Thaddeus Stevens

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Equality of man before his creator.
There can be no fanatic, however warm their zeal, in the true religion, even although you sell your goods and bestow your money on the poor, and go on and follow your Master.
I wished that I were the owner of every southern slave, that I might cast off the shackles from their limbs, and witness the rapture which would excite them in the first dance of their freedom.
There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty. Fanaticism is excessive zeal. There may be, and have been fanatics in false religion – in the bloody religions of the heathen.
I can never acknowledge the right of slavery.
One brilliant Pennsylvanian ready to fight for what he believed. That man was Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster. ~ Joseph Pitts

Thaddeus Stevens (4 April 179211 August 1868), also known as The Great Commoner, was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party during the 1860's. A fierce opponent of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, Stevens sought to secure their rights during Reconstruction, in opposition to President Andrew Johnson. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the American Civil War, he played a major part in the war's financing.


  • John Brown deserves to be hung for being a hopeless fool! He attempted to capture Virginia with seventeen men when he ought to know that it would require at least twenty-five.
    • In Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens
  • There is a wrong impression about one of the candidates. There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lock-jaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.
  • It has been suggested that the President intentionally left those forts in a defenseless condition, that South Carolina might seize them before his successor had time to take means for their safety. I cannot believe it; I will not believe it, for it would make Mr. Buchanan a more odious traitor than Benedict Arnold. Every drop of blood that shall be shed in the conflict would sit heavy on his soul forever.
    • In Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens
  • Gentlemen on this floor and in the Senate, had repeatedly, during this discussion, asserted that slavery was a moral, political, and personal blessing; that the slave was free from care, contented, happy, fat, and sleek. Comparisons have been instituted between slaves and laboring freemen, much to the advantage of the condition of slavery. Instances are cited where the slave, having tried freedom, had voluntarily returned to resume his yoke. Well, 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. If these gentlemen believe there is a word of truth in what they preach, the slaveholder need be under no apprehension that he will ever lack bondsmen. Their slaves would remain, and many freemen would seek admission into this happy condition. Let them be active in propagating their principles. We will not complain if they establish Societies in the South for that purpose -- abolition societies to abolish freedom. Nor will we rob the mails to search for incendiary publications in favor of slavery, even if they contain seductive pictures, and cuts of those implements of happiness -- handcuffs, iron yokes and cat-o'-nine tails.
    • In Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens
  • You must be a bastard for I knew your mother's husband and he was a gentleman and honest man.
    • In Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens
  • I never thought of it that way, but it does relieve God Almighty of a heavy responsibility.
    • When someone pointed out to him that like Stevens himself, Andrew Johnson was a self-made man, in Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens


  • I wished that I were the owner of every southern slave, that I might cast off the shackles from their limbs, and witness the rapture which would excite them in the first dance of their freedom.
    • Statement at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention (July 1837), quoted in Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South (1959) by Fawn M. Brodie, p. 63
  • I can never acknowledge the right of slavery. I will bow down to no deity however worshipped by professing Christians — however dignified by the name of the Goddess of Liberty, whose footstool is the crushed necks of the groaning millions, and who rejoices in the resoundings of the tyrant’s lash, and the cries of his tortured victims.
    • Letter (4 May 1838), quoted in Shapers of the Great Debate on the Civil War : A Biographical Dictionary (2005) by Dan Monroe and Bruce Tap, p. 255


  • There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty. Fanaticism is excessive zeal. There may be, and have been fanatics in false religion – in the bloody religions of the heathen. There are fanatics in superstition. But there can be no fanatic, however warm their zeal, in the true religion, even although you sell your goods and bestow your money on the poor, and go on and follow your Master. There may, and every hour shows around me, fanatics in the cause of false liberty – that infamous liberty which justifies human bondage, that liberty whose ‘corner-stone is slavery.’ But there can be no fanaticism however high the enthusiasm, in the cause of rational, universal liberty – the liberty of the Declaration of Independence.
  • It is my purpose nowhere in these remarks to make personal reproaches; I entertain no ill-will toward any human being, nor any brute, that I know of, not even the skunk across the way to which I referred. Least of all would I reproach the South. I honor her courage and fidelity. Even in a bad, a wicked cause, she shows a united front. All her sons are faithful to the cause of human bondage, because it is their cause. But the North - the poor, timid, mercenary, driveling North - has no such united defenders of her cause, although it is the cause of human liberty. None of the bright lights of the nation shine upon her section. Even her own great men have turned her accusers. She is the victim of low ambition - an ambition which prefers self to country, personal aggrandizement to the high cause of human liberty. She is offered up a sacrifice to propitiate southern tyranny - to conciliate southern treason.


