Samuel W. (Samuel Walker) McCall.

Thaddeus Stevens online

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APR 26 1899

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Thaddeus Stevens was the unquestioned
leader of the House of Representatives from
July 4, 1861, when it assembled at the call of
Lincoln, until his death, which occurred in 1868.
The legislative work of that period stands unap-
proached in difficulty and importance in the
history of Congress, if not, indeed, of any par-
liamentary body in the world. Stevens was the
chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means
during the war, and afterwards of the Com-
mittees on Appropriations and Reconstruction.
He was, therefore, especially identified with the
financial measures of the war, including the
legal tender acts, also with reconstruction, with
the great constitutional amendments, and with
the impeachment of President Johnson. I have
dwelt very slightly upon his connection, during
the later period of his congressional service,
with other matters, which, although some of
them would have been of great consequence in
ordinary times, were dwarfed and robbed of
interest by the stupendous events with wlnph
they were associated.


The fact that no extended biography of Ste-
vens has ever been published would have very
greatly augmented the difficulty of my work
had it not been for the assistance which has
been generously given me. I desire especially
to acknowledge my obligation to Hon. Marriott
Brosius, who has for many years represented
Stevens's former district in Congress ; to Pro-
fessor C. F. Richardson, of Dartmouth College ;
to Mr. C. B. Tillinghast, of the Massachusetts
State Library ; to Mr. A. R. Spofford and Mr.
J. Q. Howard, of the Library of Congress ; and
to those two venerable and distinguished states-
men, the Hon. Henry L. Dawes and Hon.
George S. Boutwell, who served with Stevens in
Congress during the war period, and were inti-
mately associated with him in most of the im-
portant legislation of that era.

S. W. McCall.

Washington, D. C, January 19, 1899.



I. Youth 1

n. The Law 19

III. Entrance into Public Life— Fkee Schools 28

IV. Constitutional Convention — The " Buck-

shot War" — Elected to Congress . 46

V. Congress — Anti-Slavery Speeches . 66 '
VI. Resumes Law Practice — Again returned

TO Congress — Caimpaign of 1860 . . 89
VII. Secession — Character of Slavery Agita-
tion 115

VIII. Leader of the House 136

IX. The Legal Tender 152

X. War Revenue Measures .... 174

XI. War Legislation 182

XII. Emancipation 210

XIII. The Beginning of Reconstruction • 229

XIV. The Johnson Plan 244

XV. The Rupture with the President . 256

XVI. Reconstruction Legislation and its Re-
sults 285

XVII. Wit and Other Characteristics . . 309

XVIII. The Impeachment 323

XIX. Last Days 349

Index 355


Thaddeus Stevens Frontispiece

From a photograph lent by John B. McPherson,
Esq., Gettysburg, Pa.

Autograph from a MS. in the possession of Mr. Mc-

The vignette of Mr. Stevens's home, Lancaster, Pa.,
is from photographs and drawings kindly furnished
by the Hon. Marriott Brosius, Lancaster, Pa. Page

Facsimile of Thaddeus Stevens's Handwriting

facing 238

Letter written July 10, 1864, to the Hon. Edward
McPherson. From the original MS. in the possession
of John B. McPherson, Esq., Gettysburg, Pa.
Benjamin F. Wade /«""3 246

From a photograph by Brady in the Library of the
State Department at Washington.

Autograph from the Chamberlain collection, Bos-
ton Public Library.
Andbew Johnson facing m

From a photograph by Brady in the Library of the
State Department at Washington.

Autograph from the Chamberlain collection, Bos-
ton Public Library.

Revbrdy Johnson /«"""^ ^^^

From a photograph by Daniel Bendann, Baltimore,


Autograph from the Chamberlain collection, Bos-
ton Public Library.




