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Thaddeus Stevens - 00460

Thaddeus Stevens - 00460

He is "the Evil Genius of the Republican Party." New York Times

Powerful congressman Thaddeus Stevens was loved or loathed in his time. His sharp tongue and rapier wit hid his idealism. He spent his career fighting to give everyone, of any race, the opportunity to flourish.

When a Louisiana senator proclaimed that slaves were "the gayest, happiest, the most contented, and the best-fed people in the world," Stevens rose on the House floor with a sarcastic proposal: "If this be so, let us give all a chance to enjoy this blessing. Let the slaves who choose, go free; and the free who choose, become slaves."

His barbs often found their mark during spontaneous repartee, rather than in letters. One day, as he was following a narrow path in Lancaster, he encountered one of his enemies, who was coming from the other direction and refused to give way. The man shouted, “I never get out of the way for a skunk.” Stevens stood aside and replied, “I always do.”

Years later, when Lincoln discussed cabinet positions with Stevens, the president inquired about Simon Cameron from Pennsylvania. Stevens implied that Cameron could be less than scrupulous in financial matters. “You don’t mean that Cameron would steal?” asked Lincoln. “No,” came Stevens’ near-instant reply, “I don’t think he would steal a red hot stove.”

It could be argued that Stevens, father of the Pennsylvania public school system, is best remembered as portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Jones's performance was not over the top but true to life. Stevens was born with a club foot and later lost his hair due to a disease, resulting in the wearing of ill-fitting wigs. Stevens instructed his personal physician to send him the bill for any "deformed or disabled" boys he treated.

A successful attorney in Pennsylvania, Stevens invested in real estate. In 1863, as the war approached Gettysburg, Confederate General Jubal Early targeted the destruction of the Caledonia Ironworks, due to owner Stevens, "vindictiveness towards the South". The moment a messenger brought the news of the Confederates burning his mill to the ground, Stevens joking inquired, "Did they burn the debts too?"

Stevens had rented his home in Gettysburg to the Widow Thompson after moving to Lancaster. During the Battle of Gettysburg, his home became General Lee's Headquarters. The Widow Thompson reported that Lee was a gentleman but was unable to say the same for the soldiers that were with him.

In 2002, a hiding place for runaway slaves was discovered in Stevens' Lancaster, PA home. More recently, a 52 page account of O.C. Gilbert's flight from slavery was found, specifically mentioning Stevens. Early in his law career, Stevens won a case that resulted in a runaway slave being returned to bondage. Ashamed, he became committed to equal rights for African Americans.

But it was upon passage in the House of the bill authorizing the Thirteenth Amendment that Stevens uttered the words he’s best remembered for: “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus, ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’”