  • Every humane and patriotic heart must grieve to see a bloody and causeless rebellion, costing thousands of human lives and millions of treasure. But as it was predetermined and inevitable, it was long enough delayed. Now is the appropriate time to solve the greatest problem ever submitted to civilized man.
  • Our object should be not only to end this terrible war now, but to prevent its recurrence. All must admit that slavery is the cause of it. Without slavery we should this day be a united and happy people... The principles of our Republic are wholly incompatible with slavery.
  • I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: "Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color."
    • Speech (13 January 1865), as quoted in History of the Antislavery Measures of the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Congress (1865) by Henry Wilson, p. 388
  • It is said the South will never submit — that we cannot conquer the rebels — that they will suffer themselves to be slaughtered, and their whole country to be laid waste. Sir, war is a grievous thing at best, and civil war more than any other ; but if they hold this language, and the means which they have suggested must be resorted to ; if their whole country must be laid waste and made a desert, in order to save this Union from destruction, so let it be. I would rather, Sir, reduce them to a condition where their whole country is to be re-peopled by a band of freemen, than to see them perpetrate the destruction of this people through our agency. I do not say it is time to resort to such means, and I do not say that the time will come, but I never fear to express my sentiments. It is not a question with me of policy, but a question of principle.
    • As quoted in Thaddeus Stevens: Commoner (1882) by E. B. Callender, Ch. VI : Heroic Epoch, p. 113
  • 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.
    • Epitaph on his grave in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

In fiction

  • When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We’ll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors. We'll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.
  • Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they’re ready for! I don’t give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ‘em. And I look a lot worse without the wig. The people elected me! To represent them! To lead them! And I lead! You ought to try it!
    • Lincoln (2012).
  • Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country's infinite abundance with Negroes.
    • Lincoln (2012).


  • He that hath a trade, hath an estate.
  • All free governments are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people.
    • James A. Garfield, as quoted in Many Thoughts of Many Minds : A Treasury of Quotations from the Literature of Every Land and Every Age (1896) edited by Louis Klopsch, p. 116

