If you saw the powerful Steven Spielberg movie, “Lincoln,” you saw Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones take a crucial role in Congress helping President Abraham Lincoln secure the votes to institute the 13th Amendment to the U.S Constitution outlawing slavery.
This was but one aspect of Thaddeus whose bold, principled and compassionate actions were far superior to most U.S. presidents.
Thaddeus was determined for the U.S. to live up to its promises of freedom for all, and in addition to the 13th Amendment, he led the institution of the 14th and 15th Amendments, extending equal protection under the law to all citizens, and granting all male citizens the right to vote.
After the U.S. Civil War, he was the primary creator of Reconstruction, bringing the South back into the Union, and for as long as Thaddeus lived, ensuring African American males their right to vote and to hold office as well as to have their legal rights upheld.
Prior to serving in Congress, Thaddeus had been a Pennsylvania lawyer and legislator, and it was there he successfully led the fight to provide public schools free of charge for all children, not just private schools for wealthy children.
The model established in Pennsylvania was copied in many other states.
An outstanding speaker, Thaddeus was not only a strong supporter of black people, but of Native Americans, Chinese and other immigrants, Jewish people, the poor and the physically limited (he had a club foot), as he lobbied for the enforcement of their rights.
Who was Thaddeus Stevens? He was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4th, 1792 to an alcoholic father often unable to support his family, a father who abandoned that family, leaving Thaddeus’ mother to care for her four small boys. She and her children lived in severe poverty.
Despite their poverty, Thaddeus did attend school. As a talented student, he entered Dartmouth College in 1811 and graduated in 1814. After graduation, he moved to York, PA where he taught school, and attended law school.
After passing the Pennsylvania Bar, Thaddeus became a very successful lawyer, practicing first in Gettysburg starting in 1816, and later in Lancaster, and he became a Pennsylvania legislator.
But he did much more. In his legal practice, Thaddeus defended runaway slaves doing everything in his power not to have them returned to their owners. And he actively participated in the illegal Underground Railroad, smuggling runaway slaves to freedom.
Yet Thaddeus’ personal life was even more shocking. Officially, he never married, but in 1847, Thaddeus began a live-in intimate relationship with his widowed “housekeeper” Lydia Hamilton Smith (1813 – 1884), a black woman, and he provided a loving home for her two young sons.
Lydia and Thaddeus never married because at that time, and for many years thereafter, it was illegal for blacks and whites in America to marry.
As Thaddeus’ unofficial wife, Lydia played a crucial role in his life and he in hers. For the next 21 years, she ran his homes in Lancaster and in Washington, D.C. and handled his businesses and personal affairs. This freed Thaddeus to pursue his political career and the legislation that would uplift America.
Their relationship also allowed Lydia to gain the experience and social contacts that led her to become a successful businesswoman, eventually owning and managing real estate in Lancaster, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.. In that era, very few women achieved such success, let alone a black woman, for women had few legal rights or access to advanced education.
In 1868, when Thaddeus passed away at the age of 76, in his will, he was very generous to Lydia, leaving her a substantial inheritance, including enough money to buy their Washington DC home, and all of its furnishings. For many years afterward, she lived a very comfortable life there.
Because of his controversial views and his informal marriage to a black woman, Thaddeus had been despised by some people, but he was revered by many others. At his death, he became only the second person whose body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, after Abraham Lincoln who had been the first. Thousands of people arrived to pay their respects.
Thaddeus’ Lancaster, PA funeral drew an estimated 20,000 mourners, including former slaves, and other racial and religious minorities. The cemetery where he was buried was interracial and he had written the inscription on his tombstone, an inscription reflective of his life long quest:
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