By Gary McFarlane
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Thaddeus Stevens and the legacy of radical reconstruction

This article is over 11 years, 2 months old
Thaddeus Stevens may not be as famous as Abraham Lincoln, but he played a major role in defeating slavery in the US. Gary McFarlane tells the story of this radical Republican senator who pushed for a thoroughgoing transformation of the slave-owning south and for rights for ex-slaves
Issue 378

Not many people have heard of Thaddeus Stevens. If you’ve seen filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln you will be aware of his central role in the framing and passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution banning slavery. Stevens has been played on film before, but as the villain. In DW Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation, where the Lost Cause myth of defending the South’s traditions, in other words slavery, is hailed, and the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes, Stevens is the evil schemer out to destroy the white Southern culture and spread the evil of “miscegenation”, egged on by the mixed race woman at his shoulder. In another film, Tennessee Johnson – the story of Lincoln’s vice president Andrew Johnson, who was happy to pardon the defeated Confederates and to leave the planter class intact to run the South – Stevens is the vengeful abolitionist out to wreak violent vengeance on the poor misunderstood South.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments all owe their existence to Stevens. The period of so called Radical Reconstruction in the South, in which 2,000 African Americans were elected to office at federal, state and local level, was Stevens’ legacy too.

So how are his marginalisation and denigration to be explained? The answer lies in the defeat of reconstruction in 1877 and its eventual replacement with the “Jim Crow” regime of racial segregation given legal form in 1884 after the infamous Plessey v Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that enshrined “separate but equal” doctrine in law.

Stevens was perhaps the most consistent of the bourgeois revolutionaries of the American republic. Georges Clemenceau, French journalist and future political leader, called him “the Robespierre of the second American revolution”. Stevens was unwavering in his desire to see the “infernal blot” of slavery removed from the republic. Time and again during the civil war his ideas and demands would be vindicated as mainstream Northern opinion moved in his direction.

For Stevens, freeing the slaves wasn’t a handy expedient to win the war but a matter of conviction. Nevertheless, he understood that he had to win over the majority, and with a keen understanding of how events were likely to prove him right, was able to accept concessions providing his agenda of black liberation moved forward. He understood revolution as a process: old beliefs could quickly dissolve and new, more radical, ideas replace them.

Stevens was a key player in the US Civil war: a war that transformed into a conflict to end slavery and unleashed social revolution across the South. On the question of the irreconcilability of the slave and free labour states, Stevens agued that the two could not continue to coexist. He was first to call for the arming of the African Americans who flocked to the Union army. He understood the need to wage a revolutionary war and he was the first to call for the abolition of slavery. He was also first to appreciate that the slave-owning plantation owners (plantocracy as it was sometimes known) had to be destroyed as a class and the vanquished states occupied in order to guarantee the ex-slaves their rights.

At first the war didn’t go well for the North. As Karl Marx observed, the Confederacy could commit all the white men to the battle and the economy would continue to function as before if slavery was allowed to survive. Stevens was of the same mind: “Every able bodied white man can be spared for the army. The black man, without lifting a weapon, is the mainstay of the war.” But from the outset President Lincoln and Congress agreed that slavery would not be “interfered with”. Stevens rejected this and within a few months others had been forced to change their minds as military efforts against the South stalled.

Arm the slaves
As African Americans were freeing themselves in their tens of thousands and flocking to the Union army, Stevens demanded arming the slaves: “Our object is to subdue the rebels…Horrifying to gentlemen as it may appear [arming the slaves]; that is my doctrine and it will be the doctrine of the whole people of the North before two years roll round.”

In November 1861 Stevens put to Congress a bill to emancipate the slaves, a year before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln initially argued that owners should be compensated for the loss of property that emancipation entailed. Stevens was scathing of this “most diluted milk and water gruel proposition that was ever given to the American nation”.

Stevens’ emancipation bill fell, but Northern public opinion would eventually catch up with him as the war raged on and the Union army generals’ defensive strategy led to tens of thousands dead for no gain. Most of the generals were Democrats and they hoped to come to an accommodation with the South. The Democrats were the party of the slavers who grew fat on the cotton trade.

Stevens, and Lincoln too, despaired of George McClellan, a Democrat and the general of the Union army in the east. Time and again McClellan failed to follow through in engagements. Stevens could see the missed opportunities and his lack of zeal and belief in the Northern leadership on and off the battlefield. He harangued them and implored Congress to free the slaves.

Again he was in step with Marx who took the moral expedient of freedom for granted but also understood the military significance of declaring war on slavery: “A single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves…A war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines while the Yankees have thus far been trying to conduct it constitutionally.”

From the moment of Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in September 1862 the civil war became a war of liberation. The struggle of black people themselves, which hadn’t waited for Lincoln, the needs of the war and the political fight of the radical republicans, with Stevens leading the charge, had forced the issue.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. A yeoman farmer from the border state of Tennessee, Johnson dished out pardons and said that all the Southern states had to do to rejoin the union was ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Stevens and the radicals were outraged.

The obstinacy of Johnson and the attempts by the plantocracy and its supporters to reintroduce slavery by another name forced moderate Republicans into the arms of the radicals.

When Johnson vetoed extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau created by Lincoln to safeguard the interests of the ex-slaves, the moderates in Congress were shocked. The Bureau was needed now more than ever. In the South, laws had been introduced to keep African Americans in their place and to suppress the work of the Bureau. On top of allowing these “Black Codes” to proliferate, Johnson had returned confiscated land to planters.

