Why America Is Just Now Learning to Love Thaddeus Stevens, the ‘Best-Hated Man’ in U.S. History

The Pennsylvanian was one of America’s greatest heroes. Why hasn’t he gotten his due?

a formal portrait of a man sitting
A portrait of the congressman by the famous photographer Mathew Brady, c. 1860. Library of Congress

Arguably the most important opponent of slavery in American history, Thaddeus Stevens is also the most forgotten. If the abolitionist Pennsylvania congressman is known at all today, it’s thanks to Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Stevens in the 2012 film Lincoln, where he is the moral absolutist to Lincoln’s pragmatic deal maker on the 13th Amendment—a righteous scold with vicious one-liners and a bad toupee.

Yet at the time of Stevens’ death in 1868, he was one of the most revered men in the country. When he died, he was only the third American ever to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. (Former Secretary of State Henry Clay was the first, in 1852. Lincoln was the second, in 1865.) Thousands of mourners attended his funeral. But within years, he lay in an unkempt grave in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, his legacy uncertain. Indeed, as early as the following decade, Stevens could “lay claim to being one of the best-hated men in our past,” his biographer Milton Meltzer wrote in 1967.

Today Thaddeus Stevens is finally getting his due. In Gettysburg, a scrappy band of citizens erected a bronze statue of Stevens in front of the Adams County courthouse in April 2022. But the biggest honor is yet to come for Stevens and his companion Lydia Hamilton Smith, when, in the city of Lancaster, the preservationist group LancasterHistory will open the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History and Democracy in 2025. Designed by the same firm that built the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the $25 million complex is a paean to Stevens’ life’s work. The site will also showcase regional heroes of the Underground Railroad, including the work of Smith, a freeborn woman with African American heritage who spent 21 years of her life as Stevens’ house manager and confidante (and, some speculate, his common-law wife). The center will celebrate their shared work helping freedom seekers—and their rare working relationship of close respect across color and gender lines.

As characters in American history go, Thaddeus Stevens does not cut a dashing figure. Born poor and club-footed, he was ridiculed for his disability, which at the time was considered a punishment from God. When he was 12, his alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to cope with a farm and four children. She worked nights as a washerwoman to afford her sons’ school fees—a sacrifice that instilled in him a lifelong commitment to free public education and a disdain for hereditary privilege.

buildings lining a city street
The Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History & Democracy will be housed at a restored historic site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. LancasterHistory

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This article is a selection from the December 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

In 1815, he left his native Vermont for Pennsylvania to take a job as a schoolteacher, but he soon made his way into a law career, passing the bar in 1816 and moving to Gettysburg. Over the next 21 years, Stevens became a renowned trial attorney, businessman and maverick politician in the state and federal legislature. He paid his mother back for her investment in him: One of his proudest accomplishments was purchasing her a 250-acre farm with 14 cows.

In the decades before the Civil War, Stevens’ corner of southeastern Pennsylvania was a crucible of pro-slavery and antislavery forces. The Maryland-
Pennsylvania border “was one of the most significant battlefronts in the fight around American slavery,” says Richard Bell, a historian at the University of Maryland. Pennsylvania had passed a law abolishing slavery in 1780, but in Maryland, less than 20 miles away from Gettysburg, it was legally protected.

“There are endless documented cases of Black people being apprehended and then stolen away as they tried to enjoy the first fruits of freedom in Pennsylvania,” Bell says. Not only did enslavers pursue fugitives, but there was also a reverse Underground Railroad, where predators kidnapped legally free Black people, often children, and sold them south into bondage. Bell estimates that there were tens of thousands of such abductions across the U.S.—and Gettysburg was especially target-rich for bounty hunters.

