Bringing “the Spirit of John Brown” into Government

The introduction to “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice,” by Bruce Levine

In the summer of 1863, the third year of the Civil War, Confederate general Robert E. Lee launched a raid into Pennsylvania that culminated in the epic battle of Gettysburg. During that raid, one of Lee’s division commanders, General Jubal A. Early, looted and demolished the Caledonia Iron Works, located outside of town. The ironworks’ owner and the attack’s personal target was Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Jubal Early regretted only that he hadn’t encountered Stevens on the premises. If he had, the general swore, he would have moved then and there to hang him, “divide his bones and send them to the several States as curiosities.” Early had destroyed the ironworks to make an example of the man who, he said, had inflicted more harm on the Confederacy than any other in the U.S. Congress. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, agreed with Jubal Early about almost nothing. But he did second the general’s appraisal of Stevens’s importance. “There was in him,” Douglass said, “the power of conviction, the power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of conscious ability,” qualities that “at last made him more potent in Congress and in the country than even the president and cabinet combined.”

As chairman of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, Stevens ensured that the Union war machine received the funding it needed. Perhaps even more important, he fought eloquently and doggedly in Congress for the strong antislavery and antiracist war policies to which other Republicans would come around only later. Stevens was “always in advance of public opinion,” one associate recalled, and “constantly antagonized it with a valor and boldness unequalled. Usually political leaders ascertain the current and drift of public sentiment and accommodate themselves to it.” But Stevens “created public opinion and moulded public sentiment.” Although he did, in fact, on occasion hesitate in the face of public disapproval, he far more often defied such opposition in order to champion causes close to his heart, especially the destruction of slavery and the fight against racial discrimination in general.

He fought eloquently and doggedly in Congress for the strong antislavery and antiracist war policies to which other Republicans would come around only later.

Over the course of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln grew impressively into the role of leader of the Second American Revolution, moving to confiscate and then emancipate Confederate slaves and to bring black men into Union armies. But at each stage of Lincoln’s evolution, he found Thaddeus Stevens marching ahead of him, pushing for further advances. Stevens also demanded a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery throughout the United States a year before Lincoln endorsed the idea. In arguing for these and other measures, Stevens helped to educate and reshape public opinion in the North, thereby permitting or inducing other political figures to move eventually in the same direction.

Stevens’s pioneering role did not end with the Confederacy’s defeat and Lincoln’s death. In the first years of postwar Reconstruction, he demanded equal civil rights for African Americans. Before long he was fighting as well to grant them political rights, the rights to vote and hold office, doing that before most of his Republican colleagues endorsed the constitutional amendments that enshrined those advances, amendments that paved the legal way for the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. Reflecting on this record of determined and militant struggle for black equality, Republican congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly observed that Stevens “brought the spirit of John Brown into the work of the statesman.”

[Thaddeus Stevens was number 6 on our list of Dartmouth's 25 Most Influential Alumni. Read more here.]

Stevens’s opposition to slavery began early. The same was true of Abraham Lincoln. But Stevens’s hostility was more passionate and deeply rooted. Although opposing bondage since boyhood, Lincoln said and did relatively little about it until the middle of the 1850s. Stevens became a full-bore abolitionist decades earlier, at a time when white people calling for slavery’s destruction constituted only a widely despised handful. And he stood even then not only for the prompt abolition of slavery but for equal rights for African Americans, north and south. At a convention revising Pennsylvania’s state constitution in 1837, thus, Stevens rejected the finished document because it denied black men the right to vote. In the 1840s, Abraham Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico and the seizure of Mexican land. When the United States nonetheless absorbed half of that country, a political crisis blew up over slavery’s status in the newly acquired region. Lincoln embraced the famous Compromise of 1850 that ended the crisis, while Stevens repudiated it for allowing slavery to spread and for including a law that facilitated the enslavement of people accused of fleeing bondage.

Thaddeus Stevens joined the newborn Republican Party in 1855, the party that put Lincoln in the White House six years later. When slaveholders rose in armed revolt against Lincoln’s election, an associate recalled, “Stevens was the one man who never faltered, who never hesitated, who never temporized, but who was ready to meet aggressive treason with the most aggressive assaults.” And while “he and Lincoln worked substantially on the same lines, earnestly striving to attain the same ends,” it was Stevens who pointed the way forward. “While Lincoln ever halted until assured that the considerate judgment of the nation would sustain him,” Stevens “was the pioneer who was ever in advance of the government.” A northern newspaper that often opposed Stevens’s initiatives had to agree in retrospect. “He comprehended the magnitude of the crisis,” it acknowledged, “while the majority about him saw but dimly its proportions.” Stevens, it conceded, “realized the necessity of bold, strong measures, while others clung to hopes of pacification and compromise. He was one of the few who are not afraid to grasp first principles and lay hold of great truths, or to push them to their remotest logical result.”