Stevens became Johnson’s sworn enemy. In the mid-term elections of 1866 a backlash against the pro-Southern president led to a Republican landslide. Northern opinion had caught up with the radicals. Stevens led the charge for the impeachment of Johnson, which, in the end, failed by just one vote. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing “equality under the law” was passed over Johnson’s veto by securing two thirds of the vote in both the House and the Senate, where the other leading radical of the civil war years, Charles Sumner, sat.

Among men, not angels
Stevens had settled for less than he wanted but, together with the Civil Rights Act, the civil rights of African Americans had been secured, in law at least. Explaining his vote for an amendment that Sumner for one opposed, he remarked that he “sat among men not angels”.

Congress would go on to pass the Fifteenth Amendment giving voting rights to African Americans and forbidding its “denial or abridgment”, although Stevens did not live to see it ratified.

Stevens was only too aware that, whatever laws Congress passed, their enforcement depended on military occupation of the South. But unremitting violence across the South culminated in massacres of black Republicans, and some whites, in Memphis and New Orleans.

Stevens insisted the government make the South safe for free labour and, as always, had some suggestions on how this could be achieved: “Strip the proud nobility of their bloated estates…and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble proud traitors.”

Congress and the North learned the hard way and came round to Stevens’ way of thinking. The legislation they passed ushered in the period known as Radical Reconstruction and it bore Stevens’ hallmarks.

Congress enacted the Reconstruction Acts, four of them, dissolving the governments of the Confederate states, and dividing the South into five military districts under the control of the military. Federal troops were sent South, but only 20,000 – nowhere near enough – and ratification of the citizenship of African Americans was required before a Southern state could re-enter Congress.

In one extremely important aspect Congress, and many radicals for that matter, did not follow Stevens, and that was land for the ex-slaves. The planters’ land was not to be confiscated and given to the freemen and loyal white farmers, as Stevens had hoped.

Free labour ideology
Republican free labour ideology motivated the radicals and it had taught self-reliance and hard work as the way to improvement, not handouts as Stevens’ plans seemed to imply. As far as Stevens was concerned his views on confiscation and redistribution didn’t contradict free labour concepts because, he argued, it was the slaves who had laboured to clear and cultivate the land claimed by the former slaveholders. What exactly then was free labour ideology?

In America, the ideology proclaimed, no labourer was destined to forever be a labourer. Social mobility was the bedrock of free labourism. All could aspire to one day work for themselves or to be as wealthy as the elite through their own endeavour. Of course, the small-scale capitalism and market economy held up as the ideal were being daily undermined by the advance of what the free labourites saw as “non-productive” areas of the economy, such as the banks. The merchant’s counting house was being eclipsed by the factory office, a process the civil war era would complete.

There was another more obvious impediment to free labour: slavery and the Southern states that perpetuated it. Where Northern free labour created dynamism and change, the slaveholding South brought stagnation and conservatism, even though only around a third of the population owned slaves.

In all the conflicts between the free and slave states before the civil war Stevens took a principled stance, regardless of the consequences for his professional or political career. He was a committed abolitionist all his adult life. He took Republicanism seriously; rule by the people should be by all the people, including African Americans.

Stevens was born into poverty in the Northern state of Vermont and through his mother’s hard work was able to go to school and eventually became a successful lawyer. He was the victim of discrimination and bullying because of his disabilities – he had a club foot and alopecia that meant he lost his hair by his thirties. He grew up with an abiding hatred of slavery and of social injustice more widely. Stevens was the closest thing 19th century America had to an anti-racist, and his background helps explain his radicalism.

After moving to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and then to Lancaster, he fought many cases defending runaway slaves. He entered the state legislature in 1834, taking a seat in the state senate. Here, among other radical causes, he successfully defended free public schools against the wealthy of the state who wanted to close them.

If Stevens is little known today his partner and confidante Lydia Hamilton Smith is even less so. Smith was a mixed race woman (the woman behind the bloodthirsty abolitionist in Birth of a Nation) from Gettysburg, who became Stevens’ housekeeper and probably lover. Although they didn’t have any children she was left $5,000 in his will and he took her with him to all social occasions and referred to her deferentially as “madam”, treating her as his equal. This is an incredible relationship at a time when consensual personal relations of any kind between African Americans and whites were non-existent and strongly discouraged to say the least.

Considering Stevens’ life work in the struggle for racial egalitarianism would be incomplete without reference to Smith. She was a formidable woman who went on to become a substantial property owner and businesswoman at a time when women, let alone black women, were considered inferior.

In Stevens’ first period in Congress from 1849 to 1853 he made a name for himself as a defender of the downtrodden and soon came to be referred to as “The Great Commoner”. By the time the civil war began, after a break of a few years out of Congress, he returned and became the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee that controlled the purse strings of the Federal government and therefore the financing of the war. He was the leader of the Republicans in the House.

Stevens died in 1868, only a year into radical reconstruction. Black people managed to hold on to power to some degree in the South until 1877 by which time the “Redeemer” governments had overthrown all the reconstruction state government after a years long reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan. An economic depression, that began with the panic of 1873 when the country’s biggest bank went bust, undermined reconstruction efforts. Added to that, a disputed US election result in 1876 led to months of wrangling that ended in a deal with the South in which they accepted a Republican president, Rutherford, in return for an end to reconstruction and the withdrawal of Federal troops.

Despite the defeat of reconstruction the plantocracy as a class had been felled and the statutes and amendments that Stevens was instrumental in enacting were to be used again as a weapon by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Critically, African Americans had established the schools, churches and other community organisations to help them survive the darkness of entrenched racial oppression.

Pivotal role
Stevens remained true to his beliefs until his death. His gravestone reads “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude; but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.” The world historic importance of the civil war, black people’s battle for liberation and the pivotal part played by Stevens, should never be forgotten.

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