Stevens joined the front lines of resistance. By 1837, he was an avowed abolitionist, and that year he founded an ironworks outside Gettysburg, with the specific aim of employing free Black men and freedom seekers. (During the Civil War, Confederate General Jubal Early burned down Stevens’ forge en route to the Battle of Gettysburg.) In 1842, Stevens left Gettysburg for Lancaster to expand his law practice but also continued his dangerous work harboring fugitives—and running a resourceful antislavery spy ring extending throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. Stevens’ spies managed to infiltrate groups of bounty hunters who regularly traveled to Adams and Lancaster Counties. One of his most daring ploys was to pay off the secretary of notorious bounty hunter George Hughes, whose office on King Street in Lancaster was around the corner from Stevens’ office on Queen Street. Hughes’ secretary would copy the names of the wanted and immediately pass this information to Stevens’ agents, who alerted anyone harboring freedom seekers.

But Stevens’ greatest legacy came from his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, and later the Appropriations Committee during Reconstruction. Through indomitable grit and spirited political maneuvering, Stevens played the primary role in ushering through Reconstruction via constitutional amendments. He was the most radical of the Radical Republicans, the fervent antislavery bloc; Stevens was thus a thorn in Lincoln’s side who agitated to end slavery with more force than the president would ever muster, calling it “the most hateful and infernal blot that has ever disgraced the escutcheon of man.” Stevens’ arguments were crucial in ensuring the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and historians acknowledge Stevens as the main architect of the 14th Amendment, which enshrined equal protections under the law. He also fought for universal suffrage, though he died 19 months too early to see Black men casting their first votes under the 15th Amendment in 1870.

Many of Stevens’ boldest ideas never came to fruition, such as seizing enslavers’ land to redistribute it to the formerly enslaved. Even so, he was unmatched as a political strategist. “It’s amazing what he does after Lincoln is assassinated,” says Manisha Sinha, a historian and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. By the end of 1865, President Andrew Johnson—whom Stevens called a “damned scoundrel”—had issued pardons to Confederate leaders, some of whom were then elected to Congress. Stevens, though by then nearing the end of his life, reminded the Confederate states who had won: He led the effort in Congress to require Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment before those states could regain federal representation.

The Jim Crow era was not kind to Stevens and his ideals of a multiracial democracy. In the white supremacist film Birth of a Nation, Stevens is embodied by the villain “Austin Stoneman,” a power-hungry ogre intent on punishing the South, complete with limp and ridiculous wig.

“I started school in 1947 and suffered through Pennsylvania history, and I do not recall the name of Thaddeus Stevens ever being mentioned,” says Leroy Hopkins, 81, a retired professor and local historian, whose family has lived in Lancaster County since the 1700s. The Black community, though, including members of Hopkins’ church—Bethel AME—remembered Stevens and, from the late 1800s until around World War II, even led yearly processions to decorate his grave, Hopkins says. Yet post-Reconstruction historians deliberately erased Stevens’ legacy, in both mainstream academia and popular culture.

“The forgetting and erasure of men like Stevens was willful after the fall of Reconstruction and the triumph of Jim Crow,” Sinha says. “Most white Southerners hated him, and Northerners wanted to forget about the failure of Reconstruction. … It was not an accident that Stevens was forgotten.”

Radicals like Stevens, Sinha says, were seen as having overreached in championing Black citizenship, and in the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson for blocking Reconstruction. “The myth that they achieved nothing” is false, she argues. Reconstruction was the direct result of Stevens’ “parliamentary acumen and his devotion to egalitarian principles.” Yet at the turn of the 20th century, Reconstruction was widely presented as a wicked, aberrant episode in U.S. history. “We still live with those legacies,” Sinha says. Which makes it all the more important to recover a true idea of Stevens.

