Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens was a politician from the early 1800s. While many know him as an active and vocal opponent of Freemasonry, there's far more to his story as we see in this article published in the April 1986 edition of the Philalethes magazine.

Thaddeus Stevens

BY C. Clark Julius, MPS 

Thaddeus Stevens was born in 1792 in Vermont. His parents, Joshua and Sarah Stevens, were aghast at their first sight of their newborn son. He had a clubfoot. 

They would have been less shocked if their firstborn, Joshua, Jr., had not been born seventeen months previously with both feet deformed. The Stevenses were devout Baptists who interpreted a deformity in a child as being God's punishment for a secret sin. With the birth of Thaddeus, the Stevenses had been twice branded with the sign of sin. 

His parents' attitude toward his deformity, and later his playmates' tormenting him mercilessly about it, gave Thaddeus a deep and lasting sense of inferiority, which was at the basis of his character. Later, when he would achieve immense power in the government of the United States, this profound sense of inferiority would have an effect on American history. 

Thaddeus's father, Joshua, had excelled at one activity in his life, wrestling. In his adult occupations of farming, cobbling shoes, and surveying, Joshua was a failure. Despite his religion, he took to drink as an escape from his woes, and then to long absences from his family. Finally, when Thaddeus was a young adolescent, Joshua disappeared for good. His family later learned that Joshua had been killed as a soldier in the war of 1812. 

Thaddeus's mother, Sarah Morrill Stevens, was a stalwart woman. She was determined that her children would receive the best possible educations. Thaddeus attended Peacham Academy and then Dartmouth College. 

Although he had a good memory, Thaddeus Stevens was not the very best of students. He failed to be elected to the honorary academic fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa. Throughout the rest of his life he would resent the elite and secret fraternities and lodges. 

While in college Stevens committed an act which showed a violent streak in his character. A farmer's cows were allowed to graze on the college campus, much to the annoyance of some of the students who would now and then step in cow dung, especially at night. Stevens and a friend killed one of the cows with an ax. He later confessed this crime and compensated the farmer for his cow. 

After a short time he moved to York, in southern Pennsylvania, where he had secured a position as an instructor in an academy. While carrying on his work as a teacher, he diligently studied law during his spare time. It soon became known that the lame school teacher had ambitions to enter the County Bar, and that Association, for some reason, immediately took steps to block him. When ready to apply for admission to the bar he found that the County Bar had passed a resolution to the effect that no person should be recognized as a lawyer who had followed any other vocation while studying law. E.B. Callender, one of Stevens' biographers, asserts that the resolution was aimed at Stevens. If this were true, it would indicate that Stevens early proved himself capable of provoking enmities. At any rate it is known that Stevens crossed the state line and applied for admission to the bar in Harford County, Maryland where he was unknown. His petition was granted, the examiners stressing the need of him supplying wine for their refreshment more than they did the need for knowledge of law, according to Stevens' own account of the incident. 

Having been admitted to the bar in Maryland, Stevens was through courtesy entitled to practice in Pennsylvania. He considered locating in both Lancaster and York, but finally chose Gettysburg, the county seat of Adams County, as the place to begin his law practice. 

A shadow was cast over Steven's life by a murder that was committed in Gettysburg in 1824. The body of a black servant girl, whose name was Dinah, was found in a shallow pond. She had apparently been killed by a blow to her head. She was pregnant, and rumor had it that the fetus was whitish, indicating a white father. Rumors also began to circulate widely that Thaddeus Stevens was the white father of Dinah's unborn child, and that it was he who killed her. 

The rumors about Stevens being guilty of this crime circulated not only by word of mouth, but also in letters to the editor in newspapers, in which his name was never mentioned but in which his identity was strongly hinted at. Finally, seven years after the murder, an editor and political enemy of Stevens wrote an editorial in which there could be little doubt that he was accusing Stevens of the murder. Stevens promptly sued the editor for libel and won his case. Despite this legal exoneration, however, doubts and gossip continued. 

All through his life Stevens would be accused of sexual irregularities, fornication, adultery, and bastardy. In a paternity suit that went to trial, Stevens was cleared of having fathered a child. 

Many of the rumors going around about Stevens' sexual activities involved black women. They are interesting mainly because of Stevens' increasing dedication to achieving equality for black people. 

Most of the gossip about Stevens in his later years concerned his housekeeper, Mrs. Lydia Hamilton Smith, a handsome mulatto woman. Lydia lived with Stevens for twenty years. It was rumored that, in all but name, she was his wife. 

Among his disreputable pastimes was gambling. He also drank heavily, up to a moment in his life when he abruptly gave it up. When a drinking companion suddenly died after a drinking bout, Stevens hauled upstairs every bottle and keg he had stored in his cellar, and emptied their contents into the gutter in the street in front of his house. 

