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Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith

Thaddeus Stevens "The Great Commoner"

U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a pivotal figure in the public affairs of Pennsylvania and the nation from the 1820s until his death in Washington D.C. at age 76. He defended the rights of enslaved African Americans as a young lawyer in Adams County, PA. He championed free public education as a state representative from Gettysburg in the early 1830s. During two periods of service in the U.S. Congress spanning seven terms, Stevens represented Lancaster County as a member of the Whig Party (1849–53) and as a Republican (1859–1868). An avowed Abolitionist and Constitutional scholar, Stevens was also an Underground Railroad activist during his residency (1842–1868) at his Lancaster home and office. As a leader in the House of Representatives,
he played key roles in the major civil rights amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery (13th), and defining citizenship and equal protection under the law (14th). He also laid the groundwork for the 15th Amendment, enacted after his death, supporting voting rights for people of color and former slaves. The Great Commoner was one of the prime movers of Reconstruction and the leading advocate for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, whom Stevens believed was too lenient toward the rebellious South.

Lydia Hamilton Smith

At Russell’s Tavern in Adams County, Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of Gettsyburg, Lydia Hamilton was born to an African American mother and an Irish father. In her 20s, she married Jacob Smith, a barber and musician from Harrisburg. She bore two sons but raised the children alone after separating from Smith. Thaddeus Stevens was a Gettsyburg attorney and state legislator who moved to the City of Lancaster in 1842. Lydia’s cousin referred her to Stevens
when he was seeking a housekeeper. She moved there with her young sons in 1848, the same year Stevens was elected to the U.S. Congress. As Lancaster County Congressman he advocated the abolition of slavery and equal protection under the law. Recent research has documented Stevens’ participation in the Underground Railroad at his Lancaster properties; local oral tradition has long held that Lydia Smith likely played a key role in these secretive affairs. Smith lived with Stevens here and at his homes in Washington, D.C, where all who knew them described her as a close friend and  confidante, included in Stevens’ social gatherings and addressed as Madam or Mrs. Smith. In 1860 Smith purchased her Lancaster home from Stevens
for $500, on a lot adjacent to his. The home remains today at the corner of South Christian and East Vine Streets. Smith’s oldest son William died in 1860 and Isaac, a noted banjo player and barber, enlisted in the 6th U.S. Colored Troops in 1863. Smith and Stevens’ partnership lasted twenty-four years, until Stevens’ death in 1868. He bequeathed $5,000 to Smith in his will, which she used to purchase Stevens Lancaster properties, where she stayed on her frequent visits to Lancaster. She purchased and operated a boarding house on 14th Street NW, from the Willard Family, well known for their prestigious hotel. Lydia Smith died on Valentine’s Day 1884 in Washington, D.C. Her remains are buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lancaster, where she had long been a member.

The Underground Railroad

One day in August of 1848, a band of men of African descent who had fled enslavement in Maryland three days earlier came boldly to this community seeking advice, food, shelter or any kind of support. Their destination was Philadelphia, or New York or maybe even Canada…anywhere freedom could be found, other than their place of bondage below the Mason-Dixon Line. When they reached Columbia, Lancaster County, a stranger told them to seek help from a man living about 10 miles east in the City of Lancaster, at 45 South Queen Street. They were told this man—an attorney—was “a friend of the slaves.” Even though Thaddeus Stevens was at this time waging his first campaign in national politics as a candidate for the United States Congress, he daringly received this group of weary men and rendered assistance. He gave them a note—a calling card of sorts—along with directions to the next station on the Underground Railroad, some six miles east of Lancaster. There, at the home of Daniel and Hannah Gibbons, they were given food and a safe place to sleep before moving on in their quest for freedom. This welldocumented episode provided the evidence that allowed the National Park Service on April 6, 2011 to designate the Thaddeus Stevens Home and Office as an authentic site associated with the Underground Railroad, and in doing so, the property is now included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

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