Today, the battlefield town of Gettysburg finally has a new statue of Thaddeus Stevens, defiantly clutching the 14th Amendment in front of its courthouse. The prime mover behind the statue was Ross Hetrick of Gettysburg, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, who in 1999 founded the nonprofit Thaddeus Stevens Society. Hetrick argues that Stevens’ memory was unfairly subordinated to that of Abraham Lincoln’s. “The genius of Lincoln is that he listened to Thaddeus Stevens,” Hetrick says.

a statue of man with a cain in long overcoat stands in front of a courthouse
A statue of Stevens by Alex Paul Loza was unveiled in 2022 before the Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Alex Paul Loza
With just 237 members, the society began organizing for a bronze statue in 2015, when Michael Charney, a retired public-school teacher from Cleveland, and his wife, C.J. Prentiss, a former Ohio state senator, stepped in to fund the venture. “He was squelched. He never had the kind of impact he should have,” Charney says of Stevens. In an evangelizing effort, Charney once even went so far as to name his dog Thaddeus Stevens, so that he’d have daily opportunities to strike up conversations with strangers about this American hero.

Meanwhile, in 1999, Lancaster activists managed to save Stevens’ home office from the wrecking ball when it was slated to be demolished for a new development. Then, while excavating in 2002, workers discovered a series of tunnels and an adapted cistern beneath the back of the property that archaeologists came to believe were hiding places for freedom seekers—physical evidence of Smith and Stevens’ work on the Underground Railroad. The discovery galvanized a new round of community fundraising for the center, says Thomas Ryan, president of LancasterHistory.

Stevens died in 1868, at the height of Reconstruction, a time of great promise. Just nine years later, by 1877, Reconstruction had ended with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, and Stevens’ reputation was trashed. Yet those who remembered Stevens’ fading legacy made pilgrimages to his grave. In the summer of 1886, a group of Black Civil War veterans gathered there and welcomed D. Henderson, a fellow veteran from New York City who had come to pay his respects at what he called the “sacred spot.” The men stood in formation and sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” after which Henderson thanked Stevens for his “hopeless fight” in holding America to its stated ideals of justice and liberty for all.

a brick arch in a basement
The basement below a Lancaster tavern owned by Stevens—believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. LancasterHistory

“[His] virtue, and the world’s memory of his virtue, will endure as long as time itself,” Henderson said.

To the veterans assembled that day, Stevens was the man who had championed their right to fight for the Union. He fought for the abolition of slavery, equal protection under the law, universal suffrage and free public education, and he achieved it all, at least in the letter of the law. For his final act, Stevens chose to be buried in Lancaster’s only integrated cemetery, his grave emblazoned: “EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”

Boon Companion

The remarkable life of Thaddeus Stevens’ trailblazing female partner

by Brandon Tensley

a sepia toned formal portrait of a woman sitting in a chair

Lydia Hamilton Smith is often referred to as Thaddeus Stevens’ housekeeper—and, perhaps, his common-law wife. In fact, she was a great deal more: a fervent Catholic, a smashingly successful real estate entrepreneur and likely a daring participant in the Underground Railroad whose deeply held faith led her to pursue good works at nearly every juncture.

Smith was born near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, around 1815 to a white father and a mother of both African and European heritage. She married once, around the age of 20, to a barber and musician named Jacob Smith, with whom she had two sons. Smith eventually left Jacob—perhaps, some histories say, because he was abusive—and in 1844 moved with her boys to Lancaster, to work for Stevens.

There, her duties were expansive. Besides overseeing Stevens’ houses in Lancaster and Washington, D.C., Smith counseled him on business affairs and was his constant companion at social events; shortly after the end of the war, the Lancaster Intelligencer reported that, at town gatherings, Smith “is constantly spoken of as Mrs. Stevens.” In 1860, she bought her first property from Stevens for $500. On his death in 1868, Stevens left her a $500 annuity, which she used to expand her prosperous real estate business.

Like Stevens, Smith was dedicated to Black liberation and is believed to have helped her boss shelter enslaved people seeking freedom. Stevens’ physician, Henry Carpenter, said that the lawmaker’s life “was prolonged six or eight years by faithful nursing and close attention” from Smith. Smith thus materially changed the course of American history: During this time, Stevens advocated for the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

When she died in 1884, Smith’s obituary noted that her towering reputation crossed racial lines: “Among the people of Washington, white and colored, she was respected highly.” She was buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lancaster. As a final sign of her unfailing bond with Stevens, she bequeathed $500 for the continued care of his grave.

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