Thaddeus Stevens, the son of Joshua and
Sally Stevens, was born in Danville, Vermont,
April 4, 1792. Not much is known of his
ancestors, although enough to enable us to de-
termine the character of the stock, which was
evidently Anglo-Saxon. His parents removed
from Methuen, in Essex County, Massachu-
setts, to Danville, about the year 1786, with a
small company of immigrants, mostly bearing
the names of Harris and Morrill, the latter be-
ing the maiden name of his mother. The name
of Joshua Stevens, or Stephens, as it was on
that occasion, and often, written, makes a soli-
tary appearance in the records of Haverhill, in
1712, before Methuen had been set off from
that town. It is found with the names of eight
others, all of whom lived in that part of the
town which afterwards became Methuen, upon


a petition asking an abatement of tlieir taxes for
the support of the ministry and the school "on
account of the great distance they lived from
the town and the difficulty they met with in
coming." ^ If the signer of this petition was an
ancestor of our hero, this lonely circumstance,
coming from the distant past, stands somewhat
in contrast with the great speech with which
more than a century afterwards Thaddeus Ste-
vens saved from repeal the free -school system of

The father of Thaddeus does not appear to
have had the thrifty and enterprising qualities
necessary to achieve success in the wilderness,
although he was well versed in the science of
surveying, so useful to the pioneer, and which
in the settlement of this country has often
brought to its possessor not merely good wages,
but also large tracts of land gained by "survey-
ing on the shares." He re-surveyed the lines of
the town of Danville in 1790, and his measure-
ments are the legal ones to-day. He was a shoe-
maker also, and his son Thaddeus learned enough
of the trade to enable him to make shoes for
the family. He enjoyed a wide reputation as
an athlete, especially at wrestling, and was able,
like young Abraham Lincohi, to throw any man
in his neighborhood. The accounts are uniform
^ Chase, History of Haverhill, p. 237-


in attributing to him great poverty, although
they disagree as to the method of his final escape
from it. One version has it that he ran away
from his family a few years after settling in
Danville, and was never heard of again ; another
that he was killed in the war of 1812; while yet
another has it that he died at home while his
children were young. This much appears cer-
tain, that the mother was left in extreme penury
with four children, aU boys, to support and edu-

The location of DanviUe on the western edge
of the valley which there takes its name from
the Passumpsic, but a few miles further south
merges into the Connecticut, is beautiful in the
extreme. The land rises rapidly towards the
west from St. Johnsbury, ten miles distant, and
in general level it attains an altitude in Danville
of about two thousand feet above the sea. The
principal peaks of the White and Franconia
mountains in New Hampshire are distinctly
visible, and in the other direction the Green
Mountains make a jagged horizon, with their
summits uplifted against the sky. Pleasing as
are the outlines of the mountains and the beauty
of the valleys and lesser hills, they form by no
means the most attractive features of the scen-
ery. No verdure has a brighter green in the
springtime, or a more brilliant variety of color-


ing in the autumn tlian the maple forests in that
portion of Vermont. One would not know
where to find a more gorgeous picture than can
be seen from one of the hills in that region upon
a clear September or October day. The maple-
trees afforded a more solid benefit than to color
the landscape ; and when the supply of food was
almost exhausted at the close of a long winter,
they furnished that well-known, wholesome sugar
which helped to preserve the first immigrants
from starvation.^ Not the least of the hardships
which those j)ioneers had to endure was the rigor
of the climate. At a point north of the 45th
parallel, and remote from the sea, the cold was
of course severe. The snow lay deep upon the
hillsides until late in the springtime and re-
turned before the end of the autumn, but the
fertile soil yielded bountiful crops even in the
brief summer. In spite of these severities,
however, the settlement was soon firmly planted,
and, on the whole, with much less than the usual

The start of Thaddeus Stevens in life was
lowly enough, but not on that account unpro-
mising. It is true, as has been said, that his
family was even desperately poor; but the rude
state of the society about him presented slight
inequalities of condition, and interposed few

^ Ver?nont Historical Gazetteer, toI. i. p. 313.


obstacles between him and nature, with whom he
was invited to a struggle to win what she had to
yield. The wild freedom of the life about him,
the rigor of the climate, the great natural beauty
of the surroundings, and the strong and law-
abiding qualities of the community in which he
lived, formed a series of happy circumstances.
The social and political influences to which he
was subjected were intensely democratic. The
stirring events of the Revolution were fresh in
the minds of men, and the heroes of that strug-
gle, still in their prime, could be found in every
considerable town. The system of government
established by the Constitution had just gone
into operation, and, while it imposed checks upon
hasty popular action, it was admirably designed
to secure, in the conditions then existing, the
enactment into law of the sober second thought
of the people, and was thus, in the best sense, a
democratic government.