Quotes about Stevens

  • Whoever cracked Thaddeus Stevens' skull would let out the brains of the Republican Party.
    • Anonymous saying, quoted in Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South (1959), by Frawn M. Brodie, p. 63
  • God give to Vermont another son; Lancaster, another citizen; Pennsylvania, another statesman; the country, another patriot; the poor, another friend; the freedmen, another advocate; the race, another benefactor; and the world, another man like Thaddeus Stevens.
  • Thaddeus Stevens, the clearest-headed leader of this attempt at industrial democracy, made his last speech, impeaching Andrew Johnson on February 16, and on February 23 I was born.
    • The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)
  • In this study the term "abolitionist" will be applied to those Americans who before the Civil War had agitated for immediate, unconditional, and universal abolition of slavery in the United States. Contemporaries of the antislavery movement and later historians have sometimes mistakenly used the word "abolitionist" to describe adherents of the whole spectrum of antislavery sentiment. Members of the Free Soil and Republican parties have often been called abolitionists, even though these parties were pledged officially before 1861 only to the limitation of slavery, not to its extirpation. It is a moot question whether such radical anti-slavery leaders such as Charles Sumner, John Andrew, George Julian, Thaddeus Stevens, or Owen Lovejoy were genuine "abolitionists". In their hearts they probably desired an immediate end to slavery as fervently as did William Lloyd Garrison. But they were committed publicly by political affiliation and party responsibility to a set of principles that fell short of genuine abolitionism.
  • In the months after the Civil War, slavery remained constitutional and African Americans were still not guaranteed the right to vote or even to count themselves as citizens. The states of the Confederacy were beaten, but there was no consensus on how to readmit them to the Union. Republicans dominated Congress, but the President—Andrew Johnson—was a southern Democrat. The Era of Reconstruction began on this confused footing, but with one brilliant Pennsylvanian ready to fight for what he believed. That man was Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster... No other man of his era did as much to guarantee the rights of citizenship for African Americans. Decades before the Civil War, Stevens advocated full equality for black people. In Congress after the war, he very nearly had the power to make that happen. He understood that laws alone could not ensure racial equality and strenuously urged the utter destruction of the old southern elites so that a new order could be built. That was too much for his contemporaries, and the Civil Rights Movement was left for a later generation. Disappointed, Stevens said that he would 'take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times'. Stevens would have taken great pleasure in knowing that the 'better man' was a black man from a Southern state. He would have taken no pleasure at all in knowing that the 'better times' were a century away... Thaddeus Stevens was a man before his time. As early as the 1830s he was using his own money to buy slaves' freedom and defending free blacks in court at no charge. His true goal was not an end to slavery, but actual equality among the races. He even protested California's discrimination against Chinese immigrants and argued for more humane treatment of Indians—positions virtually unheard of in his day. Stevens was born in poverty, but rose to become possibly the most powerful man in America. Frustrated and even bitter, Stevens died in 1868 having done much for African Americans but having made few friends. He is buried in a small cemetery on Mulberry Street in Lancaster; the only one he could find that did not racially discriminate. He wrote his own epitaph.
  • Thaddeus Stevens, that great fighter for human freedom, was an uncompromising Abolitionist. The slaveowners and bankers of his time called him a revolutionist. Deeply interested in education, he started the first vocational training school for boys, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He helped establish the free public school system in Pennsylvania, and fought for equal educational opportunities for the Negro people. His championship of social as well as political equality for Negroes was the real reason for the family's disapproval of him.
  • When Chase, Summer, Stevens, and Wilson talk to the negro of the importance of having the franchise, and stop short of giving the franchise to woman, I proclaim them hypocrites—I proclaim them politicians. They speak so to the newly freed slave, because he has already the ballot in his hands, and they want him to vote for them. We have not that right, and hence they do not speak one word in favor of our attaining the elective franchise.
  • After the Civil War, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican, urged the federal government to seize the estates of wealthy former Confederates and use them in part to provide freedmen with some small compensation for centuries of forced labor. Stevens warned that without economic empowerment, freedmen would eventually find themselves at the mercy of their former masters. "It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the whole landed property," Stevens wrote in 1865. "The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. Without this, this government can never be, as it never has been, a true republic"...Thaddeus Stevens knew that without sufficient economic power, civic equality becomes difficult to maintain. His insight has proved remarkably durable across American history. The question now is whether a new coalition, radicalized by racism, can defy that history.
  • During the Civil War, one of the nation's leading abolitionists was Republican Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, who would later serve as vice president during President Grant's second term. In December 1861, Mr. Wilson introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the District. The measure met with parliamentary obstacles from the adamantly pro-slavery Democratic Party, whom Republicans in those days referred to as the 'Slave-ocrats'. Most Democrats in Congress having resigned in order to join the Confederate rebellion, Wilson's measure sailed through the Senate. The abolitionist senator responsible for outmaneuvering Democrat opposition was Ben Wade, the Ohio Republican who six years later would have assumed the presidency had the bitterly racist Democratic President, Andrew Johnson, been convicted during his impeachment trial. In the House of Representatives, Democrats delayed passage with a series of stalling tactics. Finally, the majority leader, Thaddeus Stevens, bulldozed over Democrat opposition by calling the House into a committee of the whole. He stopped all other business in the House until Democrats relented and allowed a vote on the bill. Stevens, of Pennsylvania, is best known for his 'forty acres and a mule' proposal. Overall, 99 percent of Republicans in Congress voted to free the slaves in the District of Columbia, and 83 percent of Democrats voted to keep them in chains.
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