As Thaddeus Stevens understood, uprooting slavery meant overthrowing the economic system in half the United States, a labor system that underpinned the wealth and political power of the South’s elite and that nourished much of the South’s social and cultural life. Emancipation would therefore constitute a social and political revolution of tremendous dimensions and consequences. Surveying the postwar landscape, a Tennessee editor observed that “the events of the last five years have produced an entire revolution in the entire Southern country. The old arrangement of things is broken up.” “Society has been completely changed by the war,” agreed ex-Confederate general Richard Taylor. Even the stormy French Revolution of the previous century, he thought, “did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Regime’ than has this in our social life.” Georges Clemenceau, then a Parisian journalist based in the United States, marveled at “one of the most radical revolutions known in history.” Watching the Civil War from afar, Karl Marx observed approvingly at the end of 1864 that “never has such a gigantic revolution occurred with such rapidity.”

“He considered himself as a sort of legal Robin Hood.” 

Thaddeus Stevens was among the first to recognize and embrace the Civil War’s profound significance and to demand that the Union act accordingly. “We must treat this as a radical revolution,” he urged his party. And to complete and secure the gains of that revolution, Stevens called for confiscating the large slaveholders’ estates and dividing them among the former slaves. “He considered himself as a sort of legal Robin Hood,” a friend would recall, “authorized to take from the rich and give to the poor.” Many likened him to leaders of the French Revolution. The hostile New York Herald sourly observed in 1868 that “we are passing through a similar revolution to that of the French,” one in which Stevens displayed “the boldness of Danton, the bitterness and hatred of Marat, and the unscrupulousness of Robespierre.”

These politics naturally made Thaddeus Stevens one of the earliest and most implacable foes of Abraham Lincoln’s successor in the White House, Andrew Johnson. A former slaveholder from Tennessee, Johnson had nonetheless opposed secession in 1861, remaining in the Union as a “War Democrat” and becoming Lincoln’s running mate in 1864. But when Lincoln’s murder catapulted him into the presidency, Johnson began helping the southern elite to regain political power and to force the freedpeople down into a new form of racial subordination. Stevens fought the accidental president from start to finish, pressed the House to impeach him, and came close to ejecting Johnson from office.

Thaddeus Stevens owed his high visibility and effectiveness not only to the substance of his views but also to a number of personal qualities and skills. He displayed an iron will and great courage, moral as well as physical, repeatedly refusing to bend before opposition, cower before threats, or grovel or pander for voter support. “He did not play the courtier,” as one congressman observed, and “he did not flatter the people; he never was a beggar for their votes.” He also became a shrewd and skillful parliamentarian, using the rules of procedure to outmaneuver congressional opponents.

Those who clashed with Stevens discovered that he had a quick wit and sharp tongue and was happy to give free rein to both. On one occasion, while speaking in the House of Representatives, he agreed to yield the floor so that an adversary could make “a few feeble remarks.” He declared of a pro-slavery Pennsylvania congressman that “there are some reptiles so flat that the common foot of man cannot crush them.” Walking down a narrow lane one day, he found himself confronting a political antagonist. “I never get out of the way for a skunk,” the other man sneered. “I always do,” Stevens replied, and promptly stood aside. Stevens displayed this penchant for colorfully pointed language early in his career. When still a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, he referred to a hostile opponent who had entered the chamber as “the thing which has crawled into this House and adheres to one of the seats by its own slime.” No wonder that a fellow member of the U.S. House of Representatives confessed years later that he would no sooner tangle verbally with Stevens than he would “get into difficulty with a porcupine.”

Thaddeus Stevens’s views, words, and actions provoked both deep admiration and bitter denunciation. Within the Union, opponents of the Republican Party hated Stevens almost as much as did Jubal Early. Republicans who were more conservative than Stevens deplored his influence. “On the subject of Reconstruction,” declared the New York Times, “Mr. Stevens must be considered the Evil Genius of the Republican Party.”

That dark view of Stevens grew more widespread later when politicians and intellectuals turned against the radicalism that had saved the Union and abolished slavery. From the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, professional historians generally looked balefully at Stevens and the policies that he championed. Professor William A. Dunning of Columbia University, who influenced generations of historians, damned Stevens as “truculent, vindictive, and cynical.” To James G. Randall, once considered the dean of Lincoln scholars, Stevens seemed filled with “vindictive ugliness,” “unfairness, intolerance, and hatefulness.”

