammar School. Upon his graduation from Caledonia, Stevens enrolled in Dartmouth College where he excelled academically. Stevens graduated from Dartmouth in 1814, and established a law practice in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1816.
Amidst a successful career as a lawyer in Gettysburg, Stevens began to venture into the world of politics. in 1822 he was elected to his first of six consecutive one-year terms as president of the Borough Council of Gettysburg. During this time he was an important figure in the Anti-Mason Movement, winning the nomination and eventually the election for Pennsylvania State Speaker of the House on the Anti-Masonry ticket. As Pennsylvania Speaker of the House, Stevens fought for universal education as well as the rights of various minority groups including Native Americans, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jews.
By 1837, Stevens grew to focus on a particular cause that would consume the majority of his political career: the abolition of slavery. During the 1837 Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention, Stevens refused to sign the constitution due to a clause that guaranteed the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Following this convention, Stevens came out in full support of the complete abolition of slavery and a non-racial definition of American citizenship. Stevens would hold this belief, with great fervor, for the remainder of his life. In 1848, Stevens successfully ran for Congress as part of the Whig party. However, his stance against the Compromise of 1850--believing a compromise on human rights to be immoral--led to political problems and his eventual departure from the Whig party and loss of his congressional seat. In 1855, Stevens officially joined the Republican Party and was reelected to Congress in 1858.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens gained recognition for his tireless efforts in abolishing slavery. Throughout the war, Stevens worked hard to pass anti-slavery legislation. In 1861, he facilitated the passage of an act that would allow the Union to confiscate certain property belonging to the rebellion, which included their slaves. He also remained a constant source of pressure for Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves and take a strong stance against slavery. In December, 1863, Stevens and fellow abolitionists in Congress began drafting the magnum opus of the abolition movement, the Thirteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate with relative ease, however debate over the amendment persisted in the House of Representatives as it faced strong opposition from the Democratic Party. On January 13, 1865, Thaddeus Stevens delivered the closing remarks in the debate over the amendment and soon after the amendment passed through the House of Representatives.
Congressman Stevens’s contributions to the Union during the Civil War were not limited to his work in abolishing the institution of slavery. Perhaps due to his belief that the Confederacy was a revolutionary group and should be defeated with force, and his dislike of the Southern states due to their use of slavery, Stevens was instrumental in financing the Union efforts during the Civil War. Within days of being appointed to assist Lincoln’s administration with financing the war, Stevens had structured a new emergency loan and crafted legislation that would pay the Union soldiers that had already responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers and allow the administration to borrow money for additional war expenses. Stevens’s efforts to move these bills through the House quickly—such as cutting debate time on the bills to half a minute--earned him the nickname "Dictator." Stevens also helped pass the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which allowed the United States government to print money by its own credit instead of gold or silver.
Stevens remained in Congress for the remainder of his life. During the early years of the Reconstruction period, he was vocal about his views on how to treat the Southern states. The core of his belief was that the Confederacy had indeed created a separate nation, meaning that the Southern states were a conquered nation that could be reconstructed in any way the United States saw fit. Thaddeus Stevens died on August 11, 1868 at the age of 76.
Historian Hari Jones describes the series of events which led President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This video is part of the Civil War Trust's In4 video series, which presents short videos on basic Civil War topics.