The Radicalism of Thaddeus Stevens

The Civil War and Reconstruction–era Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens understood far better than most of his contemporaries that fully uprooting slavery meant overthrowing the South’s economic system and challenging property rights — first the right of some human beings to own others, but also beyond it.

The reputation of Thaddeus Stevens, the most controversial statesman of his era, has fluctuated widely. (Library of Congress)

If French Jacobinism had a corollary during the Second American Revolution, it was embodied by Thaddeus Stevens. A leading abolitionist in the House of Representatives during the antebellum period, the man who came to be known as the Great Commoner emerged during the Civil War as de facto leader of the Radical Republicans and a standard-bearer for the causes of emancipation, the enlistment of black soldiers, African American suffrage, and land reform. Exploiting wartime conditions to pursue a radical revolution capped by a confiscation policy that would redistribute Confederate land to formerly enslaved people, Stevens understood as few others did that uprooting slavery meant overthrowing the South’s economic system and challenging property rights beyond property in human beings.

But as the most controversial statesmen of his era, Stevens’s popular reputation has fluctuated widely, falling and rising in inverse proportion to Jim Crow and the Lost Cause. He was for a century one of the most reviled figures in American history. Conversely, when civil rights and justice movements have surged, his popular reputation has consistently been rejuvenated.

In that sense, Bruce Levine’s Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice provides an anticipated and most welcome update of this anti-racist champion in the age of Black Lives Matter, falling Confederate monuments, and rising calls for transformational policy.

The Making of a Radical

Stevens’s path to wartime racial and economic justice pioneer was a lifetime in the making, and Levine diligently tracks his subject’s decades-long evolution, exploring key developments that other biographers have neglected. Born in 1792, Stevens acquired his progressive bent from his relatively poor upbringing in the small farm and mutual assistance culture of rural Vermont, where he was influenced by his Baptist faith, as well as early exposure to classics and Enlightenment readings. By the mid-1830s, and now representing his adopted state of Pennsylvania in the US House of Representatives, he had developed into a dyed-in-the-wool abolitionist.

As an activist Whig and gifted parliamentarian, Stevens was a tremendous advocate for universal public education and infrastructural improvements. His political record was not spotless, including support for voluntary colonization as an alternative to emancipation, a sojourn with nativists, and retaining personal doubts about universal suffrage. But Stevens’s early uncompromising approach toward the growing “Slave Power” — being far ahead of public opinion and his own party — established a pattern.

Stevens’s egalitarianism soon became inseparable from his understanding of free labor. Rather than counterposing Stevens’s economic position to his social idealism, as other biographers have, Levine reminds readers that free labor economics and social leveling were facets of a single worldview.

Unaware of the permanent industrial wage labor and corporate consolidation that would soon characterize the Gilded Age, free labor proponents viewed dependent labor as merely a stepping stone to small-scale proprietorship and self-ownership, the very social class that was underrepresented in slave societies. In this idealized form of capitalism — one free of class conflict — they sought to use economic activism, as well as continental imperialism under the guise of “progress” and “expansion,” to ensure that all had the opportunity to partake in a broad social prosperity. Inequality in a free labor system was accepted as the natural consequence of individual (not collective) failings, but not as the result of enforced servitude and an untitled aristocracy of slave owners.

Though free labor ideology understood oppression as primarily political rather than economic, in origin, it also held that political independence and good government — republicanism — were predicated on rough economic equality. This outlook would prove integral to Stevens’s vision of the postwar South.

As conflict over slavery intensified, Stevens doubled down on his radicalism. Despite having joined neither the Liberty nor Free Soil antislavery third-party movements, Stevens supported a strategy of denationalization, which hoped to legally and constitutionally marginalize slavery by blocking its expansion and political representation. By the mid-1850s, that strategy, dubbed by historian James Oakes as a “cordon of freedom,” found a mass political vehicle in the newly formed antislavery Republican Party.