Historical literature directed at a wider public likewise scorned Stevens. A popular 1929 biography of Andrew Johnson denounced Stevens as a “horrible old man...craftily preparing to strangle the bleeding, broken body of the South,” a man who thought it would be “a beautiful thing” to see “the white men, especially the white women of the South, writhing under negro domination.” Two years later, James Truslow Adams’s bestselling The Epic of America called Stevens “the most despicable, malevolent and morally deformed character who has ever risen to power in America.” John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage (1955) sang the praises of Andrew Johnson while breathing hostility to Thaddeus Stevens, “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement.” Hollywood began early to foster public hostility to Stevens’s memory. D. W. Griffith’s widely seen film The Birth of a Nation (1915) celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and featured a villainous congressman named Stoneman who was obviously modeled on Stevens. Almost thirty years later, an MGM movie about Andrew Johnson repeated that message, with Lionel Barrymore portraying Stevens as the vindictive persecutor of a helpless defeated South.

It took the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to make many writers and filmmakers reconsider both Reconstruction and Thaddeus Stevens. Fawn M. Brodie’s 1959 psycho-biography of Stevens expressed appreciation for his efforts on behalf of African Americans. But even she attributed to the man “an arbitrary righteousness mingled with cynicism” and a neurotic perfectionism. “For it is in the nature of the crusader,” Brodie wrote, “—the radical, the Jacobin, the revolutionary, the true believer: call him what you will—that he is never sated. This is because his crusade is likely to be a substitute for deeper needs, and there is no success but finds him empty and lonely still.” In Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012), which celebrates the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens brought the latter unprecedented modern notice. But it presented its audience with an obstinate, doctrinaire Stevens, too radical for his time and therefore as much of an obstacle to emancipation as a force behind its achievement.

Two twentieth-century scholars portrayed Stevens in sharply conflicting but nonetheless instructive ways. Hans Trefousse dubbed him a “nineteenth-century egalitarian.” But that label is not very precise. In Stevens’s era, self-styled egalitarians came in many shapes and sizes—including laissez-faire libertarians, women’s suffragists, land reformers, trade unionists, utopian community builders, socialists, and anarchists—depending upon how they defined equality. Richard N. Current objected to calling Stevens any kind of egalitarian, arguing that what motivated Stevens was not the achievement of human equality but merely his own “frustrated personal ambitions” and a “desire to keep his party in power and make it a vehicle for industrialists like himself,” adding that in pursuit of those aims Stevens “did his part in bringing about the Age of Big Business.”

These two historians seized upon aspects of Stevens’s outlook without grasping its essence. The egalitarianism that Stevens espoused drew inspiration from and sought to promote the system of “free labor” capitalism then developing in the United States’s northern states. But the attempt to counterpose Stevens’s devotion to that economic system to his fervent hostility to human slavery was misguided. With Stevens, they were only different facets of a single outlook.

Human lives contain many dimensions. That was as true of Thaddeus Stevens as of anyone else. Before throwing himself into politics, he became an able and prominent attorney. As his law practice prospered, he invested in real estate and iron production. Family was important to him. He attributed much of his success in life to his mother, who doted on him as a child, and he visited and remained devoted to her throughout her life. In 1848, a widow of mixed-race ancestry, Lydia Hamilton Smith, came to work for Stevens as a housekeeper, and the two developed a close friendship and working relationship. Hoping to tarnish Stevens’s image, enemies accused him of taking Mrs. Smith as a lover, and Spielberg’s Lincoln treats that claim as true, although no firm evidence substantiates it.

Thaddeus Stevens: The Making of a Revolutionary focuses on his role as a public figure, on his fight against chattel slavery and racial discrimination, on the key part he played in the Union war effort and in the postwar struggle to bring racial democracy to the South and the nation at large. It will also ask how such a key figure came into being. One of Stevens’s longtime associates, Alexander Hood, later mused that “when a man of peculiar qualifications is required to push the world onward..., Providence always furnishes an instrument adapted to the work.” “Sometimes,” Hood continued, “the chosen one seems to come forth like Minerva from the hand of Jove, fully developed and equipped at all points for the work.” Sometimes, but by no means always. “At other times, it would appear that a long course of vigorous training is required to fit the destined leader for his work.” The latter, Hood suggested, was the case with Thaddeus Stevens. The man known to the Civil War era took shape over the course of prior decades that exposed him to a multitude of influences and confronted him with a host of challenges. Those influences and challenges and what he made of them shaped the person that Stevens would eventually become. Only understanding that process makes his evolution comprehensible.

As Alexander Hood understood, Stevens’s evolution was not a simple, straightforward one. It passed through a series of stages that a number of his previous biographers have left barely examined. He began life in a poor farm family in Vermont in the aftermath of major social and political struggles that shook that place and left its mark on its values and politics. His family immersed him in the Baptist faith, and schooling exposed him to the Greek and Roman classics. In college he discovered teachers and books steeped in the Enlightenment. Some of the ideas he encountered in those years complemented one another; others did not. In adulthood, Stevens would have to sort through and test them in practice and grapple with their inconsistencies. In doing so, he trod a path that contained zigs and zags. The chapters that follow seek to explain how that path led Stevens to his crucial place in the Second American Revolution.

From Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice by Bruce Levine. Copyright 2021 by Bruce Levine. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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