Furman University: Thaddeus Stevens Papers On-line

Furman University: Thaddeus Stevens Papers On-line


In 1865, the Civil War finally ended. The massive devastation and social upheaval ushered in a brief period of governmental Reconstruction wherein the Northern politicians attempted to define the terms and ramifications of the Union victory. As early as 1865, President Andrew Johnson, contrary to the wishes of the Republican radicals, began accepting Southern politicians back into the government. These politicians claimed to have revised their state constitutions, abolished slavery, and taken a prospective oath against secession. Thaddeus Stevens, a well known enemy of Johnson, saw the South as a conquered land. He believed Congress should have dominant power over the lands and over the executive branch. The following documents depict the profile of Stevens as a supporter of Confederate land confiscation, a strong believer in Negro rights, and a champion of Congressional power and politics.


Thaddeus Stevensí speech to Congress on July 9, 1867 is an excellent example of his views of the Reconstruction era. The document displays many of Mr. Stevensí views on conquered lands, the presidency, and the way the South should be governed. The speech gives a concise view on his major points where as other document do not contain a complete image of Thaddeus Stevens. He feels that Southern lands and their government were conquered by the Union armies and should be governed by Congress [1]. The conquered lands allows for the entire South to be divided and be redistributed [2]. The redistribution of lands allows for Negroes to own land and changes the face of the South[3]. Negro land possession was a strong belief that Stevens maintained since the beginnings of his political days. He had such strong feelings about Negro rights that he fought for their rights his entire life and tired to obtain many rights through the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution [4]. In respect to the presidential office, the speech shows Stevensí will for a strong Congress and an Executive Branch that does not check the power or decision of Congress. The speech contains strong language against the executive branch and contains a feeling that the executive is incompetent and should not have power. The document does not openly show Stevensí personal dislike for Johnson, but his words portray a man unhappy with the current presidency.

Stevensí wants strong, swift, and painful justice for the South and the language of the document shows his anger and wanting desire to rebuild the South to his ramifications. Stevens wanted military reconstruction and military rule that would break the back of the Southern society [5]. He does not like the South and feels that all ties to the past should be cut. His reconstruction ideas are a step in the direction of crippling the South and changing their ways of living. He sees the Southerners as conquered subjects at the mercy of Congress. He tried to use the Congress to establish himself and create rights for Negroes where "Equity of Man before his Creator" [6].

This document is superior to the other documents because it depicts most of the ideas behind Thaddeus Stevens. Race equality was a view he derived early in his political career. The document shows his want for equality and the other documents lacked this quality. This document was much more legible than other documents as well.


The hand written notes of Thaddeus Stevens, which illustrate the Congressional vision of reconstruction and the subsequent military occupation of the South, are critical to gaining a full understanding of the Reconstruction era. The notes emphasize a major component of Congressionally prompted Reconstruction: the consideration of rebel states as territories rather than as established states. This nation is indicative of Congressís determination to 1) play a significant role in the Reconstruction of the South and 2) to protect the Republican stronghold within the House of Representatives and the Senate. Retaining the statehood of the rebel states would threaten the very government the Republicans had fought to preserve and Stevensí recognition of this is critical to understanding why Congress opposed Lincolnís plan for Reconstruction. Other Stevens documents alluded to various bills and legislation regarding Reconstruction, but it is in these notes that the heart of Congressional Reconstruction is found.


We chose the speech delivered by Thaddeus Stevens on March 19, 1867 because of who it addressed and how. This document revealed the crucial components outlining Stevensí equation for the ultimate goal; a seat in the Senate [7]. As a radical Republican, Stevens approached the task of Reconstruction via a party platform which championed the notions of property rights for freedmen and of substantially improved pensions for loyal Union soldiers and workers [8], especially the ironworkers, manufacturers, and railroad contractors, who were devastated by the Civil War [9]. Stevens recognized and demanded confiscation of Confederate property as the solution to both of these immediate needs. [10] He knew "warfare on Southern property" [11] was necessary to balance the economic advantages gained by his Pennsylvania constituency during the war with the rising inflation of the period. Confiscated land allowed more free laborers to join the budding corporations [12] in the iron and manufacturing areas, and hence to increase their income. By addressing the plight of the freedmen, Stevens morally legitimized his demand for confiscation. For political reinforcement, he shrewdly relied on words earlier spoken by President Johnson which supported confiscation and pecuniary punishment of Confederate rebels. Legally, Stevens pointed to the Confiscation Act of 1862 which amply justified his extreme measures. Finally, Stevens emphasized the historical example of the former President Lincoln as a just Executive Commander who allowed Congress to dominate decisions regarding Confederate property and re-admission to the Union and to Congress.[13]

This document, then, presented the critical issues of Reconstruction which one may best understand in the light of radical Republican politics in 1867. From the speakerís perspective, one may learn Stevensí unique role in these politics, and hence, the underlying significance of his speech.

This document, unlike numerous others, best revealed the key political aspects of the Reconstruction. Other primary documents in the collection largely included newspaper articles wherein Stevens had little voice. Also, the issues were not dealt with jointly or satisfactorily. Lastly, legibility was an inescapable issue.


In conclusion, these documents show many of the crucial ideas and thoughts of Thaddeus Stevens during the Reconstruction era. He viewed the South as a conquered land that should be controlled by the strong fist of Congress. He championed Negro rights and fought to protect the rights of Union loyalists. These documents were chosen over other documents because they best portray the beliefs of Thaddeus Stevens. These beliefs privilege the reader to a fuller understanding of the radical view of the Reconstruction period.

1. Trefousse, Hans L. Historical Dictionary of Reconstruction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. p. 127-128, 181.

2. Trefousse, p. 127-128, 181.

3. Trefousse, p. 127-128, 181.

4. Bowman, John S. The Civil War Almanac. New York: St. Martin Press, 1983. p. 381-382.

5. Trefousse, p. 127-128, 181.

6. Trefousse, p. 127-128, 181.

7. Current, Richard Nelson. Old Thad Stevens Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1942. p.251.

8. Stevensí speech delivered March 19, 1867.

9. Current, p. 226-227.

10. Derived from the speech.

11. Current, p. 217.

12. Barney, William L. The Passage of the Republic. p. 261.

13. Derived from the speech.

Document written by Mark Rowe, Meryle Holdredge, Chip Bates, Sally Martin (benson/HST41/silver/stevens5.htm)