DANVILLE – Thaddeus Stevens rose to prominence as a Civil War congressman from Pennsylvania vehemently opposed to slavery, but not many know that he grew up in Vermont.
Vermont's congressional delegation is hoping to fix that and Congress last week approved naming the post office in Danville, where Stevens was born in 1792, after him.
"Renaming the post office in Danville after Thaddeus Stevens will help Vermonters and people throughout the country understand the important legislative battles won in the halls of Congress during the Civil War and Reconstruction-era," Sen. Bernie Sanders said Tuesday after the U.S. House passed the measure introduced by Rep. Peter Welch. "As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens was one of the most powerful members of Congress during that crucial period of American history."
The Senate passed similar legislation last August and the president is expected to sign the measure.
Stevens was born with a club foot and raised in poverty in Danville where his parents were early settlers from Methuen, Massachusetts. His father left the family around 1804 and his mother, Sarah Morrill Stevens, worked to raise her four boys, farming and nursing the sick, according to Paul Chouinard, former president of the Danville Historical Society.
The next year, many Danville residents came down with spotted fever, which kept Stevens' mother busy. Stevens helped his mother, staying with patients so she could visit others, Chouinard wrote on the historical society's website.
"Thus at an early age he saw much of poverty and affliction. In later life he developed profound empathy for individuals afflicted by want and suffering," Chouinard wrote.
In 1807, his mother moved the family to neighboring Peacham so the boys could attend Caledonia County Academy. Stevens was a competitive student but his limp set him apart, Chouinard said.
"As a result of his experience with peers, he developed a tartness of speech and a combativeness of manner that remained with him throughout life," Chouinard wrote.
He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1814 and returned to Peacham where he taught and studied law before going to Pennsylvania in 1815 to take a job teaching.
Stevens became a lawyer committed to racial equality. A highway plaque in Danville remembers him as a radical Republican and abolitionist congressman and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee who worked to fund the Civil War and was the architect of the reconstruction of the South.
The fight on Congress to end slavery was aired in Steven Spielberg's Academy Award winning "Lincoln" in 2012. Chouinard said Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of Stevens was the most accurate to date.
"He was just irascible but he was also for the common man," said Sharon Lakey, director of the Danville Historical Society. "We're so pleased that he's recognized (for) his part in the Civil War and the amendments to the Constitution and anti-slavery."