Posted on October 22, 2021

Adored Now for What He Was Once Hated

Jared Taylor, American Renaissance, October 22, 2021

Bruce Levine, Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice, Simon and Schuster, 2021, 309 pp., $28.00.

Countless men who were American heroes are now villains because of their racial views: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Taney, Wilson, Roosevelt, even Lincoln. I can think of no white man who was once reviled for racial views but is now honored for them, but a prime candidate would be Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. When he died in 1868, the New York Times wrote that he “had so fostered hatred of the nation’s [Confederate] enemies, that he refused, even in their helplessness, to extend the fraternal hand,” adding that his “measures were unjust.”

Historian Lloyd Paul Stryker wrote in a 1929 book that Stevens was a “horrible old man . . . craftily preparing to strangle the bleeding, broken body of the South,” and that Stevens thought it would be “a beautiful thing” to see “the white men, especially the white women of the South, writhing under negro domination.” In his bestselling The Epic of America, published in 1931, historian James Adams called him “the most despicable, malevolent and morally deformed character who has ever risen to power in America.” In his 1955 Profiles in Courage, even John F. Kennedy called him “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement.”

A new biography of Stevens stands all that on its head and calls the Pennsylvania congressman a “civil war revolutionary and fighter for racial justice.” Author Bruce Levine, who is professor emeritus of American History at University Illinois, praises Stevens because he:

became a full-bore abolitionist decades earlier [than other prominent abolitionists], 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.

Add to this his hatred for Southern whites and he becomes the perfect hero for our times. Here is Professor Levin’s story.

Early days

Stevens was born in 1792 and reared in Vermont. He appears always to have been a racial egalitarian, no doubt influenced by childhood in the state that, in 1777, adopted the first constitution that condemned slavery. Stevens had a club foot and was teased for it as a child; some historians think this contributed to his bitter personality.

At age 24, he passed the bar and in 1816 started a law practice in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. At first, he was willing to represent both slave owners and freed slaves, and quickly got a reputation for a sharp tongue. When a judge accused him of showing contempt of court, he replied, “Sir, I am doing my best to conceal it.” In his mid-30s, Stevens lost all his hair to alopecia, and thereafter always wore a wig. Publicly, he was a Christian, once saying that only “a fool . . . disbelieves in the existence of a God.” However, a long-time friend and ally wrote that in private, Stevens comments on religion “were exceedingly coarse and exceedingly contemptuous.”

Stevens thought that industry was the key to national prosperity and this seems to have nourished his dislike for the more agricultural South. He supported tariffs to protect Northern factories, even though this made industrial goods more expensive for Southerners. During the 1832 Nullification Crisis, South Carolina threatened to refuse to collect tariffs on manufactured goods, forcing Congress to repeal some of the tariff’s harsher provisions. Stevens was furious. He thought President Andrew Jackson should have forced the law on SC and even “execute the traitors, if need be.”

Stevens’s egalitarianism did not run to socialism. He thought “unequal distribution of wealth” was inevitable: “As men advance in refinement, distinction of ranks and orders multiply.” In 1837, as a delegate to a convention to write a new constitution for Pennsylvania, he opposed abolishing the requirement that only people who paid taxes could vote. He was firm that the vote be denied “the vile, the vagabond, the idle and dissipated,” and to any man who “lodged in a barn.”

The old state constitution was vague on whether blacks could vote, and Stevens insisted that propertied blacks be given the franchise, just like whites. This was voted down and a new constitution denying blacks the vote was approved by referendum.

By 1836, Stevens had become a fervent and open abolitionist, saying that “the domestic slavery of this country is the most disgraceful institution that the world had ever witnessed.” He believed that the Constitution barred Congress from interfering with slavery in the states, but was one of very few to claim that it had the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, even against the wishes of white citizens residents.

Stevens was first sent to the Pennsylvania state house as a member of the Anti-Masonic party, which thought Masons were dangerously elitist and anti-democratic. Part of his hatred of the Masons may have been because they did not admit “cripples” and other disfigured people; Stevens had a club foot and no hair.

As the Masons went into decline, so did the party. Stevens jumped ship and joined the Whigs, who sent him to Congress in 1848 as an abolitionist. He opposed slavery on moral grounds but also thought it hurt the economy. He argued that slaves have no incentive to work and “are idle and wasteful.” “Sloth, negligence, improvidence, are the consequence,” and “the land being neglected becomes poor and barren.”

The Compromise of 1850 included fugitive slave laws that required free states to help catch runaway property. Stevens urged defiance of the laws, and in 1851 acted as defense counsel for a group of blacks and whites who had killed a slaveowner who had come for his property. This outraged many in both South and North. Whigs drove him out of the party, and he failed to win reelection in 1852.

He switched parties again, and joined the American Party, better known as the Know Nothings, because he appears to have doubted whether Catholics could be good citizens. However, after he learned that most ethnic immigrants opposed slavery, he dropped nativist views. In 1858, Stevens returned to Washington as a Pennsylvania congressman, this time as a member of the short-lived Union Party, a mix of Republicans and Know Nothings. He campaigned not only on abolition but on giving the vote to women.