There were also special facts in the history
of Vermont which powerfully tended to develop
in a bright and studious boy the qualities of in-
dividuality and of a sturdy independence. The
territory of that State had been claimed at the
same time by Great Britain, New Hampshire,
Massachusetts, and New York, and also by the
government of the confederation. While her
soldiers contributed greatly by their valor to win


the victory of the colonies over the common
enemy, the State, in the sounding language of
Ethan Allen, acknowledged no allegiance but to
the King of kings. ^ For years she successfully
asserted her independence of all other powers,
maintained her own army, coined her own
money, and exercised such other attributes of
sovereignty as she chose to assume. At length
she accomplished her desire, and was admitted
into the Union as an independent State upon
equal terms with New York, New Hampshire,
and Massachusetts, each of whom had previously
alleged ownership of her.

Among such a people and at such a time an
aristocracy of wealth and of birth stood little
chance of being developed. The work to be
done required men, and the exacting difficulties
in the way of society uncovered merit and used
it wherever it might be found. The possession
of property, of which indeed very little existed,
gave no unfair advantage, and the lack of it
caused no inconvenience, save the necessity for
more strenuous exertion. If a settler did not
have a horse it was necessary for him to walk
and to carry his wood or other load upon his

1 That the early settlers of Vermont did not consider them-
selves unequal to any task may be inferred from the resolu-
tion, passed by the Council of Public Safety during the revo-
lutionary period, that the laws of God and Connecticut be
adopted '' until we have time to frame better."


back; and while the man with property might
supply his wants with less labor, — for anything
like real luxury was unknown, — he gained no
social prestige over his poorer neighbor. The
conditions with which Stevens was surrounded
were thus admirably adapted to implant and
powerfully strengthen the hatred of privilege
and the idea of democratic equality, which so
strongly characterized him in after years.

Stevens was most fortunate in his mother.
All accounts agree that she was remarkable for
character and strength of mind. She made a
heroic struggle to overcome the disadvantages of
poverty and to give her children a good educa-
tion. Thaddeus was sickly in his youth, and his
mother determined to send him to college. Her
other boys, however, were by no means neg-
lected, and each one of them afterwards achieved
distinction in his chosen pursuit. The history
of Stevens's boyhood is marked by few incidents
except those which naturally grow out of a wild
and stirring frontier life. When he was twelve
years old his parents took him on a visit to Bos-
ton, which was then a small town, but by far the
largest that Stevens had ever seen. The sight
of it kindled his ambition, and he determined to
become rich. Another incident of his early life
is preserved, which shows the character of his
mother. The year after his visit to Boston a


plague, known among the settlers as the "spotted
fever," broke out and raged violently throughout
Danville and the adjoining towns. So many-
were stricken with the disease that it was im-
possible to procure proper attendance. Mrs.
Stevens was untiring in her care of the sick,
going from house to house, ministering to their
wants and alleviating their sufferings in every
way in her power. She frequently took Thad-
deus with her upon these visits, and an impres-
sion was made upon him which he never forgot.
From whatever cause, his sympathy for suffering
was throughout his life one of the strongest
traits of his character.

He could never sufficiently acknowledge his
indebtedness to his mother. Long years after,
he said of her: "I really think the greatest
pleasure of my life resulted from my ability to
give my mother a farm of two hundred and fifty
acres, and a dairy of fourteen cows, and an oc-
casional bright gold piece, which she loved to
deposit in the contributor's box of the Baptist
Church which she attended. This always gave
her much j3leasure and me much satisfaction.
My mother was a very extraordinary woman.
I have met very few women like her. My father
was not a well-to-do man, and the support and
education of the family depended upon my mo-
ther. She worked day and night to educate me.