As a member, Stevens continued to frame human bondage as a moral wrong rather than simply an affront to the opportunities of white laborers. He also publicly endorsed the rights of women to vote and hold public office. During the secession crisis, Stevens broke with the mainstream of his party by rejecting Thomas Corwin’s proposed amendment that would have constitutionally protected slavery from abolition or interference by Congress. A longtime opponent of any legislative concession or remodeling the Union to accommodate slaveholders, Stevens predicted correctly that secession would make moderate Northerners more, not less, antagonistic toward slavery. War, he predicted, would be long and costly, but it could also be slavery’s death knell. Whereas most Republicans sensed disunion and national restoration as problems to be solved, Stevens also grasped them as an opportunities to be seized.

And seize he did. Stevens used his power as chairman of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee to launch a frontal attack against slavery through a popular revolution — one most of his Republican colleagues initially sought to avoid.

He was among the first in Congress to promote the confiscation of enslaved people, demand full legal freedom for the newly emancipated, and call for widening the scope of emancipation to include all enslaved persons. To the annoyance of the Lincoln administration, Stevens backed John C. Frémont, David Hunter, and other Union officers who went off script by issuing impromptu emancipation orders.

Unlike Abraham Lincoln and others, Stevens was adamant that the Confederate states had in fact left the Union. That secession was illegal, he maintained, did not mean that it had not occurred. Levine masterfully illustrates how Stevens used that fact to justify more sweeping war measures and, eventually, a transformation of Southern society. Because the property of traitors was no longer subject to strict constitutional protection, Congress was afforded the power to wage a revolutionary war against not only chattel bondage but the entirety of the plantation system, including the property of Southern elites.

Congressional colleagues largely followed his advance. As the extent and depth of rebellion became clear, Republicans increasingly realized the necessity of social revolution, endeavoring to dismantle slavery piece by piece and enlist black men as soldiers in that fight. While what Karl Marx described as the “revolutionary waging of war” boosted Union prospects on the battlefield, Stevens rejected Lincoln’s early Reconstruction policies as overly lenient. He even protested the less conciliatory Wade-Davis Bill, because its implication that the Confederate states had never left the Union would hinder the possibility of land seizure.

Stevens instead envisioned what he termed “perfected revolution” as an expanded emancipation. He aspired to use his party’s political momentum to free the nation “from every vestige of human oppression . . . of inequality of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich.” Postwar “Black Codes,” violence and coercion against freedpeople, and Andrew Johnson’s personal intransigence and conciliation of former rebels led moderates to adopt firmer measures and also bolstered the Radical ranks, leading to the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

But that leftward trajectory stopped short of Stevens’s final demand for the confiscation and redistribution of Confederate land. In fact, when Stevens died in August 1868, his influence was at low ebb. Spurious charges of corruption, black domination, and federal overreach were already beginning to turn cautious white Northerners against Radical Reconstruction and the Republican Party as a whole toward the conservative prioritization of business. Not surprisingly, the popular legacy of this spearheading radical — the man who nearly always outpaced both the nation and his reform-minded party on matters of race and democracy — would prove erratic, waxing and waning according to broader social and political forces.

The Afterlives of a Yankee Jacobin

Trailblazers in pursuit of justice — those Arthur Schlesinger Sr styled as “the shock troops of reform” — are always the most bloodied. That has certainly proven the case with Stevens. Denigrated by enemies North and South as an “American Robespierre,” he came to embody the specter of “Negro rule,” or the myth that African Americans, goaded by unscrupulous white carpetbaggers, had overtaken Southern state governments.

According to Eric Foner, Stevens more than any other figure of the era came to represent “Northern malice, revenge, and irrational hatred of the South.” The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a conservative culture of reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans, and the white supremacist Dunning School of Reconstruction all helped to bury Stevens’s legacy by forwarding the idea that extending civil rights to formerly enslaved people had been an abject mistake.

The villain in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster motion picture, the Ku Klux Klan–glorifying The Birth of a Nation, was even modeled after Stevens. Exhibiting the stereotypes of a Yankee opportunist, the fictional congressman Austin Stoneman sports a black mistress, an unshapely wig, and Stevens’s characteristic limp, the result of being born with a club foot. Stevens (as Stoneman) presides over a violent mob of drunken and rape-obsessed freedmen, portrayed by white actors in blackface.

