The life and times of Pennsylvania's fiery anti-Southern Congressman
Thaddeus Stevens, at first glance, looks like God's gift to Lancaster, Pennsylvania's, quest to be a mecca for 21st century historical tourism.
Unstained by race prejudice, he shines bright against the dismal background of 19th century white America. He connects our collective past with a future we still yearn for, when a diverse United States will fairly share her national blessings. His mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Smith, was an object of rumor and scandal during her life, and speculation by historians. Whatever the truth of it, Stevens' relationship with his employee seems to be a model of mutual respect in an age when black women got scant dignity in Northern white households.
Besides, Thad's old home and office sit smack in the bootprint of revitalization, on the half-block of downtown Lancaster that was marked for demolition to make way for the new convention center. The guardians of local history stepped in, and that plan changed.
His house and office offer an ugly and uninspired example of 19th century architecture, which is wholly in step with the character of the man. Stevens wore a wig cut the same way all around, so he wouldn't have to bother about which side was the front. He pursued his political visions with vindictive force, reckless of the consequence. He brought a tangled, bullying personality to his work as a legislator. I think it's worthy to memorialize him. Any American as powerful and influential as Stevens was ought to be remembered, whether you like him or not.
But if you're going to raise up a statue, it pays to think first about how you'll pose the man. My question is, do we intend to treat Thaddeus Stevens as a full-blooded figure from a complex and turbulent history, or as a cardboard god of civil rights?
Start with another question: Did he hate slavery more than he hated the South? I have studied his works and writings for years, and I confess I cannot decide. Stevens was born and raised in Vermont. He had a deformed foot, and his father was a drunk who couldn't hold a job and eventually abandoned his family. Thaddeus' mother worked as a maid and housekeeper to support her children. He left no autobiography, but it is difficult not to see his early struggles as the force that shaped his lifelong resentment of privilege.
"He sympathized with the poor, the perpetually downtrodden, and the outcaste [sic];" according to one local account, "and was willing that there be retribution for them at the expense of others. ... His interest in the Negro was largely resultant from the fact that they were poor; and Stevens knew, from his own youth, the meaning of poverty." A fellow Congressman said of Stevens, "He seemed to feel that every wrong inflicted upon the human race was a blow struck against him."
Stevens put himself through Dartmouth College, studied law in York and opened a law practice in Gettysburg. By 1821 he was prosperous enough to invest in real estate and iron foundries. He rose to prominence in Pennsylvania when ignorant popular suspicion of the Masonic order erupted into a bizarre conspiracy-theory movement. Since Masons were typically a fraternity of the privileged, Stevens eagerly joined the crusade against them, and it propelled him into the Pennsylvania legislature.
His tenure there showcased the best and the worst of the man. He helped lead a witch hunt against the Masons and other secret societies. He used his position to benefit his business, may have manipulated elections, and certainly bribed newspaper editors. Yet while in Harrisburg he also delivered a brilliant speech that single-handedly saved the state's infant public school system from an attempt to abolish it by the wealthy and devout. And he fought the state Constitution of 1838, which took away from black males the right to vote.
When the political tide in Pennsylvania turned against the Anti-Masonics, Stevens refused to yield power and the governor had to call in armed militia to bring order in the state Legislature. By 1839, he was out of power and almost broke. His iron mill was failing, and the Anti-Masons had been absorbed into the elitist Whig Party.
Stevens was past 50 and had evidently failed in life when he came to Lancaster in 1842 and moved into the property that local folks came to call "Old Thad's House," just past the northeast corner of South Queen and East Vine streets. He bought the lot and the two houses at sheriff's sale April 21, 1843, for $4,000. He lived in the north-most one, except when he was in Washington, until his death in 1868, and he was buried from it.
Stevens probably saw the move as a fresh start in the last bastion of Anti-Masonic power in the state, as well as a chance to put his finances in order by practicing law in a wealthy county. An outsider, politically at odds with the powers, Stevens characteristically bulled his way through the local social strata.