His political life began in 1826 when he was thirty-four. When a printer in New York State was murdered for publishing attacks on the Masons, the Anti-Masonic Party suddenly sprang into being and Stevens joined it. His motives were the same as those which led him to side with the oppressed against their oppressors. It is believed by several writers that Stevens had been rejected by the Masons of Vermont and Pennsylvania but according to the records this is not true. 

Whatever the real reason for Stevens' opposition to Masonry may have been, the evidences of his hatred of the Fraternity are a matter of record. He first appeared openly as an Anti-Mason in 1829 when he supported Joseph Ritner, the Anti-Masonic candidate for Governor, who was defeated after polling a surprisingly large vote. A few months later Stevens appeared as a delegate in the second State Anti-Masonic Convention which met at Harrisburg, February 26, 1830. His appearance in the convention was characterized by the historian, Charles McCarthy, as "An event of the greatest significance to the cause in Pennsylvania. 

A few months later Stevens was a delegate to the first national convention of Anti-Masons which met at Philadelphia, September 11, 1830. There he attracted attention by delivering several speeches strongly attacking Masonry. In one of these speeches, "On The Masonic Influence Upon The Press," he deplored the paucity of publicity given to the convention and attributed the lack to Masonic influence. He also made a speech defending the authenticity of various exposes of Masonry. In the course of  this speech he made charges that the Masons were exercising undue political influence throughout the country. As this was a favorite theme with Stevens, some of his words will bear quoting.
He said, in part: 

"Look around: Though but one hundred thousand of the people of the United States are Free Masons, yet almost all the offices of high profit and honor are filled with gentlemen of that institution. Out of the number of law judges in the State of Pennsylvania, eighteen-twentieths are Masons; and twenty-two out of twenty-four states of the Union are now governed by Masonic chief magistrates. Although not a twentieth part of the voters of this commonwealth, and of the United States are Masons, yet they have contrived, by concert, to put themselves into eighteen out of twenty of the offices of profit and power." 

Though Stevens also made a speech in this convention, urging the desirability of nominating a presidential candidate, the best he could secure was an agreement to call another convention to meet at Baltimore the following year. After this second convention had assembled on September 26, 1831, Stevens appeared on the second
day as a delegate from Pennsylvania. In this gathering he played a prominent part, but because he was, as William H. Seward said, "unreasonable and impracticable" in regard to the choice of a presidential candidate, he, for a time threatened to disrupt the convention. Seward finally won him over to accept William Wirt, and after the ballots were counted, Stevens gave ample demonstration of his acquiescence by moving that the ballot for Wirt be declared unanimous. 

In 1833 he was elected to the state legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket. His tremendous legislative talents showed themselves from the start. He was unsurpassed as a debater; his devastating wit cut his opposition to shreds. He also showed an effective ability to maneuver behind the scenes. 

In 1834, collaborating with a Democratic governor (who was a Mason), Stevens succeeded in getting a bill through the legislature to establish free public schools in Pennsylvania. In 1835, when the legislature was ready to repeal the free school bill in response to their constituents' howls about paying school taxes, Stevens turned the tide with an impassioned speech. He urged his colleagues to be leaders, rather than puppets, of their constituents, and they were convinced to keep the free schools. 

Stevens was not the type of man to give up because of one or two defeats. He bided his time until late in 1835, when, by a coalition with the Whigs, the Anti-Masons could control the legislature. On December 7, 1835, he reported a bill designed to suppress secret societies, and, on December 19th, he was made chairman of a committee of five to investigate the "evils of Free Masonry." The proceedings which followed have been likened by Masonic writers to the Inquisition and led to Stevens being labeled the "Grand Inquisitor." Thirty-four witnesses were summoned, including a few renouncing Masons who testified as to the authenticity of Bernard's Light on Masonry, Allyn's Ritual, and Morgan's Illustrations of Masonry. 

The most dramatic incident in the investigation occurred on the 18th of January, 1836. On that date prominent Masons who had theretofore refused to present themselves, appeared under compulsion. Among these were such men as ex-Governor Wolf; George M. Dallas, Grand Master of Pennsylvania in 1835 and destined to become Vice President of the United States in 1845; and Joseph R. Chandler, editor of the "United States Gazette," published at Philadelphia. When called upon to testify these men, one after another, refused to take the oath and read a protest. Thereupon twenty-five witnesses were committed to the custody of the House Sergeant-at-arms, remaining prisoners, while day after day they steadfastly refused to testify. Finally, some of the Whigs tired of the farce, and refused to support the Anti-Masons longer, with the result that the prisoners were released and Stevens' persecution came to naught. It is interesting to note that in the published committee report, Stevens included at length the testimony of the renouncing Masons, but did not include any of the protests read by the Masons, explaining their refusal to testify. Another interesting feature of the published report was the inclusion of what purported to be a complete expose of the Odd Fellows. Though again baffled in his designs against Masonry, Stevens did not yield gracefully, for in a speech on March 5, 1836, he vowed everlasting enmity to the Masonic Order. 

