Thaddeus Stevens, the unsung hero of racial equality

To look at Thaddeus Stevens’ picture, you don’t see a political hero. You see a rough face perched on an unusually large and protruding lower lip. He appears to have a permanent frown etched on his visage, like he hasn’t enjoyed a joke since he was about six years old.

Stevens was played masterfully by Tommy Lee Jones in the award-winning movie Lincoln several years ago, but that characterization is put in its place by biographer Bruce Levine who

. . .  dismisses the movie’s story of Stevens and his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith as lovers by writing that “no firm evidence substantiates it”. Similarly, Jones’s line “Trust? Gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that our chosen career is politics,” falls into the category of “too good to check”. Source: Thaddeus Stevens review: the Radical Republican America should remember | Books | The Guardian

Like his photograph, history has not been particularly kind to Stevens, who when he is mentioned at all is labeled as the leader in Congress of the “Radical Republicans” who sought a far more difficult Reconstruction to be visited on the rebellious South than the one imposed by President Andrew Johnson. Stevens and his colleagues passed laws that the president refused to enforce.

Johnson was an accidental president, a man who would never have achieved the presidency if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated. Although a Unionist to the core, he was a Tennessean, a resident of a state that had tried to secede. He was a Democrat. He drank too much. And his personal demons drove him to reject compromise and to pick unwinnable and unnecessary fights with those who might have been his allies.

Stevens, who led the impeachment efforts against Johnson, could be just as uncompromising about his own core beliefs: racial justice and equality. He had been a lawyer and small-time industrialist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and an ardent abolitionist before the Civil War. He has also been a participant in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freer lands in the North. Born in 1792, Stevens had seen much of American history play out with his own eyes.

His skill as a lawyer was legendary, and he was known for his wit and sarcasm. A judge once admonished him for showing contempt for the court. “Sir,” he responded, “I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

Stevens was an advocate of universal education and help Pennsylvania establish a system of free public education, the first outside of New England.

During and after the Civil War, he worked hard to enact the 14th amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee citizenship and equal treatment under the law for ex-slaves.

Stevens left many of his colleagues behind in proposing land reform that would grant freedmen property and cash that would enable them to achieve a more equal economic footing with whites. He also championed equal rights for Chinese immigrants who were flooding into California at the time — and being badly mistreated in the process.

When the impeachment of Johnson was presented to the Senate in 1868, Stevens was one of the House managers and fought tirelessly to have the president removed from office. That effort failed by one vote, and Stevens left Capitol Hill ill and embittered. He continued his efforts against Johnson, but his health declined rapidly. He died in August 1868 at the age of 76.

Stevens never married, but he was long rumored to have had a relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper and long-time friend, Lydia Hamilton Smith. Stevens always referred to her as “Mrs. Smith” and insisted that his family do the same. She often accompanied him to Washington and kept house for him there. Stevens never tried to refute the rumors about their relationship.

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The book referred to above is Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice by Bruce Levine and is published by Simon & Schuster

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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