Stevens "cared nothing for social life," in the words of one local authority, and as a self-described "impious" man, he made no attempt to win over deeply religious Lancaster County. Instead, within six months he cowed the local lawyers with his intellect, command of the law and unerring nose for the crucial legal points of a case.
Stevens had boarded at a hotel when he lived in Gettysburg. But when he moved to a house in Lancaster, he had to find a housekeeper. There was a class of unmarried or widowed women who managed the cooking, cleaning, laundry and household concerns of bachelor professional men like Stevens. Stevens' search eventually led him to Lydia Hamilton Smith, a mulatto widow in Gettysburg with two small children. Smith took the job in 1848, moved with her family to Lancaster, and stayed with Stevens until his death.
Smith and her two boys lived in "a one-story frame house on the rear of Mr. Stevens' lot, fronting on South Christian street," according to a 1924 article in the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Stevens lived in the main house with his two nephews, both of whom also worked as lawyers in the city.
Smith was "assumed by gossips and the press to be his mistress." Historians are divided on the issue. Nothing has been proven, but when asked about the rumors, Stevens only denied being the father of Smith's sons. The innuendos were printed and reprinted, and Stevens, veteran of dozens of libel suits, never brought action.
In July 1866, the "Lancaster Intelligencer," a Democratic party organ, wrote, "Nobody doubts that Thaddeus Stevens has always been in favor of negro equality, and here, where his domestic arrangements are so well known, his practical recognition of his pet theory is perfectly well understood. ... There are few men who have not given to the world such open and notorious evidence of a belief in negro equality as Thaddeus Stevens. A personage, not of his race, a female of dusky hue, daily walks the streets of Lancaster when Mr. Stevens is at home. She has presided over his house for years. Even by his own party friends, she is constantly spoken of as Mrs. Stevens. ..." Stevens had brought a libel action against the "Intelligencer" in 1858 when it called him a gambler. This time, he was silent.
He insisted that she be called "Mrs. Smith," not "Lydia;" he hired Jacob Eichholtz to paint her portrait; and he left her $5,000 in his will -- all unusual signs of respect for a white lawyer to show a black housekeeper, but Stevens was not typical of his times or his class.
Through the 1840s, Stevens took in many law students, who eventually became a loyal cadre of young political allies. He paid down his debts and made trouble in the local Whig Party.
He was execrated by the pro-Whig "Lancaster Examiner" newspaper as a "pestilent demagogue." The "Intelligencer" went the "Examiner" one better a few years later and called him "a pestiferous political demagogue."
In the chaotic election year 1848 Stevens won the county's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps in exchange for his faction's support of the Whig candidate for governor.
In Washington, when he took his seat in Congress, Stevens found a new focus for his contempt for elites: the Southern slaveholders. Growing up, he would have absorbed the New England Puritan's deep-grained hatred of the Cavalier society of the old South. His baiting nature loved to get under their skins, and twist their codes of honor and old-fashioned politeness. After his first term, Howell Cobb, the Georgian who was Speaker of the House, summed him up: "Our enemy has a general now."
Stevens owed his political success, such as it was throughout his life, to his skill at playing the game -- the wire-pulling and dirty tricks that characterized politics in those days. But ultimately he succeeded because he could inflame the electorate's resentments. First he rallied them against the benign Masonic lodges, then, more powerfully, against the South.
Most Pennsylvanians had no love for abolitionists, whom they regarded as meddling and immoral. Pennsylvanians were deeply prejudiced against blacks and had no humanitarian love of slaves. In fact, they were busy petitioning the Legislature to pass laws that would bar blacks from entering Pennsylvania. In 1851, Stevens ran the defense of the Christiana Rioters from behind the scene and helped win their acquittals. But the anti-slavery violence in Christiana helped spark a backlash against him and within a year he was out of Congress and back in Lancaster.