Stevens was thrilled by John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. He said that Brown “deserved to be hung for being a hopeless fool” for his “attempt to capture Virginia with seventeen men,” adding that Brown should have known “that it would require at least twenty-five.” Within a week of Brown’s execution, he was calling for publication of Brown’s last statements, letters, interviews: “I know nothing that would be more read or do more good.” In a speech on the floor of Congress about Brown, he insulted the South in such vile language that it had to be sanitized in the Congressional Record.

Stevens was probably the most anti-Southern zealot in Congress. After the South seceded, President Buchanan tried to resupply Fort Sumter by sea, but Confederates fired across the ship’s bow and turned it back. Stevens was furious that Buchanan had not attacked the South immediately, calling him “a very traitor.” He reportedly looked into impeaching Buchanan, even though there were only two months left in his term. When some northerners said that the South should be allowed to depart in peace, Stevens accused them of “preaching moral treason.”

When the war broke out, Stevens was 69, but the fight seemed to rejuvenate him. In July 1861, he became head of the Ways and Means Committee, and never failed to vote money to support a war that he saw as a way to make blacks equal to whites and punish the South.

President Lincoln’s main goal was to preserve the Union. There were four slave-holding states that had not joined the Confederacy — Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware — and many Unionists understood the danger of making the war look like an abolitionist crusade. Not so, Stevens. In July 1861, Kentucky Congressman John Crittenden and Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson introduced legislation stating that the Union was fighting solely “to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union” and not for the purpose “of overthrowing or interfering with the rights of established institutions of those States.” Stevens was furious when the bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses.

This biography describes the confusion within Congress over what to do with slaves who crossed into Union lines. Many Northerners thought the Constitution did not permit taking the property — human or otherwise — of secessionists, but Stevens had no time for legal niceties. He scoffed at the “puerile inconsistency” of people who would “send forth your sons and brothers to shoot and saber and bayonet the insurgents,” but who “hesitate to break the bonds of their slaves.” In a fight to preserve the Union, if the North had the right to kill Confederates, it certainly had the right to take property.

But abolition came first. Stevens mistakenly thought that white men would fight harder for to free blacks than to save the Union and that “the blood of every [white] freeman would boil with enthusiasm, and his nerves be strengthened in this holy warfare.” Stevens even claimed God would punish the Union and delay victory if it did not free the slaves, and that anyone who opposed abolition was responsible for “the continued misery and bloodshed.”

From the beginning, Stevens wanted all slaves freed, armed, and turned against their masters: “The slaves ought to be incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.” This shocked many whites. Delaware Democrat Willard Saulsbury denounced any attempt “to elevate the miserable nigger” and make a soldier of him. The New York Times wrote: “the enrollment of negroes in the military service in such states as South Carolina and Georgia would, of course, mean nothing else than a determination to exterminate the white population in those states.” The article added that Southerners might accept defeat at the hands of white union soldiers, “but to expect them to submit quietly to the rule of their own slaves, armed by our own Government and quartered in their midst, is an error, the folly of which is only exceeded by the devilish malignity that suggests it.”

Lincoln initially did not want blacks to fight, but changed his mind as the war dragged on. By war’s end, 200,000 had served in the army and navy.

In the West, as the Army marched East to fight the Confederacy, Indians moved into the vacuum and, in some cases, pushed settlers back hundreds of miles. Stevens said that any resulting bloodshed was the fault of “bad white men.” He also opposed legislation that would have limited Chinese immigration.

After Appomattox, Stevens wanted “to inflict condign punishment on the rebel belligerents” and to treat the Confederate states as conquered territory, unprotected by the Constitution, subjected only to the laws of war.

Stevens was determined to remake Southern society from top to bottom. “The foundation of their institutions, both political, municipal, and social, must be broken up and relaid.” This could “only be done by treating and holding them as a conquered people.” Republicans would “work a radical reorganization in southern institutions habits and manners” and “revolutionize their principles and feelings.” He wanted the South under martial law until “the purifying fires of this revolution” had been burned out and Republicans were permanently in power.

Georges Clemenceau, then a journalist based in the United States, marveled at “one of the most radical revolutions known in history.” Karl Marx said “never has such a gigantic revolution occurred with such rapidity.”

Stevens repeatedly introduced bills to seize the property of ex-Confederates and give it to blacks. Anything left over would be sold to the highest bidder to pay pensions to Union soldiers. There were other radical Republicans, but even without Southern representation in Congress, no majority supported such harsh vengeance. The New York Herald wrote in 1868 that “we are passing through a similar revolution to that of the French” and that Stevens had “the boldness of Danton, the bitterness and hatred of Marat, and the unscrupulousness of Robespierre.”