I was feeble and lame in youth, and as I could
not work on the farm, she concluded to give me
an education. I tried to repay her afterwards,
but the debt of a child to his mother, you know,
is one of the debts we can never pay." He
gratefully cherished her memory to the last, and
by his will he established a fund, the income of
which was forever to be used to plant each
springtime "roses and other cheerful flowers"
upon her grave.

The means of education at the disposal of
young Stevens were not of so limited a character
as might be supposed. That portion of Ver-
mont had only just been settled at the time of
his birth, and yet the tide of immigration set
in so strongly that when he was a dozen years
old his native town was nearly as populous as it
is to-day. The first sounds of the axe had
hardly broken the silence of the wilderness
when, true to the instinct of the race from which
they sprang, the settlers established a court for
the peaceable settlement of their disjjutes, and a
school for the education of their children. It
was agreed that Danville should be the shire
town and have the court-house, and that the
academy should be established in the adjoining
town of Peacham. A charter was obtained in
1795, and the academy now in existence in the
latter town began its long and honorable career.


The academy possessed greater attraction for
Mrs. Stevens than the court-house, and accord-
ingly she moved to Peacham, that she might
educate her boys. The school was a very hum-
ble institution both architecturally and in its
means of instruction. It had no large endow-
ment, no long list of learned teachers, and no
imposing buildings to strike the imagination;
but its rude halls were thronged with pupils
eager to acquire knowledge, and they made the
most of all the means at their command. In
fact, with the ardor of bright scholars, they
seemed willing to improve upon the ordinary
facilities of the school, and to introduce more
modern methods than the board of trustees were
willing to sanction. The rules provided that
there should be each year "an exhibition, in
which the male scholars shall be the only per-
formers, and that the pieces to be spoken shall
be selected by the preceptor and submitted to
the inspection of the prudential committee."
This rule apparently did not secure a sufficiently
sombre programme, and its defects were repaired
by two amendments, one of which provided
"that there be no performances by candle-light,"
and the other that the exhibition " be regulated
so as to exckide tragedies, comedies, and other
theatrical performances."^

1 The Peaeliam Academy Centennial Address, by Hon. C. A.
Bunker, 1897.


At this point Tliaddeus Stevens for the first
time emerges into the full light of history, and
in view of his subsequent anathemas against
treason, it is remarkable that his first appear-
ance should have been in the role of a rebel.
However exemplary the course of Stevens at
the academy may have been in other respects,
his good deeds have eluded the vigilance of the
historian of the school, and his open violation of
both the rules I have cited is the one conspicu-
ous circumstance that survives. He appears to
have been stage-struck, and also to have pre-
ferred the glare of the candle to the daylight.
Accordingly, on October 7, 1811, we find the
trustees passing a vote, naming thirteen stu-
dents, of whom Stevens was one, and resolving
that their course, "in refusing on the day of
publick exhibition, being the 4th day of Septem-
ber last, to proceed in" their exhibition in the
day time while the board were waiting to see
their performance was conduct highly reprehen-
sible. And that their proceeding to exhibit a
tragedy in the evening of the said day, contrary
to the known rules and orders of the school and
the express prohibition of the preceptor, was a
gross violation of the rules and by-laws of the
institution, tending to subvert all order and sub-
ordination in said school, and to disturb the
peace of the society, and that they be required


to subscribe the following submission, viz. :
We, the subscribers, students in the Academy at
Peacham, having been concerned in the exhibi-
tion of a tragedy on the evening of September
4, 1811, contrary to the known rules of the
board of trustees, on reflection are convinced
that we have done wrong in not paying a suit-
able respect to the authority of the board, and
hereby promise that, as long as we continue stu-
dents at this Academy, we will observe such
rules as the board may prescribe." Mr. Bun-
ker says that Stevens signed the paper with great
reluctance and because he could do nothing else,
and that he then completed his preparation for
college, but "never forgot his chagrin." He
may have signed the paper, but probably not for
the purpose of going back to the academy, for
his preparation was already finished, and he en-
tered Dartmouth College during the fall of 1811
as a sophomore.

