Remarkable Radical: Thaddeus Stevens

December 10th, 2012

Writing in Humanities Magazine, Steve Moyer takes a look at the life and legacy of Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania. Played by Tommy Lee Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Stevens was a leader of the Radical Republicans and an ardent abolitionist who spent much of his life defending the rights of blacks—both in Congress and in his home town, where his home became a station on the Underground Railroad. 

As Jones’s portrayal of the Congressman in Spielberg’s movie shows, Stevens “was better known for his rapier wit than for his abilities as a kingmaker,” as Moyer puts it. “One day, as he was following a narrow path in Lancaster, he encountered one of his enemies, who was coming from the other  direction and refused to give way. The man shouted, ‘I never  get out of the way for a skunk.’ Stevens stood aside and replied, ‘I always do.’”

Moyer continues:

In Congress in 1859, Stevens was, in spite of the Intelligencer’s misgivings, permitted to take the lead, and at a most propitious moment. John Brown had been hanged on the Friday before for his unsuccessful raid on the munitions depot in Harpers Ferry. On Monday, Stevens was engaged in the rapid-fire exchange of insults and general acrimony between Southern representatives and House Republicans, the Southerners blaming the Radical Republicans for Harpers Ferry. Stevens so infuriated William Barksdale of Mississippi that Barksdale threatened Stevens with a bowie knife. Shaken by the suggestion of violence, Stevens, nevertheless, shrugged it off as “a mere momentary breeze.”


In the special thirty-seventh session of Congress, though, Stevens, now a Radical Republican both in name and in deed, did much more than display his wit; he became a war leader. He whisked many bills through the chamber to finance the war, including one revising the tariff in order to increase revenue. “He knew  how to make deals,” [Beverly Wilson] Palmer[, editor of The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens,] said in a telephone interview for this article, “and he was crafty.” Stevens often disagreed sharply with Lincoln on conduct of the war itself, especially with regards to blockading Southern ports.

The government, Stevens reasoned, had put itself in a “false position by attempting to close the ports, and calling it a blockade. Nations do not, correctly speaking, blockade their own ports. That term applied only to operations against foreign nations. When a blockade is declared, it is a quasi admission of the independent existence of the people blockaded.” Stevens  went to the White House to tell Lincoln he should have closed the ports instead. Lincoln acknowledged the error, allowing he knew little about international law.

In Stevens’s last eight years, starting in 1859, his victories in Congress were roughly equal in number to his losses, but the quality of his victories could be considered great. He passed a bill to authorize black soldiers and a bill for the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery, which represented the culmination of much of his life’s work. Passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, establishing equal protection before the law and the right of all males to vote, were major victories for Stevens and the Republicans, but during this same period Stevens saw a large number of defeats, such as the failed attempt to impeach Andrew Johnson.

On the House floor on February 2, 1863, the Commoner [Stevens’s nickname] offered a near perfect summation of his own principles as he answered a critic of authorizing black soldiers. “The gentleman from Kentucky,” began Stevens, “objects to their employment lest it should lead to the freedom of the blacks. . . . That patriotism that is wholly absorbed by one’s own country is narrow and selfish. That philanthropy which embraces only one’s own race, and leaves the other numerous races of mankind to bondage and to misery, is cruel and detestable.” But it was upon passage in the House of the bill authorizing the Thirteenth Amendment that Stevens uttered the words he’s best remembered for: “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus, ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’”

In his final years, he remained as bellicose as ever, even as his health declined and he grew so weak that he had to be carried into the House chamber in a chair. His speeches in those days often started in a whisper as members formed a tight circle around him to hear, but then grew louder, as he gathered strength, until everyone could finally hear him. When he passed away in his home on South B Street, near the Capitol, in August 1868, there were many words of admiration. Even the Intelligencer found something nice to say, and Simon Cameron remarked that “from the time of his entry into public life no man assailed him without danger or conquered him without scars.” It can be the stuff of tragedy when statesmen’s words and deeds are no kin together, but the fighting words of Stevens were more often than not close cousins of his radical deeds, especially on issues of equality. If silence reigned for a few moments in Washington the day his body, guarded by black Zouaves, lay in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, it was because the pugilist was finally at rest.

Read Moyer’s entire account over at Humanities

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