Book Review: Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice

Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice
By Bruce Levine
Simon & Schuster, 2021
$28.00 hardcover
Reviewed by David T. Dixon

Bundled in blankets and borne aloft in a chair by two young men, Thaddeus Stevens entered the Senate Chamber in May 1868 as one of seven House impeachment managers in the trial of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote. It was a bitter result for the seventy-six-year-old acknowledged leader of the Radical Republicans in his final appearance on the public stage. Stevens died three months later, leaving a distinguished legacy as one of the principle political architects of the Second American Revolution.

Perhaps no Civil War era politician was as provocative or more hated in slave states than Stevens. Dismissed by influential early twentieth century historian William A. Dunning as “truculent, vindictive, and cynical” and painted by Lost Cause apologists as a “despicable, malevolent character” bent on subjecting the postwar South to “negro domination,” Stevens’s reputation underwent scholarly reassessment in mid-century thanks to seven critical biographies penned between 1939 and 1969. Fifty-two years is a long time to wait for an updated interpretation of Stevens’s eventful career and Bruce Levine’s new biography, Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice does not disappoint.

Levine, emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois, has published five books focused on mid-nineteenth century America. A consistent theme running through Levine’s scholarship is his emphasis on the American Civil War as a radical political and social revolution. This thesis, advanced by Eric Foner, James McPherson, and Andre Fleche among others, has achieved wide consensus among leading historians. Stevens’s political career is a useful road map to use in examining the many twists, turns, detours, and retreats on the road to perfecting the American republic’s founding promises of liberty, equality, and justice for all. With these issues at the forefront of current public debate, Levine’s look back at one of the leaders of the revolution of 1861 is instructive and timely.

Levine chronicles Stevens’s intellectual evolution from his humble Vermont Baptist upbringing through his years as an abolitionist Whig politician in Pennsylvania and on to his eventual place as America’s most radical Republican politician. Stevens’s radicalization was hardly a straight path. Dalliances with nativism and conservative positions on suffrage belied his progressive politics at times. Levine treats his subject’s ideological inconsistencies gingerly, stating that he “had never become a particular champion of immigrant rights” and that “a purely partisan motive” lay behind Stevens’s alliances with Know Nothings. But note 22, on page 265 reveals a bigoted Stevens, who claimed that the independent small farmers, the backbone of republican citizenry, might be “overwhelmed and demoralized by the Jews, Milesians [Irish] and vagabonds of licentious cities.” As Levine admits in his conclusion, Stevens “was no plaster saint” and the author is candid about his subject’s shortcomings.

From the outset of the sectional crisis and throughout the subsequent Civil War, Stevens railed against efforts to compromise or appease those states that leaned toward secession. For Stevens, the war became a moral crusade to abolish slavery demanded by God Himself. Levine claims that “as revolutions deepen, they become more radical in their goals.” Rather than casting Stevens as the revolution’s leading protagonist, Levine paints him as an agile and flexible politician, pushing Lincoln and mainstream Republicans further left as the fortunes and exigencies of war allow. “The logic of events,” in Levine’s words, became an irresistible revolutionary force and “imposed itself on Republicans’ thinking,” pulling leaders toward increasingly radical means. Stevens rejected what he saw as the ridiculous notion that the Union had remained intact in principle; rather, Confederate states broke their compact with the US government and should be treated as alien enemies. He urged Lincoln to employ whatever means necessary to not only emancipate slaves in rebelling states and arm them for combat in the US Army, but also to safeguard the social and political revolution that wartime victory would win.

The chapters on Reconstruction show both Stevens and Levine at their best. Stevens leverages Republican Party hegemony in Congress from 1865 to 1867 to help pass the 13th and 14th Amendments, abolishing slavery and guaranteeing all US citizens, including formerly enslaved people, equal protection under the law. But Stevens vacillated on giving the franchise to freedmen, not fully committing himself to that policy until January, 1867. Levine wrestles for an explanation for yet another of Stevens’s enigmatic episodes, finally concluding that he “had little choice but to depend upon a black electorate to prevent those [former Confederate] states from falling back into Democratic (that is, ex-secessionist) hands.” Stevens’s successful stewardship of Radical Reconstruction ended abruptly following the midterm elections of 1867, when Republican setbacks in northern states caused party conservatives to advocate caution just as Stevens was fighting for his most ambitious proposal.

The aftermath of war offered Stevens and other radicals an unprecedented opportunity to transform legal and political upheaval in the former Confederate states into sweeping social and economic revolution. Their most ambitious proposal was a redistribution of disloyal planters’ lands to formerly enslaved families. Levine adeptly chronicles wartime efforts in this direction, including Lincoln’s Second Confiscation Act of 1862, William T. Sherman’s grant of temporary land titles to liberated slaves, and seized farmland administered by the Freedman’s Bureau. For Stevens, plantation redistribution would not only create a more egalitarian society, but would also give freedmen an economic stake in society, thus producing better citizens. Meanwhile President Johnson was pardoning hundreds of wealthy ex-rebels and returning their lands in an effort to promote reunion and reconciliation. Concerns that widespread land redistribution would challenge the principle of private property rights during peacetime and possibly even encourage emerging labor union and socialist movements to use such policies to argue for a revision in the relationship between capital and labor in northern factories finally nixed the idea. Most southern blacks were penniless and could not move west to take advantage of the Homestead Act.

