Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

Fergus M. Bordewich writes: Seventy-five years old, with less than two years left to live, and in almost constant pain from a variety of ailments, Stevens focused his efforts on a new amendment to the Constitution, the Fourteenth, which would prohibit states from abridging equality before the law, and bar former Confederates from office and from voting in national elections until 1870. Although Stevens felt that the measure did not go far enough, it would totally change the states’ relationship to the federal government, by making it explicit that Americans were citizens of their nation first, and of their respective states second, and that states were therefore bound to abide by federal law. It was a truly revolutionary measure in the South where, in the pre-war effort to suppress criticism of slavery, states had passed laws limiting freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, and even imposing censorship of the U.S. mail.

THE RADICALS WERE APPALLED when they realized that Lincoln’s successor, Tennessee-born Andrew Johnson, intended to allow the rebel states to speedily reenter the Union, without significant punishment of rebel leaders, or plans to protect the rights of newly-freed slaves. Their worst fears were confirmed when, in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1866, the President permitted elected assemblies of former Confederates to enact new laws designed to reduce freedmen to semi-slavery, as anti-black rioting swept Southern cities, leaving hundreds of African-Americans dead. Stevens had himself carried in a chair onto the floor of the House, and in a voice so weak that his colleagues had to crowd around him to hear him, he pleaded with his colleagues to consider what was at stake in the South. “While the South has been bleeding at every pore, Congress has done nothing to protect the loyal people there, white or black, either in their persons, in their liberty, or in their property,” he whispered. Stevens got what he wanted, and federal troops returned to the South. It is said that the speech was one of the few ever delivered in Congress that resulted in the changing of votes on the spot. Stevens’s last battle was a losing one, however. He led the effort to impeach Johnson for firing the Radical members in his cabinet, a movement that failed—by a single vote—to oust the president from office.

Thaddeus Stevens

“Stevens was ahead of his time because he truly believed in racial equality,” Says Hans Trefousse, author of “Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian”. “Without Stevens, the effects of Reconstruction, the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing suffrage to the freedmen, would have been impossible.” Although he would not live to see the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870, no one had worked harder or longer to make it a reality. Says Trefoussse, “In practice, those amendments were effectively nullified in the South, in the years after the end of Reconstruction. But they were still in the law. In the twentieth century, they would remind Americans of what they had once stood for: they were still there as the standard that the nation had set for itself.”

Thaddeus Stevens

The North won the Civil War, but lost the remembrance of it. By 1877, federal troops had been completely withdrawn from the South. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments were systematically undone by a combination of harsh discriminatory laws and the terrorism of vigilante organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The South, and indeed most of the nation, slumped into almost a century of entrenched racism and institutionalized segregation. In the memory of a country committed to reconciliation at the expense of the rights of African-Americans’ rights, there was little place for the furious idealism of an egalitarian like Stevens.

The nadir in Stevens’s reputation was reached with D.W. Griffith’s classic 1915 film “The Birth of A Nation,” a Civil War epic which heroized the Klan, and smeared blacks as clownish and lascivious monsters whose freedom endangered American democracy. (President Woodrow Wilson liked the film so much that he gave it a private showing at the White House.) Stevens was portrayed as a vengeful hypocrite, plotting with his diabolical black mistress to instigate a race war against helpless Southern whites. Someone who learned about Stevens only from the film might have supposed that he and Lydia Hamilton Smith were the source of all the nation’s racial problems. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, James Buchanan’s stock steadily rose, at least in Lancaster, and in the 1930's Wheatland was restored to its luxurious mid-nineteenth century splendor. When the Lancaster Historical Society published a guidebook to important sites in the city’s downtown, in 1962, Stevens’s home wasn’t even included on the map.

Law Office and Home of Thaddeus Stevens, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1868

AS SNOWFLAKES SWIRLED and danced over the streets of Lancaster, Jim Delle and I walked through the row house where Thaddeus Stevens lived, just a block from Penn Square where in times gone by crowds of supporters once roared to his surging oratory. The years have taken a heavy toll. The house’s modest Georgian facade has been covered over with ugly white modern bricks, and a garage door has been punched through the front of Stevens’s front parlor. Decrepit industrial carpeting, broken plaster, and scrawled graffiti cast a mournful pall through his one-time law office. Behind the house, Delle scraped the snow off the sheet of plywood that covered the broken crown of the cistern, and we climbed down into it on an aluminum ladder. In the dank brick compartment, Delle pointed out the small aperture through which fugitives had crawled from the tunnel that led to the tavern basement next door. The cistern was more than an exotic hiding place. It was physical proof of Stevens’s personal commitment not just to the abstract principle of emancipation, but in the most personal way possible to the men and women who suffered under slavery.

Wheatland - Home of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States
Wheatland was built by William Jenkins, a lawyer, who built and named the Federal mansion in 1828. Buchanan purchased the property - three tracts totalling 22.45 acres (90,900 m2), including the mansion and several outbuildings, in December 1848 from William Morris Meredith, a Philadelphia lawyer.Buchanan resided here on occasion as President and after his term until his death

I kept thinking of the fiery, iron-willed, silver-tongued man who had made this refuge possible, at a time when harboring fugitive slaves was a federal crime. He had died thinking himself a failure. But he had paved the way for the civil rights advances of the twentieth century. In the 1950's and 1960's, the nation would have to learn again the lesson that Stevens tried to teach in the 1860's, that the rights of African-Americans could only be protected by the power, and occasionally the armed force, of the federal government. Had land been distributed to the ex-slaves as Stevens wished, the nation might well have been spared much of the shameful racial history that followed, and might instead have created a stable, economically and politically independent black middle class. After generations of neglect, however, his greatest work, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, still lay waiting for Americans to rediscover their meaning, and they became the foundation upon which was erected virtually all the civil rights legislation that reshaped the country since the 1960's.


Whether enough of Stevens’s home survives intact to become a museum dedicated to him and to the regional activities of the Underground Railroad, as local preservationists wish, is still an open question. Developers agreed after considerable local protest to leave about half of Stevens’s house standing, but they maintain that the rest must be leveled to make room for the new convention center. “We can’t just walk away from this house,” says Randy Harris, the former director of the Lancaster Preservation Trust, who has fought to prevent the demolition of the house and the adjoining properties that belonged to Stevens. “Stevens is way too important a figure in our history to abandon once again.” —Fergus M. Bordewich


(source: "Thaddeus Stevens and James Buchanan: How their Historic Rivalry Shaped America," by Fergus M. Bordewich. This article originally appeared as “Was James Buchanan Our Worst President? Digging into a Historic Rivalry” in Smithsonian Magazine, February 2004.)

1 comment:

  1. An underrated figure for sure, I'd never even heard of him! But thanks for sharing this wonderful post and keeping me up on it!

    ReplyDelete

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