This carpetbagging caricature shaped and was shaped by academic orthodoxy. Writing in 1912, historian James Ford Rhodes deemed Stevens “a violent partisan.” The dean of Lincoln scholars, James G. Randall, saw in Stevens the personification of “vindictive ugliness.” James Truslow Adams’s 1931 The Epic of America, which birthed the phrase the “American Dream,” referenced the Pennsylvanian as “the most deplorable, malevolent, and morally deformed who has ever risen to high power in America.” Even John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage (1955) painted Stevens as a fanatic while praising Andrew Johnson’s “peaceable” approach toward his defeated countrymen.

Of course, the notion that the South’s experiment in interracial democracy was an abomination promulgated by “miscegenating Jacobins” proved incredibly useful to the region’s elites. Its effect, if not its stated purpose, was to stifle interracial labor and political organization by frightening Southern whites into remaining racially “solid” and unwilling to align with black people despite shared class status.

At the same time, Stevens remained a hero to African Americans, who celebrated him as the “Father of Reconstruction.” Black schools and civic groups adopted his name and likeness. Frederick Douglass hung Stevens’s portrait on his wall.

In the twentieth century, activists in liberal integrationist, Afro-socialist, and black nationalist camps across the African American freedom struggle also embraced Stevens. W. E. B. Du Bois called him a “leader of the common people,” a “seer of democracy,” and a believer that such democracy should be extended to both the political and industrial spheres. New York City councilman Ben Davis Jr lauded him as, alongside Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, one of the great democrats of the nineteenth century. Journalist Lerone Bennett Jr deemed Stevens one of his personal heroes.

As the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, one biographer confidently asserted that, as far as white icons in the black community were concerned, Stevens stood second only to Lincoln. And for precisely the same reasons, to white Southerners he remained “the most hated statesman in American history.”

Thaddeus Stevens circa 1898. (Library of Congress)

Stevens also grew to be admired by the labor left, which increasingly realized that the destruction of the Lost Cause, and the popular rehabilitation of interracial champions, was critical to the dismantling of the color line and any hope of solidarity between white and black workers. Despite frequently venerating Lincoln and the dual outcomes of the Civil War (liberty and union), organized workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mostly reflected the anti-Reconstruction bent of mainstream American culture. But the revolutionary socialists came to revere Stevens as a property confiscator and anti-racist crusader.

His words and ideas were referenced in The Masses and The Liberator. Eugene Debs invoked the abolitionist as a hero during his 1918 trial. Elizabeth Lawson’s 1941 pamphlet, Thaddeus Stevens: Militant Democrat and Fighter for Negro Rights, published by the Communist Party to shape popular opinion in the South amid drives to organize sharecroppers and industrial workers in Alabama, exalted Stevens as a “crusader for democracy” whose attempts at land reform had pushed bourgeois revolution to its limits.

The Daily Worker, which proclaimed Stevens “the people’s orator,” even launched a formal protest movement against MGM for the studio’s vilification of Stevens and glorification of Andrew Johnson in the film Tennessee Johnson (1942), which editors dismissed as “history turned upside down.” More than any other national leader, the publication explained, Stevens “realized the whole revolutionary content of the period and led the forces that eventually seized the reins of the revolution.”

Mid-century historians, too, gradually moved away from portraying Stevens as a wild-eyed assailant of the innocent white South. Reflecting the resurgence of interracial populist and mass democratic politics during the New Deal era, Thomas F. Woodley’s laudatory Great Leveler: The Life of Thaddeus Stevens (1937) and Alphonse B. Miller’s Thaddeus Stevens(1939) attacked the pro-slavery interpretations of the Dunning School. Yet leading historians continued to downplay the sincerity and efficacy of Stevens’s anti-racism, skirting the matter of ideology.

The subtitle of Richard N. Current’s highly influential Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Political Ambition (1942) clearly states the book’s thesis. In the economic (but non-Marxist) mold of historians Charles A. and Mary Beard and Howard K. Beale, Current portrayed Stevens as a self-interested representative of Northeastern industrial interests and an unwitting agent of inequality.

