“ Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary”| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
History has not been kind to Thaddeus Stevens, according to historian Bruce Levine who seeks to make the fiery abolitionist better known with this biographical portrait.
Historians labeled Thaddeus Stevens a fanatic, a rogue, and a zealot for decades, but about a century after the Civil War they began to reassess his reputation, particularly his contributions to the ending of slavery. Levine has written this tribute to Stevens as one of the most visionary statesmen of the 19th century and a true drum major for racial justice in the United States.
Stevens was born into poverty in 1792 in Vermont. He was the second of four children and was named to honor Polish statesman Thaddeus Kosciuszko. When Thaddeus was 12, his father abandoned the family, thus worsening the family’s indigence, yet Thaddeus’ mother insisted her sons get a college education. Stevens graduated from Dartmouth College and became a teacher in York, Pennsylvania, a community along the Mason-Dixon Line where Thaddeus became aware of the perils faced by fugitive slaves. In the evenings he studied law, eventually passed the bar exam, and set up a law office in Gettysburg where he began to represent runaway slaves and became known as a radical abolitionist.
Steven’s law practice was successful and when he decided to increase his business he moved to Lancaster, a city with a large anti-slavery German population who largely supported Stevens’ party, the Whigs. His law practice grew steadily more lucrative so he was able to charitably defend slaves from slave catchers and hide runaways in his home, a station on the Underground Railroad.
Stevens’ advocacy for –and protection of—slaves was not always welcome. One day, as Stevens was walking a narrow path in the woods, he encountered an enemy, who was coming from the other direction, refusing to give way. The man shouted, “I never get out of the way for a skunk.” Stevens stood aside and replied, “I always do.” The activist for manumission soon also became known for his acerbic comments and pugilistic rhetoric. A colleague described his style as “bitter, quick as electricity, with a sarcastic, blasting wit.”
He was elected to Congress in 1849, and the Whig wasted little time in explicitly stating his opposition to slavery. In June 1850, he spoke before the House of Representatives declaring, “Any slave escaping or being taken into New Mexico or California, would be instantly free.” That position was abhorrent to Southerners who did not agree that Congress had the exclusive power to legislate for territories. Stevens’ reformist positions also caused the support in his congressional district to dwindle and in the next election, his opponent won.
In 1859 he ran again for Congress and was elected, this time as a member of the new Republican Party. Stevens was instrumental in passing a bill authorizing Black soldiers and was responsible for framing the 13th amendment outlawing slavery. When the bill authorizing the 13th amendment passed, Stevens uttered, “ I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus, ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color. ‘” Additional victories for Stevens included passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, establishing equal protection before the law and the right of all males to vote.
As a member of The Radical Republican caucus, Stevens challenged President Lincoln to free the slaves and welcome Black men into the Union’s armies long before Lincoln reached those decisions. Lincoln’s attitude toward manumission changed gradually, while Stevens kept insisting that the time was now.
The ardent abolitionist also faced legislative failures. Stevens advocated subdividing Southern plantations so freed slaves could make a living. “Divide this land into convenient farms. Give, if you please, 40 acres to each adult male freedman” with $50 to build a house and farm buildings. Stevens’ sweeping land reform bill failed. Another distressing defeat was his unsuccessful attempt to remove President Andrew Jackson from office in 1868. In his final years, he remained as combative as ever, even as his health weakened and he had to be carried into the House chamber in a chair. When he died on South B Street, near the Capitol, in August 1868, there were many words of admiration.
After re-examining Stevens’ life, Levine describes him as a heroic proponent for the highest ideals of democracy. “Stevens dedicated much of his life to creating a more egalitarian and democratic form of capitalist society than the one he found.” This extensively researched history elevates Stevens to his rightful place in American history. It also reveals a relevant and inspiring example to those seeking racial justice in our time.
About the author
Bruce Levine is the author of four books on the Civil War including “Confederate Emancipation” which received the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War scholarship. He is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois.