Thaddeus Stevens

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Equality of man before his creator.
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.
I can never acknowledge the right of slavery.

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 1860s. 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.



  • 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.


  • 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.
  • 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, Pensylvania


  • 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[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.

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