Military occupation and Reconstruction stripped ex-Confederates of the franchise and ensured black control of many statehouses. Therefore, in the congressional elections of 1867, Republicans took power in the South, but the Republican majority shrank drastically in Congress. This was mainly because of Northern revulsion at the harsh treatment of the conquered South. Republican moderates were much more interested in reconciling with Southern whites with whom they wanted peace and harmony rather than in punishment and revolution. Even abolitionists were disturbed by black rule in the South.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 put the US Army in control of 10 Southern states, but then-President Andrew Johnson refused to order the depredations the radicals wanted. Already, in the previous year, angry at Johnson’s lenient treatment of the South, Stevens had been preparing for impeachment. He admitted that his motives were “wholly political,” and that Johnson need not have committed any crime, much less the “high crimes and misdemeanors” called for in the Constitution.

After several failed attempts, on February 24, 1868 Stevens persuaded Congress to vote articles of impeachment on the theory that the president had violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. By then, Stevens’s health was failing, and he had to be carried around Congress in a chair. He was one of the managers of the impeachment trial, but was so weak he spoke only three times. The New York Herald described him:

face of corpselike color, and rigidly twitching lips … a strange and unearthly apparition — a reclused remonstrance from the tomb … the very embodiment of fanaticism, without a solitary leaven of justice or mercy … the avenging Nemesis of his party — the sworn and implacable foe of the Executive of the nation.

The Last Speech on Impeachment, Thaddeus Stevens Closing the Debate in the House, March 2, Sketched by T.R. Davis, Harper’s Weekly, March 21, 1868 (Credit Image: © Circa Images/Glasshouse via ZUMA Wire)

On May 21, conviction in the Senate failed by a just one vote. However, it is important to remember that most Southern states had not yet been readmitted to Congress, and Republicans had a huge minority. Johnson was saved by Republican defectors who thought Congress was abusing its power. Stevens was carried from the Senate — an observer called him “black with rage and disappointment” – and shouted, “The country is going to the devil.”

A dying but undaunted Stevens drafted new articles of impeachment, but the House refused to adopt them. As Southern states were readmitted, Stevens proposed a bill to break up Texas into several parts so that the additional Republican senators could help vote Johnson out. The New York Herald wrote that “it is lamentable to see this old man, with one foot in the grave, pursuing the President with such vindictiveness.”

Stevens did not live out the year, dying on August 11, 1868. Two black preachers came to pray for him as he lay dying. They assured him that all black people were praying for him. Also at his bedside was Lydia Hamilton Smith, a light-skinned black housekeeper who lived with him for 20 years. Some historians believe they were lovers. Stevens had racially mixed pall bearers, and his body lay for a day in the Capitol Rotunda with an honor guard of black soldiers.

Thaddeus Stevens Lying in State in the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington. (Credit: Album / Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

The New York Times praised his support for emancipation, but added that “on the subject of Reconstruction, then, Mr. Stevens must be deemed the Evil Genius of the Republican Party.” Moderates considered his death “an emancipation for the Republican Party” because it ended his vindictive influence.

Stevens today

The author of this book calls Stevens “one of the central leaders of the Second American Revolution” — meaning the elevation of blacks — but laments that “the Second American Revolution was left unfinished.” No doubt he will continue to think it unfinished until Ibram Kendi has his way, and there is a US Department of Anti-Racism with the power to veto every law or regulation that does not actively promote “equity” for blacks.

This makes Stevens the perfect hero for our time: He would stop at nothing in the name of blacks and wanted to crush whites who stood in his way. It is easy to imagine him teaching critical race theory, bellowing “black lives matter,” and finding “white supremacy” everywhere. He had the perfect personality for it: indignant, uncompromising, nourished by hate. And he was a formidable figure.

Stevens had a strange power to win people over. Frederick Douglass said he was “more potent in Congress and in the country than even the president and cabinet combined.” He also had a sharp tongue with which he flayed opponents. Of one, he said, “There are some reptiles so flat that the common foot of man cannot crush them.” He called another “that thing which has crawled into this House and adheres to one of the seats by its own slime.”

When Lincoln wondered whether a Pennsylvania Republican named Simon Cameron, who was frequently accused of corruption, was a thief, Stevens replied, “I don’t think he would steal a red-hot stove.” Cameron heard about this and complained. Stevens is then supposed to have said to Lincoln “I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back.”

There are three schools named after Stevens, including the first school built for blacks in Washington DC, in 1868. They are not likely to be renamed any time soon. Of all the white men who have devoted their lives to black people, it would be hard to think of one who worked harder or to greater effect — or one who paid a higher price in the disapproval of shocked whites. Unlike the laughable “courage” attributed to today’s racial arsonists, Stevens had to face down powerful enemies.

And yet, when todays radicals rip the names of whites from schools and tear down monuments, does anyone ever propose honoring Thaddeus Stevens instead? No. When a white man comes down, up goes a person of color — preferably a woman — who was a midget compared to Stevens.

I wonder if today’s overexcited whites ever dream of honors and memorials in the multi-culti America they claim to want. If so, they dream in vain. A nation that so despises whites that it cannot even remember Thaddeus Stevens with thanks will have no white heroes, certainly not today’s pathetic trucklers.