Stevens stood almost alone in trying to maintain the Anti-Masonic party on a national basis. When the State Anti-Masonic Convention, meeting at Harrisburg in December, 1835, endorsed William Henry Harrison for President Stevens refused to accept the nomination because Harrison would not pledge himself, if elected, to use the instruments of government to exterminate the Free Masons. He and his followers issued a call for a National Anti-Masonic Convention to meet in May, 1836. This failed to arouse any popular response so the convention was not held. Finally Stevens was induced to accept the Harrison nomination, but his support in the campaign was lukewarm. 

In 1838 political chicanery almost cost Stevens his life. In a contested election, the Anti-Masons joined the Whigs in trying to prevent the seating of Democrats elected to the legislature. to thwart the Whigs and Anti-Masons, the Democrats imported a mob of toughs from Philadelphia. The Philadelphia thugs carried weapons into the gallery to threaten the Whigs and AntiMasons, so that Stevens and his fellow schemers had to flee the Capitol to save their lives. In Pennsylvania history this rout of the Whig and Anti-Mason legislators became known as "The Buckshot War." 

In 1858 Stevens returned to Congress as a Republican. In 1859 John Brown tried to arm slaves for insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and was hanged. Stevens did not approve of Brown's action . 

When the Civil War began, Stevens' radical opposition to slavery became more popular with the Northern electorate. His strong abolitionist sentiments, plus his impressive legislative skills, gave him tremendous power in Congress during the Civil War. Seventy years old in 1862, he was often referred to as "The Old Commoner," in reference to the superb leader of the English House of Commons, William Pitt, the Elder, who had been known as "The Great Commoner." 

So, despite his great power from 1866 to 1868, Stevens was unable to achieve his entire Reconstruction program. Without economic independence, Stevens was convinced that the blacks' new political equality would soon be snatched away from them. 

"My life has been a failure," he said, shortly before his death in 1868. 

Animated as he seemed to be, by a vindictive purpose, which caused him earlier to attempt the destruction of the Masonic order, and later to insist that the defeated southern states should be treated as conquered provinces, Stevens was an opponent to be feared. Certainly, the Masonic Fraternity has never had a more dangerous enemy than Thaddeus Stevens. 

This was the last important act of Stevens' career, for which his Anti-Masonry could be blamed. However, in 1842, Stevens moved to Lancaster where he soon built up a lucrative law practice. He was not so successful in securing political leadership, for many Whigs were Masons, so, to force recognition, he attempted in 1843, to revive the Anti-Masonic movement. This attempt ended in disastrous failure, and it was not until 1848 that Stevens was able to secure enough Whig support to be elected to Congress. 

Elected to Congress 

Taking his seat in December, 1849, Stevens served in the national House of Representatives until 1853. During this time he attracted the attention of the nation by his anti-slavery "philippics." For a time he resumed his law practice, dabbling in politics only enough to help start the Republican party in his state and to attend the Republican National Convention in 1856. In December, 1859, he reappeared in Congress, where he assumed the leadership of the House after the beginning of the secession movement, a leadership he did not surrender until his death on August 11, 1868. 

Stevens worked tirelessly in his last years. He became so weak that he had to be carried to his seat in the House of Representatives. Even after he was unable to leave his bed, he conducted business from his pillow. Right up to the end, he worked on behalf of the welfare of the former slaves. 

Suitably, he was buried in Schreiner's cemetery in Lancaster, where burial was not denied to blacks. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot - - - that I might illustrate in my death - - - equality of man." 

References: 

Thaddeus Stevens: "Arch Priest of Anti-Masonry" by Erik McKinley Eriksson 

"Thaddeus Stevens" by John Risser 

"History of Perseverance Lodge No. 21 F & A.M. Pennsylvania" by William H. Egle and James M. Lamberton 

"Thaddeus Stevens" by Thomas F. Woodley 

EDITORS NOTE: Brother C. Clark Julius has published two Masonic Books on Jewelry. One with a history and 131 pictures, "Masonic Timepieces, Rings, Balls and Watch Fobs," another "Masonic Grandfather Clocks, Mantel Clocks, Watches, Pocket Knives, Rings, Balls and More Watch Fobs." A history with 151 pictures. 

The above article is copyright 'the Philalethes Society' and is reprinted here by permission.

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