Thaddeus Stevens: Speech to Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thaddeus Stevens, Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, gave a speech before Congress that articulated his vision for the period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction. Delivered only seven months after the war ended and on the same day that the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, went into effect, Stevens's speech represented the view of a group in Congress known as the Radical Republicans. It portrayed a strident vision of the Reconstruction era, wherein the defeated Southern states were not welcomed back with open arms, and their rights would remain curtailed until Congress saw fit to restore them. Importantly, the speech placed Congress itself in charge of Reconstruction policy–a fact that galled President Andrew Johnson, who promoted a relatively simple reinstatement process for Southern states. The policy and personal disputes between Johnson and Stevens helped frame the Reconstruction era, mirroring the divisions present in the nation as a whole.

Summary Overview

Thaddeus Stevens, Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, gave a speech before Congress that articulated his vision for the period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction. Delivered only seven months after the war ended and on the same day that the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, went into effect, Stevens's speech represented the view of a group in Congress known as the Radical Republicans. It portrayed a strident vision of the Reconstruction era, wherein the defeated Southern states were not welcomed back with open arms, and their rights would remain curtailed until Congress saw fit to restore them. Importantly, the speech placed Congress itself in charge of Reconstruction policy–a fact that galled President Andrew Johnson, who promoted a relatively simple reinstatement process for Southern states. The policy and personal disputes between Johnson and Stevens helped frame the Reconstruction era, mirroring the divisions present in the nation as a whole.

Defining Moment

The conclusion of the Civil War may have halted the direct warfare between the Union and Confederate armies, but disagreements among Northerners over what to do with the South were just beginning. Before the end of the war, President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, in which he outlined a generous plan that called for the readmission of any former Confederate states in which ten percent of the voters swore allegiance to the restored Union and amnesty for all but the highest-ranking Confederate military and political leaders. Lincoln may have been the only one who could have made this arrangement work, but he was assassinated in April 1865, leaving his vice president, Johnson, as the executive in charge of Reconstruction. As both a Southerner (who had remained loyal to the Union) and a Democrat, Johnson was hard-pressed to implement Lincoln's plan, especially in the face of a public discourse dominated by Thaddeus Stevens and the Radical Republicans.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, however, Congress was not in session, and Johnson did his best to implement Lincoln's plan in Congress's absence. Lincoln had already authorized reconstructed governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, and Johnson's home state of Tennessee, and Johnson continued Lincoln's goal of quickly restoring local sovereignty to the states. Ensuring the rights of former slaves, now called freedmen, was, to Johnson, a matter for state governments–another important issue on which he and Stevens's Radical Republicans disagreed. Johnson's policies allowed many former Confederates to regain political power. To those white leaders, voting rights for the freedmen, as advocated by Radical Republicans, were out of the question. Many Southern states quickly passed what became known as the Black Codes–repressive laws that governed where and when freedmen could go, the conditions under which they would work, and the limits on their gathering together. Though many Northerners were ambivalent about African American suffrage, the Black Codes turned public opinion against Johnson and his moderate approach to Reconstruction.

By the time Congress arrived to begin its session in December 1865, a confrontation between the two opposing systems of Reconstruction, as well as Johnson and Stevens, was imminent. Stevens, who led the Radical faction in the House, along with Charles Sumner in the Senate, were determined both to ensure that the sacrifices made during the Civil War were not wasted by handing power back to the same Southern politicians who had driven secession forward four years earlier and to see that the freedmen's civil rights, including the right to vote, were guaranteed.