The age of civil rights engendered a scholarly turn. Though overly psychoanalytical, Fawn M. Brodie’s 1959 biography exposed the “racist fictions” upholding the anti-Reconstruction narrative and praised its subject for the necessary task of “helping purge the nation of what was essentially a remnant of feudalism.” Inspired by the African American freedom movement and the New Left, revisionist historians and so-called neo-abolitionists, including Stevens biographers Ralph Korngold (1955), Milton Meltzer (1967), and Hans Trefousse (1969), furthered this historiographical revitalization by emphasizing ideology and Stevens’s sense of justice. Each defended Stevens’s Reconstruction record, depicting their subject as a champion of the underprivileged and one of the great purveyors of democracy in American history.

This profile of Stevens’s noble egalitarianism has since infiltrated popular culture, leading to a new interpretive problem as the notion of Stevens as an ineffective purist threatens to replace one stereotype with another. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Lincoln (2012) renders Stevens less a prophet of emancipation and Reconstruction — one of the first Republican leaders to anticipate a protracted war that would demand revolutionary measures against slavery and in favor of black rights — than a liability that Lincoln must tame in order to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Freedpeople, black abolitionists, and non-congressional activists are absent from the film; Stevens, Ben Wade, and James Ashley (played as weak-kneed by David Costabile) symbolize the whole of the abolitionist cause.

Tommy Lee Jones’s acclaimed performance captures Stevens’s moral righteousness and acerbic wit, to be sure. But the movie, based on Tony Kushner’s screenplay, illustrates Stevens’s convictions clouding political realism, a concept associated with the allegedly more foresighted Lincoln. To Spielberg and Kushner, Stevens’s greatness lay not in his principles but in his willingness (only after being conditioned by Lincoln) to finally get in line and compromise those principles.

The problem with this pragmatism-fetishizing interpretation is obvious: there would have been no antislavery movement, no expanded war against slavery, and no Thirteenth Amendment without sustained pressure from firebrands like Stevens. In effect, the film celebrates a radical achievement without giving due credit — indeed, while frowning on — the very type of radicalism that made that achievement conceivable.

Levine contests the Spielberg-Kushner thesis. Far from a doctrinaire stargazer, Stevens did exhibit intellectual flexibility and a remarkable knack for reevaluating old assumptions and sensing when to press new initiatives. From the Confiscation Acts, which he believed should include the seizure of rebel lands, to the Fourteenth Amendment, which he hoped would include black enfranchisement, Stevens’s support for transformational wartime measures were compromise positions. And Stevens’s ability to stake out an advanced position and push his party in that direction was not a weakness but an incredible strength — a strength that materialized in the civil rights gains of Reconstruction.

In its many comparisons of Lincoln and Stevens, Levine’s reading paints the latter as possessing greater farsightedness and, at times, stronger political instincts, his very different political role notwithstanding. Stevens was exceptional in his capacity to identify and act on the long-term threats to emancipation. Reducing those politics to impractical idealism obscures the profound — and soberingly realistic — connections between Reconstruction and economics.

A Revolution Against Property

The notion of Stevens as a revolutionary figure operating in revolutionary times is central to Levine’s argument. Citing the contemporary observations of Karl Marx, Georges Clemenceau, and others, he views the Civil War and Reconstruction as a social revolution, though his analysis (perhaps wisely) evades the thorny question of whether, and the degree to which, they constituted a “bourgeois” transformation. If emancipation and the transition to free labor was indeed a revolution, then Stevens was among the most radical of its leadership. As one British observer put it, the Pennsylvanian was “the Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America, all rolled into one.”

Levine makes clear that Stevens conveyed these Jacobin instincts most directly through his attitudes toward property. Stevens’s willingness to challenge the most sanctified component of capitalist relations included not only ownership in humans (slaves) but also ownership in land. From the outset, he realized that Union victory would require freeing and arming enslaved people and expropriating rebel property. Following the lead of freedpeople, who immediately linked farm ownership to their conceptions of emancipation and what it meant to be free, Stevens and his allies fought as early as 1862 to expand the Confiscation Acts to permit the permanent seizure of Confederate land. Although both William T. Sherman’s famous “40 Acres and a Mule” order and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865 assigned abandoned parcels to a relative handful of former slaves, such measures did not grant them legal title and their homesteads were reclaimed by order of Andrew Johnson.

