Why America is Newly Appreciating Thaddeus Stevens, the Most Hated Man in U.S. History

A portrait of Thaddeus Stevens by the famous photographer Mathew Brady, c. 1860.
Library of Congress

The Legacy of Thaddeus Stevens, Abolitionist and Politician

Thaddeus Stevens, a key figure in American history and a fierce opponent of slavery, has often been overlooked. However, this Pennsylvania congressman, immortalized by Tommy Lee Jones in the 2012 film Lincoln, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

At the time of Stevens’ death in 1868, he was one of the most revered men in the country, and only the third American to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. However, his legacy was soon forgotten, and he was even dubbed one of the most hated men in our past by his biographer Milton Meltzer in 1967.

Today, Thaddeus Stevens is celebrated once more. A bronze statue of Stevens was erected in Gettysburg in April 2022. Furthermore, the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History and Democracy is set to open in Lancaster in 2025, honoring both Stevens and his companion Lydia Hamilton Smith for their work in the Underground Railroad.

Understanding Thaddeus Stevens: A Crucial Figure in American History

Despite challenges from a young age, Thaddeus Stevens became a renowned lawyer, businessman, and political figure. His mother’s sacrifices to provide him with an education fueled his commitment to free public education and disdain for hereditary privilege.

Stevens’ career took him to southeastern Pennsylvania, a battleground of pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. In this tense atmosphere, Stevens stood as a steadfast abolitionist, even founding an ironworks to employ free Black men and freedom seekers. He also played a crucial role in the fight against slavery, leading an anti-slavery spy ring and helping to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Stevens’ legacy also includes his role as the main architect of the 14th Amendment, which granted equal protection under the law. He was a tireless advocate for universal suffrage, although he passed away before he could witness the implementation of the 15th Amendment in 1870.

The Misrepresentation of Thaddeus Stevens

Despite his significant contributions, Stevens’ image has been tarnished in popular culture. For instance, in the white supremacist film Birth of a Nation, he is depicted as a power-hungry ogre intent on punishing the South.

Nevertheless, many remember Stevens for his enduring fight for justice and liberty. To this day, his grave in Lancaster’s only integrated cemetery stands as a testament to his unwavering belief in equality, bearing the inscription: “EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”

Lydia Hamilton Smith: The Unsung Hero

Lydia Hamilton Smith, often referred to as Stevens’ housekeeper—and possibly his common-law wife—played a crucial role in Stevens’ life and the fight against slavery. She was a successful real estate entrepreneur and a fervent Catholic who used her faith to drive her good works.

Like Stevens, Smith was dedicated to Black liberation and helped her boss shelter those seeking freedom. Her reputation extended beyond racial lines, and she was highly respected in the community.

Her dedication to Stevens’ work continued even after his death, as she bequeathed $500 for the continued care of his grave.

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