The Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site
Backstory and Context
Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868) was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the "Radical Republican" faction of the Republican Party during the 1860s. A fierce opponent of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, Stevens sought to secure their rights during Reconstruction, in opposition to President Andrew Johnson. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the American Civil War, he played a major part in the war's financing.
Stevens was born in rural Vermont, in poverty, and with a club foot, giving him a limp he kept his entire life. He moved to Pennsylvania as a young man, and quickly became a successful lawyer in Gettysburg. He interested himself in municipal affairs, and then in politics. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he became a strong advocate of free public education. Financial setbacks in 1842 caused him to move his home and practice to the larger city of Lancaster. There, he joined the Whig Party, and was elected to Congress in 1848. His activities as a lawyer and politician in opposition to slavery cost him votes and he did not seek reelection in 1852. After a brief flirtation with the Know-Nothing Party, Stevens joined the newly formed Republican Party, and was elected to Congress again in 1858. There, with fellow radicals such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, he opposed the expansion of slavery and concessions to the South as war came. Stevens was also active on the Underground Railroad using his Lancaster home as a "station" for fugitive slaves. Recent excavation of the house unearthed a cistern with a passageway to a nearby tavern, as well as a spittoon inside, which some historians think was used to shelter escaping slave.
Stevens argued that slavery should not survive the war; he was frustrated by the slowness of President Abraham Lincoln to support his position. He guided the government's financial legislation through the House as Ways and Means chairman. As the war progressed towards a northern victory, Stevens came to believe that not only should slavery be abolished, but that African-Americans should be given a stake in the South's future through the confiscation of land from planters to be distributed to the freedmen. His plans went too far for the Moderate Republicans, and were not enacted.
After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Stevens came into conflict with the new president, Andrew Johnson, who sought rapid restoration of the seceded states without guarantees for freedmen. The difference in views caused an ongoing battle between Johnson and Congress, with Stevens leading the Radical Republicans. After gains in the 1866 election the radicals took control of Reconstruction away from Johnson. Stevens's last great battle was to secure articles of impeachment in the House against Johnson, though the Senate did not convict the President.
Lydia Hamilton Smith (February 14, 1813 – February 14, 1884) was Steven's long-time housekeeper / confidant and a prominent African-American businesswoman after Steven's death in 1868. While no evidence of their exact relationship exists, historians have speculated that Smith was Steven's mistress or "common law wife" due to her privileged status in the Steven's home, her closeness to Stevens, and the large lump sum left to her and her sons from a previous marriage in Steven's will as well as ownership of the Steven's Lancaster property. Smith also operated a prosperous boarding house across from the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., as well as invested in real estate and other business ventures.