There is a lack of very definite information
as to his career in college. The commonly ac-
cepted version that he first entered the Univer-
sity of Vermont, and while a student there wit-
nessed the battle of Lake Champlain, and that
afterwards he went to Dartmouth, is incorrect.
The battle occurred September 11, 1814, and he
graduated from Dartmouth in the summer of
that year. The records of the two colleges make


it clear that he took his entire college course at
Dartmouth, excepting the latter part of the col-
lege year, 1812-1813.1

When Stevens entered Dartmouth more than
forty years had elapsed since Eleazar Wheelock
had planted it in the wilderness at Hanover.
It remained for many years the only college in
northern New England, and the rapid settlement
of that region gave it great prosperity.^ During
Stevens's connection with the college its stu-
dents usually numbered about one hundred and
forty, and it had a faculty of eight instructors
besides the president. Professor Moore, after-
wards the president of Amherst and Williams
colleges, and Professors Shurtleff and Adams
were perhaps the most learned of the teachers.
The president was Dr. John Wheelock, the son
of the founder of the college. The quality of
his influence may be determined in a measure
from the portrait of him which survives in the
journal of George Ticknor, who graduated from

1 I am indebted to Professor C. F. Richardson, of Dart-
mouth, and to Professor J. E. Goodrich, of the University of
Vermont, for the most important facts in connection with his
college course.

2 In 1791 it graduated to the degree of A. B. 49, while the
number for the same year was 27 for each of the other leading
colleges, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton ; and for the decade
1790-1800 the number of graduates was : Harvard, 394 ; Dart-
mouth, 363 ; Yale, 295 ; Princeton, 240. Chase, History of
Dartmouth College, p. 615.


the college four years before Stevens entered it.
"Dr. Wheelock was stiff and stately. He read
constantly, sat up late, and got up early. He
talked very gravely and slow, with a falsetto
voice. Mr. Webster [who graduated in 1801]
could imitate him perfectly. He had been in
England, he had had a finger in politics, and
had been a lieutenant-colonel in the army of the
Revolution, but there was not the least trace of
either of these portions of his life in his man-
ners or conversation at this time. He was one
of the most formal men I ever knew." ^

The course of study at Dartmouth College, in
1811, was very similar to that of the other col-
leges of that day. Timothy Dwight, who was
at the time president of Yale College, has given
in his ponderous volumes of travel in New York
and New England an exact statement of the re-
quirements for admission and the course of study
at Yale, and he adds that the recital would be
substantially true for all the New England col-
leges.^ A candidate for the freshman class was
examined in Virgil, Cicero and Sallust, in the
Greek Testament, and in arithmetic. The
course of study included a little Greek, a mod-
erate amount of the higher mathematics, and
considerable Latin. ^ But Paley and Locke were

^ Life, Letters, and Journal, vol. i. p. 5.

2 Travels in Netv York and New England, vol. i. p. 199.

8 Ibid. vol. i. p. 208.


not neglected at a time when the professors were
chosen quite as much for the soundness of their
theological views as for their learning. The
course contained no modern languages, which,
indeed, appear to have been little in demand in
this country at that time, for so late as 1813,
and in Boston, when George Ticknor attempted
to study German, he had great difficulty in pro-
curing the requisite books. ^

The course, then, of the New England college
of that time was most meagre compared with the
wealth of learning which the modern college af-
fords; but it was full of strong discipline, and
it was possible for the earnest student to acquire
the rudiments of a sound education. The libra-
ries were not large, but they contained the best
books, which were doubtless read with great
care by students who were willing to make such
sacrifices to secure an education; and some of
the scholars who were disciplined in those
schools were able afterwards to contribute new
models to the English tongue.

Very little is known of Stevens's life at Dart-
mouth to distinguish him from the mass of the
students. There was nothing sensational about

1 He succeeded in borrowing a grammar from Mr. Everett,
a text-book from the Athen^um, where it had been deposited
by J. Q. Adams on going abroad, and then he was forced to
send to New Hampshire for a dictionary. Journal, vol. i. p.

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Online LibrarySamuel W. (Samuel Walker) McCallThaddeus Stevens → online text (page 1 of 21)