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07.15.07 Thaddeus Stevens (Old Thad Stevens, A Story of Ambition), a biography by Richard Nelson Current, published in 1942 by University of Wisconsin Press.

Notes Concerning the Author:

Richard Nelson Current (1925-2012) was “born in Colorado City, Colorado of Norwegian-English stock.”  He earned his BA from Oberlin College and his MA from Tufts University.  In 1940, at the age of 22, he earned his Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  He then went to Rutgers University as an assistant professor of history and political science, where he completed the development of his Ph. D. dissertation for publication.  Thus, in 1942 his biography, Old Thad Stevens, a Story of Ambition, went to press.

In the Foreword of this book, Current wrote, “The author acknowledges his debt to Professor William B. Hesseltine, of the University of Wisconsin, who first showed him the need for a new Stevens biography and whose teachings conditioned the point of view from which it was written.”  Hesseltine (1902-1963), originally of Virginia, received his BA degree from Washington and Lee University and his Ph. D. at Ohio State.  He went on to have a long career at Madison and “a number of doctoral students at Madison went on to be influential historians in their own right, including Kenneth Stampp” and others.  Hesseltine’s book, Civil War Prisons, published in 1930, is also worthy of reading.

Current would go on write many histories and biographies while teaching at many different colleges and universities, among them, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He would live a long life, until the age of 100.  Although his time at Greensboro would not be long, there, in 1983, his first wife Rose would be buried and there he would be laid beside her in 2012.


Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was born in Danville, Vermont to Joshua and Sarah Stevens.  He was named for “Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish hero who had fought with American colonists against the British foe.”  The baby was “sickly” and handicapped by a club foot.  He would be able to walk with a limp, but never run.  The father “farmed a bit and cobbled a while and surveyed at times,” but did not care for home life.  He left Sarah and her 4 young boys, never to return.  Life was hard, but Sarah met the challenge.  She observed that her crippled child was good at school work and encouraged it, realizing that he could never succeed at manual labor.  At the age of 18 Thad left his Vermont home to enter school at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire.  At the age of 21 he began teaching school at Peacham, Vermont while also reading law.  Then at the age of 23 or 24 he moved to York, Pennsylvania, took a teaching job there and continued to read law.  But, without experience working in a Pennsylvania law practice, he could not qualify for the Pennsylvania bar.  So he crossed the State line into Maryland, stood for examination there, and gained acceptance.  Stevens then settled in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and began his law practice.  It was 1916.  Stevens was 24 years old.

Stevens seemed to take no interest in the ladies.  He would never marry.  His law practice was successful and he worked alone.  He loved making money and politics.  He would eventually partner with some men and launch an iron-smelting works at South Mountain, then buy out his partners and become sole owner.  But he left management to a hired supervisor and rarely visited his iron works and his 200 hired men.  His interest was in law and politics and protecting the prices of his iron through protectionist Federal legislation.

By 1829, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, political opponents of Jacksonian Democrats were drawn to a new movement named the Antimasonic Party, and Stevens excelled at Anti-Mason demagoguery.   In 1833, at the age of 41, Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania House as an Anti-Mason and he would be re-elected 6 times.  Biographer Richard Current calls Stevens, “The Archpriest of Antimasonry.”  In fact that political movement would survive the longer in central Pennsylvania than anywhere else, to a great extent as a result of Thad Stevens’ political leadership, keeping the Anti-Mason fire burning.  And Current pulls no punches in presenting the political corruption attendant with Stevens’ manipulations in the Pennsylvania House from 1834 through 1839.  But such corruption could not last forever.  From 1839 to 1849, Stevens suffered his “Ten Years of Exile.”

After the vast swath of western land was seized from Mexico, stretching from the west of Texas out to California, and after the agitation over which section was to have political control over that land was incited by the “Wilmot Proviso,” Thad Stevens decided to transition from Antimasonic demagoguery to Antislavery demagoguery — not Antislavery aimed at emancipating bonded African Americans, but the politics of Exclusionism, aimed at preventing them from moving into the National Territories and any future State.  Toward that end, Stevens joined the Pennsylvania Whig Party, ran for the Federal House and won his seat in the election of August 1848.  And from that seat he managed to become a leader among men opposed to the Democratic Party.

By 1954 the Whig Party was being replaced by the Prohibition Movement and the Know-Nothing Party.  In September 1854 Stevens switched to the Know-Nothing Party.  But 1854 was the year of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the start of terrorist assaults in “Bleeding Kansas.”  Agitation inspired by reports from “Bleeding Kansas” gave rise to the Republican Party and Stevens, ever ready to jump on the perceived strongest horse in the race to defeat Democrats, leap upon the Republican horse in 1856, taking a strong stand against fellow Pennsylvanian, James Buchanan.

Stevens was re-elected to the Federal House as a Republican in October 1858, and from that point he was to quickly rise to become the most powerful man in Washington D. C., a power base to only be eclipsed by Abraham Lincoln.  As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee he would rule over the House more firmly than anyone in history who ever held that job.  He would ensure that no law would impede the invasion of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri to enable their subjugation or the invasion of the seceded States for their conquest.  And he would ensure that the monetary funding of those invasions would be sufficient for eventual victory.  

After the surrender of the Confederate armies and Booth’s killing of Lincoln, Stevens would be a major leader in forcing Political Reconstruction Bills through Congress to ensure that the Constitutional principle of State Rights was forever dead, that the Federal Government was on a path to become all-powerful and that the conquered States were controlled by Republicans.

Availability of this Book

Richard Nelson Current’s book, Old Thad Stevens, A Story of Ambition, published in 1942, is very difficult to find as a used print book.  It is not available as a Kindle e-book.  It may not even be available as a scanned digital book.  This reviewer obtained his copy by borrowing a book from a college library and copying it on his copy machine.  It sits beside him in a manila folder.  If you see this book, buy it.