Feast of Thaddeus Stevens (August 12)   6 comments

Above:  The Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, 1860-1868

Image Source = Library of Congress

THADDEUS STEVENS (APRIL 14, 1792-AUGUST 11/12, 1868)

U.S. Abolitionist, Congressman, and Witness for Civil Rights

“The Great Commoner”

One of the advantages of keeping a calendar of saints on a blog is recognizing people–whether or not from a denomination’s authorized calendar.  Today I choose to recognize a saint who, to the best of my knowledge, does not occupy space on any church body’s calendar.  That fact constitutes an oversight on their part.  Many people–especially defensive Southerners with emotional attachments to the Confederacy–have heaped abuse on the reputation of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.  Representations of him from the bad films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Tennessee Johnson (1942) are laughably inaccurate.  Of course, the Klansmen were the heroes in The Birth of a Nation, a movie which should make a person cringe if it does not bore one into unconsciousness first.

I begin at the end.  Thaddeus Stevens lies buried in a cemetery at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a town where he had lived for many years.  His epitaph follows:

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot

Not from any natural preference for solitude

But, finding no 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


Thaddeus Stevens was born in Vermont on April 14, 1792.  He was the second of four children of Sarah Morrill, a devout Baptist, and Joshua Stevens, a shoemaker  and a surveyor.  Joshua, a man with “rather dissipated habits,” abandoned his family, leaving Sarah to raise her children.  She was devoted to them, and Thaddeus remained devoted to her until she died in 1854.

Our saint had a difficult personality.  Inborn traits might have had something to do with that fact, but so did his disability:  a lifelong limp caused by a clubfoot.  This caused much taunting during his youth.  And some thought of the disability as a curse from God.  That accusation of being cursed by God might have influenced Stevens never to join a church, not that he was estranged from the Bible or hostile to organized religion.  In fact, he knew the Bible very well, having kept a copy by his bedside throughout his life.  And, in the early 1850s, in an attempt to convince his mother to leave Vermont and move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where there was no Baptist congregation nearby, Stevens offered to pay split the construction costs for a Baptist church with the Baptists.  Sarah died first, however.

Well-educated, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania in 1815 and opened a law office at Gettysburg the following year.  In 1821 he was complicit in returning a slave woman and her children to servitude.  This troubled his conscience greatly, so he became a strong, uncompromising abolitionist.  Stevens was, in fact, chiefly responsible for the equalization of pay for White and African-American soldiers and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in 1864.  He also favored Radical Reconstruction, with its insistence on enforcing the civil rights of former slaves.  And he worked hard to remove President Andrew Johnson (in office 1865-1869), an unapologetic racist and foe of the former slaves, from office.  The saint’s methods constituted an overreach, but his heart and mind were in the right place.  (Johnson had said of the former slaves,

Damn them!

To call him a twit is to understate the case greatly.)

As a man Stevens encouraged people to virtue and tried to act kindly, despite his acerbic tendencies.  He discouraged his nephew from drinking.  And Stevens was a kind employer to the workers at his iron works.  Steeped in the Bible, Stevens, as a state legislator in 1842, opposed capital punishment, stating,

Society ought to know nothing of vengeance.

Eight years earlier, he had pushed through the legislature a law creating free public schools in the commonwealth.  A year later, in 1835, he had prevented that law’s repeal.  The major complaint against free public schools was that some people did not want to pay for schools they did not intend to use.  But, Stevens rebutted, people already paid for courts and jails they did not intend to use.

Stevens, as a political creature, supported equality of access to opportunities for social advancement and personal improvement.  This led him to favor a strong role for the government in society, hence his support for public schools and for public works projects, such as those of Henry Clay’s proposed American System.  Stevens was a natural Federalist then Anti-Mason then Whig then Republican.  As I have explained to students in U.S. history courses, the political labels “Democratic” and “Republican” have been constant since 1854 yet the substance of them has changed more than once.  The fact that a certain historical figure fit into a particular political party in the 1800s does not mean that he or she would find a home there or in its successor today.  My readings about Stevens and my knowledge of modern U.S. politics cause me to conclude that he would not have fit easily into the post-Goldwater and Reagan Republican Party.  Certainly the Southern Strategy (appealing to Southern segregationists, beginning in the 1960s) would have offended his morality.

Stevens died about midnight on August 11-12, 1868, after having been ill for a while.  At the tail end of his life he received  a Roman Catholic baptism.  How conscious he was of this baptism was uncertain then and remains at least as uncertain today.  Yet we can be certain of the fact that there was a Protestant funeral him to rival the Roman Catholic funeral.

Professor Hans L. Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens:  Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1997), the main source of my notes for this post, concluded:

His policies often sounded harsh, whether vindictive or not, but his legacy made possible racial progress in the twentieth century, finally showing that his life had not been a failure.  Ahead of his time, he worked for an interracial democracy.  It was a goal for which he assuredly deserves to be remembered.

–page 245





Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil

and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Thaddeus Stevens,

to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.  

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60

6 responses to “Feast of Thaddeus Stevens (August 12)

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  1. So many reasons that this man was a great person for you to introduce us too – many thanks!

  2. You are welcome.

  3. Thanks so much for this blog. Readers might be interested in the Thaddeus Stevens Society, a group dedicated to promoting the legacy of the Great Commoner. You can find our webpage at http://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com.

  4. Pingback: Feast of All Christian Statesmen and Stateswomen (October 13) « SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  5. Thaddeus Stevens would have been a leader we need today. His dedication to the promotion of the equality of all would have led him to support abolition of abortion, as did Susan B. Anthony and many other Republicans of the day.

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