When the new, anti-slavery Republican Party formed in the mid-1850s, Stevens helped organize it in Pennsylvania. The Republican Party in Pennsylvania in the 1850s played down its abolitionist leanings to win votes. For a time, it even avoided the name "Republican," which was too tainted with abolitionism. Instead, Stevens and the fledgling Republicans convinced Northern voters that they were in danger of political subjugation to "slave power" and that their very rights and freedoms were at risk from Southern aristocrats. What was worse, he told them their economic security was at risk. Men in the South, seeking advantage, were telling their own people similar stories about the North. Secession and disunion were murmured in both sections, and the politicians of division, of fear, of hatred, fanned it.
Stevens rode the Republican Party into Congress again in 1858. He was unanimously renominated every two years thereafter through 1866, often running unopposed or against mere token Democratic competition.
After the Southern states left the union, but before the shooting started, many people on both sides worked hard for a compromise. But Stevens, who held a powerful committee position, opposed any concession to the South. He frustrated even President Lincoln, who had staked his career and destiny on union at all costs. Lincoln wanted to keep the Southern stars on the flag. Stevens wanted to let them go so he could punish them. Little more a year and a half into the war, Stevens wrote in a private letter that he hoped the leadership in Washington had "a sufficient grasp of mind, and sufficient moral courage, to treat this as a radical revolution, and remodel our institutions .... It would involve the desolation of the South as well as emancipation; and a re:peopling of half the Continent. This ought to be done but it startles most men."
He became the House leader of the faction of his party known as the Radicals, who "were primarily responsible for turning the struggle into a war not only to preserve the Union but also to extinguish slavery," in one historical judgment. On March 28, 1864, Stevens proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, with no mention of compensation to slave-owners. That fall, after Lincoln's re-election and a string of Northern battlefield victories, it was taken up again and ultimately passed, in basically the form Stevens wrote it, to become the 13th Amendment.
After Appomattox, the Radicals opposed President Lincoln's plan for quickly re-uniting and healing the broken nation. When Lincoln's assassination brought Andrew Johnson to power, the new president tried to continue the reconciliation. But Stevens wanted to crush the institutions and culture that had upheld the Confederacy. His faction led the impeachment of Johnson in trumped-up charges. Stevens would have impeached Lincoln himself if he thought he could have gotten away with it. The Radicals nullified Johnson's program and unleashed the hounds of "Reconstruction" on the South.
Thomas Dixon made Stevens the basis for the character "Stoneman," the malevolent Northerner, in 1905 when he published "The Clansman," the book which formed the basis of the film "Birth of a Nation."
We were, and to some extent still are, two nations under one flag, and Stevens simply hated the other one. He advocated what now would be called ethnic cleansing.
You cannot sanctify Stevens without involving the whole man.
In the past year, local voices have pumped up the circumstantial evidence that Stevens may have taken a hand in the "Underground Railroad." Making out that Stevens directly helped runaway slaves escape to Canada pushes him into the pantheon of liberators and emancipators. And that certainly is a good thing if you want to market your history based on civil rights alone. Stevens well may have helped runaway slaves flee. But there's no unambiguous evidence of it. In fact, since it was an illegal activity, a clever and controversial Congressman who was breaking the law would likely not leave a paper trail for subsequent generations to discover. The truth probably will never be known.
What we do know is that, in addition to his progressive attitudes about race, he was an uncompromising man bent on narrow political goals that bled into his personal traumas. And he often practiced a brand of politics stoked by fear and hatred. That succeeds today as it did in 1860, and, now as then, it often gets innocent people killed.
Stevens died in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 11, 1868, less than three months after the acquittal of Johnson on impeachment charges that Stevens had largely engineered. Stevens was buried in Shreiner's Cemetery, at Chestnut and Mulberry streets in Lancaster, four days later.
Lancaster Cemetery and Woodward Hill Cemetery, the city's prominent burial grounds, were restricted to whites. Stevens' grave lies, according to the wish engraved on his tomb, in Shreiner's small cemetery, "that I might be enabled to illustrate in my death the principles which I have advocated throughout a long life."
Lydia Smith died in a hospital in Washington on Feb. 14, 1884. Her funeral was held from the old Stevens home, then owned by George Heiss, a prominent tobacco dealer and city councilman. She was buried in St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, at the church where she long had been a member.