Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.
And now in the klieg lights: Thaddeus Stevens.
Abraham Lincoln is back and so is the almost-forgotten abolitionist and Vermont native, Thaddeus Stevens, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s movie.
But Stevens was known, even revered, in three spots in Vermont way before the film, “Lincoln.” Who would have guessed?
There’s his visage peering formally, even sternly, from a framed picture attached to a bulletin board at Thaddeus Stevens School in Lyndon Center.
Alongside are copies of prints from an 1868 Harper’s magazine, one showing Stevens, with cane, arguing in Congress for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, whom he felt was too soft on the South.
Like its namesake, this elementary and middle school takes civil rights seriously: On a wall and overlooking youngsters on a recent afternoon getting a jump on homework are a framed photograph of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice; and one of W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In a hallway is a photo of Malcolm X, the fiery orator who helped inspire the Black Power movement in the 1960s.
And there across another wall are the printed paeans to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that freed the slaves; the 14th Amendment that required “due process” and equal protection under the law; and the 15th that gave ex-slaves the right to vote.
Stevens fought for all three, but it is his role steering the 13th Amendment through Congress that is dramatized in the movie that last week was nominated for 12 Oscars. Tommy Lee Jones, who played the highly principled but acerbic Thaddeus Stevens, was nominated for best supporting actor.
“We’re thinking of reserving the theater in St. Johnsbury so all the students can see the movie,” says school director Julie Hansen, whose school has some 60 kids. “We could all wear Thaddeus Stevens T-shirts,” she says with a laugh.
Hansen, a state of Washington native who studied at Berkeley and at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Vermont, once lived on Thaddeus Stevens Road in Peacham, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the name chosen for the school when it was organized back in 1999.
The private school, first established in Peacham by a group of parents, used a building that at the time was owned by David Dellinger, the ‘60s-era pacifist and civil-rights advocate, who entered America’s consciousness as a defendant in the 1969 and ’70 Chicago Seven Trial.
Dellinger, who died in 2004, at least once spoke to students about the power of protest and First Amendment rights, says Hansen. But it’s the voice echoing from the 19th century – that of Stevens – that speaks loudest to them. “Thaddeus Stevens really does inform how we think about things, about what is true equality,” says Hansen.
Hansen describes how Stevens overcame the handicap of a clubfoot and poverty, and how, through education and hard work, he made a financial and political success of himself.
“You can be the person you want to be; we remind kids of that all the time,” she asserts.
If Thaddeus Stevens School is basking in a glimmer of reflected glory from the movie, well, so are two other Vermont entities, namely the historical societies of Danville, where Stevens was born, and Peacham, where he received his early education.
“He’s a ‘biggie,’ and we are proud we gave him the good start,” says Lorna Quimby of the Peacham historical society, which has a few letters that Stevens wrote.
On occasion, adds Quimby, she takes visitors on informal historic tours to the Peacham home where he lived, to the farm home he built for his mother after he left Vermont, and to his mother’s gravesite, marked by one of the tallest monuments in the local cemetery.
After life in Danville and Peacham, Stevens studied at Dartmouth College. He eventually wound up in Pennsylvania, where he taught school, practiced law and operated several iron works, which helped earn him a modest fortune. He was elected to the state Legislature, where he fought for public education and then elected to Congress, where we now know, thanks to “Lincoln,” he became a leader in the fight to end slavery.
“Some would say that he was harsh and unforgiving, that he lacked sympathy and was not dignified,” says Hansen. She prefers the word “fearless” to describe him.
Stevens was popular enough, she says, that 20,000 people attended his funeral.
In Danville, retired educator Paul Chouinard, a longtime member of the Danville Historical Society, says he’s expecting “Lincoln” will generate more excitement about local history.
But before the movie there already was some excitement, if, as Chouinard does, you consider poring through old town deeds and other records and exploring ancient cellar holes exciting.
A few years back a few society members began marking a “trail” of Thaddeus Stevens’ childhood and adolescent whereabouts in Danville and Peacham and, is hoping someday soon to determine the exact location in Danville of his birthplace.
Stevens life in Vermont was not an easy one, including the hardship of having a clubfoot that left him open to ridicule from childhood associates and maybe a few adults. “Strict Calvinists thought a deformity of that form was a sign of God’s retribution for some unknown sin committed by a member of the family,” said Chouinard.
Stevens’ father, Joshua, was an alcoholic, who abandoned the family and is said to have died in the War of 1812. But his mother Sally Morrill had the good sense and fortitude to move the family seven miles away to Peacham, so her bright son could enroll at what was then the Caledonia County Academy (now Peacham Academy).
Chouinard believes that Stevens was introduced to constitutional and slavery matters during legislative debates in 1805.
The Vermont Legislature in the early 1800s, before Montpelier became the established state capital, would meet in the shire towns around the state to deliberate. When Stevens was 13, some 200 lawmakers came and stayed for a while in the Danville area to consider the first proposal at amending the U.S. Constitution to ban slavery. “How could he not have been influenced by that?” asks Chouinard.
Both Chouinard and Hansen have connected with Thaddeus Stevens’s admirers beyond Vermont.
Last autumn the head of the national Thaddeus Stevens Society visited Danville to present the historical society with an elegant etching of their hero, one that the society and the Danville Chamber of Commerce donated to the Statehouse in Montpelier.
Four years ago, students from Thaddeus Stevens School took a school trip to Lancaster, Pa., to visit the former home of Stevens. “The home was being restored and the kids had to wear hardhats during the visit,” said Hansen, adding that made the trip even more adventuresome.
“They were shown an excavated cistern under his house that was believed to have been quarters at a station for the Underground Railroad,” she says.
“We will go again,” she pledges.
Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vt., freelance reporter and editor.