Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln. However, many Americans have no idea who Thaddeus Stevens was.
Thaddeus Stevens was born in 1792 in Vermont to a poor family and was abandoned by his father at an early age. He was handicapped from birth because of a club foot. When he was a child all of his hair fell out and from then on he wore a wig.
Thaddeus Stevens moved to Pennsylvania at age twenty-two and became a prominent lawyer at Gettysburg and then at Lancaster. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1848 and in 1850 and then again in 1858 when he served until his death in 1868.
So why is he the 4th greatest American of all time? During Stevens’ lifetime, extreme racial prejudice was rampant in America. Only a couple of Northern States allowed blacks to vote. In spite of the beautiful phrase in the Declaration that says: “all men are created equal” — strict segregation and harsh discrimination were practiced throughout the North and lifetime-forced-labor and human-bondage in the South. Those who dared speak up for human rights for blacks were persecuted in the North and driven out or killed in the South.
Yet Stevens from his early adulthood went against the tide of public opinion and stood firmly and boldly against both slavery and discrimination. He said: “This is not a white man’s government! To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty.” In spite of his stand, Stevens became very powerful in Congress.
When the first Congress met after the Civil War had ended, the Southern states sent representatives and senators to Washington expecting them to be seated in congress. The men they sent were mostly former Confederate office holders. President Andrew Johnson and much of Congress thought they should be accepted back and seated. But not Thaddeus Stevens.
Stevens was greatly concerned about leaving three million freed slaves under the political control of their former masters. He knew that if the Congress seated the former Confederates, the freed blacks in the South would never get equal rights. So Stevens and the man who called the role in Congress left out the names of the Southern representatives when the role was called and refused to seat them.
Also, as the former Confederate states began to write new Constitutions in order to be readmitted to the Union, they included “black codes” which strongly discriminated against and persecuted the freed slaves. President Johnson agreed with the “black codes”. But not Stevens.
As the movie, Lincoln, shows; Thaddeus Stevens helped Abraham Lincoln get the 13th Amendment (that ended slavery in the United States) through Congress. Then Stevens almost singlehandedly influenced Congress to pass several laws and constitutional amendments providing citizenship and equal rights and voting right to blacks. He led Congress to require that Southern states agree with these laws before they be readmitted to the Union. This opened the way for blacks to be involved in politics in the South. Several blacks even became US Senators and Congressmen.
White Southerners hated Thaddeus Stevens and his courageous accomplishments for human rights. They violently opposed black freedom and eventually stopped blacks from voting, ignored the Constitutional Amendments, and set up Jim Crow laws, and enforced them through the illegal terrorism of the KKK and other vigilante groups.
But in the 1950’s and 60s blacks once again asserted their freedom. The laws and amendments that Stevens led through Congress were the legal backbone for the demands of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Thus, this brave man, helped give freedom to many millions of Americans.
Thaddeus Stevens even stood for equal rights in his death. His tombstone says: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot Not from any natural preference for solitude But, finding 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 EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”