There is no better time to revisit the legacy of Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868), one of the foremost opponents of slavery in the United States during the mid-19th century. As chair of the Ways and Means committee in the House of Representatives, he ensured the U.S. military had the funds it needed to fight and win the Civil War. He marched well ahead of public opinion, and of President Lincoln, in advocating for voting rights for Black men, and later for women, too. He saw the Civil War as a second American Revolution that would overturn slavery, disrupt and dispossess wealthy slaveholders of their property and replace a racist elite with social and economic equality. His razor-sharp wit was cherished by his friends and feared by his foes. After the war, he supported Reconstruction and was a leader in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
He died as the nation tried to heal or at least ignore the wounds of the war. After his death, he was scorned and dismissed as too radical, too obdurate and too doctrinaire—an unpleasant man.
Bruce Levine, a distinguished historian from the University of Illinois, restores Stevens’ reputation and contextualizes his political views in Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice. Levine’s book is not a full biography. We learn very little of Stevens’ personal life; he was born in Vermont, became a successful lawyer and businessman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was rumored to be involved with his longtime housekeeper, a biracial woman. Rather, Levine’s purpose is to focus on Stevens’ “role as a public figure,” his fight against slavery and “the postwar struggle to bring racial democracy to the South and the nation at large.”
Levine writes in lucid prose with a great depth of understanding so that we see the evolution and occasional backsliding in Stevens’ thinking about race, slavery and economic and social justice. It’s impossible to read this book without seeing a reflection of our own combustible times. In the 1850s, for example, immigration was a hot-button national issue, though the targeted minorities at that time were German and Irish. Levine quotes liberally from Stevens and his contemporaries, allowing the essence of the man to shine through.