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).