Whereas other Radicals viewed African American voting as the culmination of Reconstruction, Stevens recognized that only a foundation of economic power could establish the legal and material conditions to make black enfranchisement meaningful and permanent. In the postwar South, that meant the ownership of arable land. As such, Stevens proposed the creation of an executive department mechanism to seize all estates over two hundred acres — which constituted roughly 2 percent of the Southern families — and to partition that land into forty-acre farmsteads. Poor and middling whites, he reassured, would not be affected.

Once divided among former slaves, the government would then sell the remaining acreage to pay down war debt and provide pensions for Union veterans. Over time, and now with the support of the Union Leagues and black convention delegates in the South, Stevens argued that land redistribution would destroy the concentrated power of the planter class, slowly transform the region into a yeoman republic, and expand the base of the Republican Party.

Stevens’s free labor ethos, which precluded the existence of a landed elite or a landless class, emboldened him to defy individual property rights. In fact, the logic of confiscation was rooted in longstanding Republican critiques of the South, and the idea that slavery and land monopoly had created a dangerously hierarchical and antidemocratic society.

Along with a handful of abolitionists and Radicals, including Wendell Phillips and George W. Julian, Stevens also viewed land as a matter of basic justice. After all, enslaved black people, not white landowners, had provided the human labor that created the plantation system and its immense profits. In other words, these “confiscation radicals” viewed land reform as a basic means of restitution — a precursor to the modern concept of reparations. When leading Senate Republican William P. Fessenden complained to Charles Sumner that Stevens’s land reform bill was “more than we do for white people,” Sumner responded that “white men have never been in slavery.”

But the notion of permanently breaking up mega plantations — even in the service of protecting freedpeople and destroying the political power of Southern elites — proved a tough sell to white Northerners. Democrats denounced Stevens’s “Reign of Terror” and insisted that land confiscation would parrot the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Meanwhile, the Republican Party free labor ideal was predicated on upward mobility and the “right to rise” through a program of public education, infrastructural improvements, and the redistribution of public land in the form of homesteads.

Private landed property was a different matter. In his brilliant 1974 essay “Thaddeus Stevens, Confiscation, and Reconstruction,” Eric Foner explained this small capitalist utopianism as it related to private land: “To a party which believed that a free laborer, once accorded equality of opportunity, would rise or fall in the social scale on the strength of his own diligence, frugality, and hard work, confiscation seemed an unwarranted interference with the rights of property.”

Confiscation was also anathema to the interests of capital. Although Beardian and some Marxist historians have depicted Stevens as an agent of the “money power,” commercial elites tended to view him not as an ally but as a mortal threat. Both Southern landholders and Northeastern textile manufacturers feared that independent black farmers would refuse to grow cotton, which they designated the “slave crop.” Moreover, industrialists recognized that the logic of workers controlling the means of production — the difference between former slaves seizing the plantations and industrial laborers seizing the factories — was only a matter of degree.

In other words, as Levine contends, the distribution of private land to freedpeople failed because it was antithetical to deeply held — and, for the few, fabulously profitable — understandings of private property. Republican losses in the state elections of 1867 effectively killed the issue and helped turn the party away from war-era idealism and toward conservatism, political expediency, and accommodation toward big business. The abandonment of confiscation signaled the larger abandonment of Reconstruction.

Levine’s synopsis of the rise and fall of the land question is tragic and compelling. But his argument would benefit from a clearer indication that Americans were not inimical to land redistribution per se. Rather, its logic had always been raced, with land commonly redistributed from red or brown people to white people, as well as classed, with choice tracts allotted to speculators and corporate firms.

