A portrait of Thaddeus Stevens hangs in the Statehouse in Montpelier and a historical marker honors his birthplace in Danville, but many Vermonters don’t know about the bold leadership Stevens brought to Congress during the Civil War.
The Academy Award-winning movie “Lincoln” provided a fresh look at Stevens’ role in fighting for the passage of the 13th Amendment to end slavery in the United States. To help more people learn about the important role Stevens played during a tumultuous period in our nation’s history, I am hosting a free screening of the film “Lincoln” at 6 p.m. May 4 at Fuller Hall at St. Johnsbury Academy. I hope you can join us.
After the showing, I will hold a town meeting with local historians and students from schools near Stevens’ hometown to explore the enormously important role the Vermont-born congressman played during the Civil War era. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens was one of the most powerful members of Congress during that period.
Stevens faced a series of challenges as a child. He was born with a club foot, which made it difficult to walk. Stevens’ own disability helped mold his passionate advocacy for those in need. As one of four children raised primarily by their mother, Stevens’ family struggled with poverty. His mother fought to make sure her children had a chance to obtain a good education, and in 1807 the future congressman’s mother moved from Danville to Peacham so her children could attend Caledonia County Grammar School, also known as Peacham Academy.
“Thaddeus Stevens’ point of view and his egalitarian values were clearly developed as a result of his personal experience in coping with a disability and in having been raised in poverty in a state which valued and protected individual rights and personal liberties,” according to the Danville Historical Society. “His formative years in Danville and as a student in Peacham, at Caledonia County Grammar School, clearly influenced his philosophy and values, which were reflected in his public life.”
After grammar school, Stevens attended both the University of Vermont and Dartmouth College, where he earned his degree in 1814. Before settling in Pennsylvania later that year, he taught at Peacham Academy.
Stevens was first elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1833, where he fought for a public education system. His dedication to free public education can be traced back to the importance his mother placed on his own education as a way to rise from poverty. He served in the Legislature throughout the mid-1830s and was elected, once again, in 1841.
Stevens served two terms in Congress as a Whig, from 1849 to 1853, before being elected to Congress again in 1859 as a member of the newly formed Republican Party, which opposed extending slavery into the Western territories. Stevens was elected to Congress seven times, serving until his death in 1868. Throughout his more than 13 years in Congress, Stevens was adamant and unrelenting in pursuing bold legislation that would fulfill his belief in equality and social justice.
Stevens was a man whose views were far, far ahead of his time. Just a few years after the end of slavery, and at a time when America was rigidly segregated by race, Stevens chose to be buried in an integrated cemetery in Lancaster, Pa. The epitaph that Stevens composed for his tombstone speaks eloquently about his lifelong commitment to social justice. The epitaph he wrote states: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, 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.”
In 1868, U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill, of Vermont, eulogized Stevens on the Senate floor. “Beneath a rugged exterior, Mr. Stevens had a heart that loved children, the downtrodden and the poor,” Morrill said. Likewise, a notable biography describes Stevens as “hating aristocracy” and displaying “throughout his life a concern for the poor and disadvantaged.”
Stevens was one of the principled political leaders of his time. He was a true Vermont hero and someone that we should all learn more about. I encourage you to join me and local historians May 4 in St. Johnsbury for a screening of the movie “Lincoln” and a discussion about Stevens and the important contributions this Vermonter made to American democracy.
Bernard Sanders is a U.S. senator from Vermont.
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