Author Biography

Thaddeus Stevens was a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who became the face of the opposition to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson's lenient approach to the South after the Civil War. Stevens had a long history of opposition to slavery and was outraged over the secession of the South. Born in Danville, Vermont, in 1792, Stevens grew up poor, yet he graduated from Dartmouth College and became an attorney before entering politics in 1833. As the nation edged toward Civil War, Stevens, now living in Pennsylvania, was elected to Congress in 1849 as an antislavery Republican. During the war, as the powerful chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Stevens pushed Lincoln for emancipation of the slaves. Lincoln had called for reconciliation in his second inaugural and Gettysburg addresses, but Stevens disagreed vehemently, pushing for the punishment of the South–including the disenfranchisement of all Confederates–and full citizenship rights for the freed slaves. In 1868, he led the charge to impeach Johnson, who was narrowly acquitted in the Senate. Later that year, on August 11, Stevens died in Washington and was buried near his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Document Analysis

When Stevens rose to speak in the House of Representatives on December 18, 1865, his opposition to Johnson's Reconstruction plan was already well known. Simply allowing the Southern states to rejoin the Union upon the acceptance of federal sovereignty by ten percent of voters and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was not even close to sufficient for Stevens, who, like many in the North, held the Southerners completely responsible for four years of unprecedented bloodshed. However, his plan proved too radical for many war-weary Northerners.

Rather than debate the presidential plan, Stevens took a different tack, questioning the very propriety of having the executive branch direct Reconstruction policy. The states of the entire southern half of the nation had seceded, but they were again under federal jurisdiction after the Union victory. He argued that, since the Confederate states had divorced themselves from the Union, there was “no arrangement so proper for them as territorial governments.” Neither the president nor the judiciary had the power to create states out of unincorporated territories before the Civil War, nor should they have the power to do so now, according to Stevens.

As everyone within the government knew, Stevens was not amenable to allowing the Confederates to regain their role within the Union. Instead of seeking the quick reconciliation that Lincoln and Johnson promoted, Stevens was comfortable both with the process of Southern reintegration taking years and with Congress being the final arbiter of when each Southern state could rejoin the nation. To Stevens, the procedure by which a territory becomes a state was the logical blueprint for this process. The Southern territories could have non-voting representation, and it would be Congress, which would ensure that they could not exercise any power until Congress was convinced they would pose no further threat to the Union.

Finally, Stevens turned his attention to the plight of the former slaves who, though free, were “without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets.” Rather than looking for Congress to help the Confederates, Stevens thought it more proper for Congress to shepherd the freedmen, providing them with the basic tools they needed in terms of education, legal protections, and security to establish themselves in their newfound freedom. In this, Stevens was zealous, but well outside of the mainstream of Northern opinion, a fact that would shape the mixed record of accomplishment and frustration that followed.

Essential Themes

Thaddeus Stevens was one of the most influential people in shaping public policy during the Reconstruction era, but not all of his ideas were implemented. Certainly many people shared his outrage and desire to see the former Confederates punished, but his particular bitterness ran counter to the feelings of many others who wanted to see a quick reconciliation with the South and who cared little about anything more than rudimentary freedom for former slaves.

Stevens successfully prevented the first few new state governments implemented under Lincoln and Johnson's Reconstruction plan from being recognized, refusing to seat the senators and representatives elected by those states. The Black Codes passed in those states to keep the freed slaves from exercising their new freedoms further angered the Radical Republicans–and even most moderate Republicans. These extreme measures allowed Stevens to push through the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, created to help former slaves, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined citizenship as including anyone born in the United States without regard to race (a provision enshrined a few years later in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution). President Johnson's opposition to these measures created a schism between him and Stevens, and eventually led to the president's impeachment. The Civil Rights Act became the first major piece of legislation to be passed despite a president's veto.

Not all of the ideas Stevens voiced in his speech were implemented. Rather than making the South go through the process of territorial government, in 1867 and 1868, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which divided the South into five military districts under the command of a general and provided clear criteria for readmission to the Union, including redrafting their state constitutions to include loyalty to the Union, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and guaranteeing former slaves the right to vote.

Popular interest in punishing or governing the South, as well as in ensuring justice for freedmen, waned, however, as Northerners prioritized a return to prosperity. After Stevens's death in 1868, the Freedmen's Bureau was chronically underfunded, and although many African Americans held political office in the reconstructed states, the power of the former Confederates rose again through terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brodie, Fawn. Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. New York: Norton, 1959. Print.
  • DuBois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part of Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Rev. ed. New Brunswick, NH: Transaction, 2012. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Print.
  • Trefousse, Hans Louis. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.
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