Some readers might wish that Levine had taken the opportunity to compare Stevens’s legislative battles during Reconstruction to today’s hot button issues of racial justice and economic inequality. Imagine if Stevens had been successful in the planter land redistribution scheme. What impact might that policy have had on race relations and economic equity in a recovering South? How about improving the condition of poor white southern farmers, whose tenuous existence was exacerbated by the devastation of war? Why was the fate of poor whites not considered in Stevens’s imagined breakup of landed aristocracy in the former Confederacy?

Levine’s finely-crafted biography does more than provide a balanced, insightful, and provocative analysis of one of the most important legislators on the Civil War era. It helps us understand the important role of radicals in history. Radicals actors like John Brown often provide an emotional spark that, given favorable conditions, can create what Malcolm Gladwell called a “tipping point” event, like the raid at Harpers Ferry. Radical politicians like Stevens can leverage the course of events, particularly in wartime, to secure reforms like abolition that would have been barely conceivable to most mid-nineteenth century Americans in the midst of a booming slavery-based economy.

The book cover and interior are beautifully designed but other production elements are disappointing. Multiple instances of awkward phrasing and inconsistent capitalization suggest deficiencies in copyediting. My copy was marred by large ink stains on more than a dozen pages. Cost pressures have forced many trade presses to eliminate bibliographies, much to the serious student’s chagrin. But books are principally about ideas and Levine’s solid work should be essential reading for anyone interested in Civil War and Reconstruction politics.

David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).

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13 Responses to Book Review: Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice

  1. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks David, great review about a great American … i just finished David Blight’s bio on Frederick Douglass … among the many things i enjoyed about Blight’s work was his extensive treatment of Douglass’ private life … does Levine do something similar with Stephens?

    • David Dixon says:

      Thanks for your comments, Mark. Levine does not address Stevens’s private life in any meaningful way, dismissing his twenty-year relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith as merely dramatic license represented as fact by Spielberg in the film Lincoln. As a biographer myself, I understand the potential hazards of trying to speculate on a historical figure’s personal life in the absence of primary source evidence. Levine was also limited by the fact that his biography of a second tier figure (in public memory) is only 307 pages, while Blight’s magisterial tome clocks in at 808 pages. That said, we do yearn to know why Stevens never married, especially in light of his debts in early adulthood and wish perhaps that Levine had treated his subject as more than simply a politician.

  2. Ed Cunningham says:

    Why do I keep thinking of Tommy Lee Jones…?

    • David Dixon says:

      Thanks Ed. Great casting by Spielberg. Levine seems to think that the film takes liberties with the housekeeper story line, but Levine certainly benefits from the much broader awareness of Stevens as a result of the movie and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Stevens’s importance as an early and important advocate of civil rights makes him worthy of the attention.

  3. Good review David. I read Levine’s book when it came out and I also read Hans L. Trefousse’s book on Stevens years ago. Do you think Levine adds to what Trefousse wrote?

    I liked the new bio, but I was a bit disappointed that Levine only touched on some of the issues collateral to the central themes of his book. I would have liked a more in depth exploration of Stevens’s involvement with the Know Nothings, for example. Given Stevens long relationship (whatever form it took) with Lydia Hamilton Smith who was not only Black but also a Catholic, as well as the widespread reports of Stevens being ministered to in his last moments by Catholic sisters, I was surprised that this was not at least discussed in the book. I think this goes beyond questions about Stevens’s “personal life.”

    • David Dixon says:

      Thanks Pat. I have not read Trefousse’s biography of Stevens. Levine did give a light touch to Stevens’s dances with the Know Nothings, coming to the conclusion that these were alliances of political convenience rather than core convictions. That seemed to be a reasonable analysis given the vacuum created by the dying Whig Party. Not sure whether editorial constraints limited Levine or not, but readers would certainly benefit from a more in-depth analysis of Stevens the man versus Stevens the politician.

  4. Katy Berman says:

    More anti-Semitism among political radicals. Contemporary comparisons could be be made here as well.

    • David Dixon says:

      Thank you for your comment, Katy. I do not think it is fair to lay blame for Antisemitism solely on political radicals. Unfortunately, these prejudices were widely held among all classes and political orientations in the mid-nineteenth century America. .

  5. rcocean says:

    Just the kind of man who brought the USA together afer the war. For instance, here’s what he said in 1863:

    “the adoption of the measures I advocated at the outset of the war, the arming of the negroes, the slaves of the rebels, is the only way left on earth in which these rebels can be exterminated. They will find that they must treat those States now outside of the Union as conquered provinces and settle them with new men, and drive the present rebels as exiles from this country. … They have such determination, energy, and endurance, that nothing but actual extermination or exile or starvation will ever induce them to surrender to this Government.”

    The man was an apostle of Hate.

  6. rcocean says:

    I think we can all agree that the only reason to dislike a book by a Jewish author is antisemitism.

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