As historian Richard White has recently argued, postwar redistribution concerned “whether Southern whites could be treated as Indians and Southern blacks could be treated like white men.” They could not. And the land reform bill that ultimately passed, the Southern Homestead Act, was a categorical failure. Rather than taking arable land from planters and transferring legal title to former slaves, it offered freedpeople and poor whites the opportunity to purchase much inferior public land. Lacking money, only four thousand African American families bought in, and many subsequently lost their land because it was not cultivable.

Despite its ultimate miscarriage, Levine refuses to view land redistribution as a fool’s errand or a distraction from practical politics. In fact, from his opposition to the involuntary colonization of former slaves abroad as neither moral not feasible, to his recognition that political rights could not be protected without landed proprietorship, Levine paints Stevens less as a dreamer or utopian than a realist who was clear-eyed about the social and political costs required to achieve any semblance of racial equality.

This position sets Levine apart from even sympathetic liberal biographers who have criticized Stevens’s so-called empty wishes, particularly his focus on land redistribution. With faint remnants of the Dunning School, Fawn Brodie argued that Stevens’s lofty confiscation aims grew out of an eagerness to punish white Southerners. She believed that Radicals should have devoted the whole of their energies to smaller, ostensibly more attainable goals, such as government loans or a land purchase system.

Hans Trefousse also maintained that land confiscation had no chance to succeed. “The loss of some $4 billion in slave property constituted the largest amount ever expropriated in an English-speaking country,” he reminded, “and there was no chance that any more could be extracted.” Some scholars allege that, sooner or later, black land would have ended up in the hands of white bankers and speculators. Others suggest that, without adequate federal protection, black landholdings, like the black franchise, would have simply been retaken through coercion and violence.

Conversely, Levine’s defense of Stevens’s approach to land reform places him squarely within the long civil rights and labor left interpretive tradition. Professional agitator Wendell Phillips, who proclaimed that the primary problem of racial inequality was that “the black man has no capital,” urged the government to “plant a hundred thousand negro farmers and by their side a hundred thousand white soldiers.”

As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his magisterial 1935 analysis of political economy, Black Reconstruction in America, freedpeople, too, had grasped that “beneath all theoretical freedom and political right must lie the economic foundation.” “Economic emancipation” through land constituted “the absolutely fundamental and essential thing to any real emancipation of the slaves.” For freedom to be realized, the scale of economic transformation had to be radical.

In other words, Levine asserts, as Stevens did, that Reconstruction represented a genuinely revolutionary situation. And in a revolutionary situation in which so many formerly impossible outcomes — property confiscation, uncompensated emancipation, former slaves enlisted as soldiers — had already come to pass, sweeping land reform was unquestionably an aim worth pursuing.

This justification for skillful crusading as a political strategy — for the role of the radical in history — speaks to a theme running through Levine’s book: the relativity of radicalism, or the idea that countless political goals are deemed unreachable until the moment they are, in fact, reached.

It is easy — and far too simple — for backward-gazing critics to characterize political efforts toward large-scale land redistribution as a foolhardy venture because their ends were not accomplished. Confiscation was very much a live issue in 1866 and 1867. And Stevens — the man Republican colleagues celebrated for his remarkable ability to “create public opinion and mold public sentiment” — understood that parliamentary politics should involve more than legislators permitting demands from below. Radical appeals on the part of a leadership vanguard — one intent on pushing the revolution forward — also had the potential to broaden the horizons of political attainability.

Transformed by the interracial demands of working people on the ground, the popular image of Stevens has done a volte-face since the nadir of Jim Crow. Levine’s excellent biography is both the product and culmination of that labor.

But the demonization or dismissal of revolutionary politics has hardly dissipated. Many who now extol the Great Commoner for being at the fore of racial and economic justice during the 1860s rebuff the Stevenses of today for precisely the same reason.

The reactionary notion of Stevens as a broker of anarchy reverberates in both conservative and liberal efforts to mediate mass protests against police violence. From the alt-right to the neoliberal center, we likewise see opponents of universal redistributive programs traffic in claims of impracticality and fears of radicalism and un-Americanism to halt more expansive definitions of freedom and attempt to circumscribe the parameters of what is politically possible.

Stevens’s political struggle — and Levine’s exquisite portrait of that life — expose whose interests those bogeymen ultimately serve.