Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian, by Hans L. TrefousseSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Trefousse. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
For a man who once declared to a would-be biographer, "I have no history," Thaddeus Stevens has been the subject of a surprising number of life histories. Indeed, before Hans L. Trefousse ever put pen to paper, Stevens was already the subject of no less than eight full-length biographies and scores of shorter essays, articles, and character sketches. So why does the much-studied Radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania deserve yet another biography? To update his story in light of changing historiography about both the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, answers Trefousse. Previous biographers, he states, tended to "overestimate" Stevens's influence. And in the thirty years since Milton Metzger published the last Stevens biography (Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights, 1967), many historians have come to view Republican policies not as radical, but as "a compromise of principle." Nevertheless, as the subtitle of his book attests, Trefousse retains the theme of Stevens as a committed nineteenth-century egalitarian—a theme Trefousse introduced in his acclaimed 1969 study, The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice, where he declared that Stevens's "one abiding passion was equality." Indeed, it is a theme first suggested by Stevens himself, most prominently in his oft-quoted tombstone epitaph espousing "Equality of Man before His Creator."
Richard N. Current, writing almost sixty years ago in what Trefousse considers the best of the previous Stevens biographies, warned against blindly accepting Stevens's own "rationalization of his life" as an "egalitarian" (Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Ambition, 1942). Rather, it was a "simple fact that [Stevens] was, above everything else, a man of politics," Current insisted. He believed that political expediency was Stevens's lodestar in a never-ending quest "to get and exercise the powers of public office." His actions Page [End Page 75] were "determined by frustrated personal ambitions and an understandable and outspoken desire to keep his party in power and make it a vehicle for industrialists like himself."
In response, Trefousse observed in his 1969 study that radical advocacy of emancipation and equal rights "often cost the Radicals dear." In this biography he reiterates that Stevens's controversial positions clearly did not enhance his political career. His opposition to the Compromise of 1850 on the basis of his antislavery principles, for example, cost him his seat in Congress for much of that turbulent decade (p. 82). Even in cases where Stevens seemed to act with the crassest of incentives, as when he allied with the Nativists in the 1840s and the American party ("Know Nothings") in the 1850s, Trefousse finds egalitarian motives at work in an "ends justify the means" analysis. Stevens coldly calculated that he could bolster his all-consuming struggle against slavery through such alliances. His collaboration with Nativists and Know Nothings "was not his most praiseworthy action," Trefousse admits, "but it worked." Throughout, Trefousse insists that Stevens was a man of genuine principle, and that adhering to those principles caused him many difficulties that a politician driven by expediency could have avoided.
Of course, Trefousse is not original among twentieth-century writers in treating Stevens with a degree of sympathy. Ralph Korngold, for example, writing a decade after Current's book appeared, echoed Current's political theme, but in more laudatory tones in Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great (1953). Six years after Korngold, however, Fawn Brodie took a different tack in Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (1959).
Brodie's is the biography which has, until now, enjoyed the most popularity—as evidenced, for example, by James M. McPherson listing it as the standard work on Stevens in the bibliography in Ordeal by Fire, McPherson's acclaimed Civil War textbook. Brodie took Stevens's equalitarian aspirations seriously—but viewed them as "largely an escape from his own desperate hungers." Accepting a challenge that Carl Sandburg had once rhetorically posed—"who can read the heart of old Thad Stevens?"—Brodie wrestled Stevens onto the psychoanalyst's couch. She identified "the branding" of Stevens at birth with a clubfoot as the key to his character. His disdain of aristocratic privilege and his concern for the poor and disadvantaged, his egalitarian predilections, his biting sarcasm, his inability or unwillingness to form intimate relationships with Page [End Page 76] females of his own social standing, all these things and more, Brodie was willing to attribute to his deformed limb.
Trefousse is more circumspect. He suggests that the effect of Stevens's physical handicap on his character is open to question. He concedes that Stevens was throughout his life constantly aware of his deformity, and that it may have made him more sympathetic in some contexts, and more caustic and sarcastic in others. But ultimately, he cautions, the extent to which it "determined" his way of doing things "can no longer be ascertained" (p. 7). He also takes Brodie to task for giving too much credence to idle gossip implicating Stevens in the 1824 drowning death of a pregnant black girl, asserting that if his involvement could have been substantiated his enemies would have made more out of it (pp. 21–22). And on the speculation of Stevens's rumored intimate relations with his handsome mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, Trefousse is again more cautious than Brodie, who fully accepted the story.
Eric L. McKitrick has speculated that stories about Stevens's promiscuous sex life, including his relations with his housekeeper, were part of a studied effort by Stevens to create a "stock personality"—that "Old Thad was not above pulling the leg of Clio, the muse of history" (Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, 1960). Trefousse does not employ McKitrick's speculation, however, in questioning Brodie's position. Recent disclosures of DNA testing linking Thomas Jefferson to his slave, Sally Hemmings (another controversial interracial relationship that Brodie helped to resurrect), may reinvigorate Brodie's interpretation of the Stevens/Smith relationship in the eyes of some. Trefousse simply concludes that "considering the evidence, it is impossible either to prove or disprove" sexual intimacy between Stevens and the publicly circumspect Lydia Hamilton Smith (p. 70).
On the more weighty political relationship between Stevens and President Abraham Lincoln, Trefousse observes that Stevens was simply "unable to appreciate Lincoln's genius" and that he "totally underestimated the president." He considered Lincoln overcautious, weak, ignorant, and incapable of decisive leadership (p. 101). Yet, "in spite of their differences, the two had complemented each other," Trefousse concludes, with "Stevens always ahead, demanding further progress, Lincoln behind, but catching up in the end" (p. 159). He credits Stevens and the Radicals with shielding Lincoln from conservative attacks regarding emancipation, making it Page [End Page 77] possible for Lincoln to seem moderate in comparison to the Radicals when he did finally take the decisive step.
Trefousse's view reflects general historical opinion since the Consensus historians of the 1950s challenged earlier notions that Lincoln and the Radicals were always at sword's point. Historians in the 1960s (Trefousse chief among them) bolstered the view by interpreting Lincoln in light of that era's civil rights movement and found him to have always been an emancipationist and increasingly solicitous of black rights in his Reconstruction policies. Trefousse, for example, argued in 1969 that the "difference between Lincoln and the radicals should not be exaggerated." And studies of the wartime Congress by Allan G. Bogue and others during the 1970s and 1980s suggested that Lincoln and the Radicals shared the same goals—differing mainly on the speed and means of achieving them. It should be noted, however, that dissenting voices have recently started to reemerge (too recent to have been addressed by Trefousse in this Stevens biography), such as William C. Harris's argument that differences between Lincoln and the Radicals, at least respecting Reconstruction, were not superficial or insignificant (With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union, 1997).
It is indeed in the area of Reconstruction that the brooding, cadaverous image of Thaddeus Stevens has cast its longest shadow. Trefousse contends it was the time of his "greatest triumphs" and the "zenith" of his influence. Nevertheless, even these climactic years were fraught with disappointment. Stevens failed in his longtime ambition to be elected to the Senate; he suffered from increasingly poor health; and was thwarted in several attempts to impeach President Andrew Johnson. In addition, the passage of the Reconstruction Acts (which Trefousse declares was Stevens's "greatest accomplishment") failed to incorporate confiscation and protect black suffrage, and thus "fell far short of his real aims" (p. 201).
The traditional view that simple hatred impelled Stevens on a personal vendetta against the South was born during the days of Reconstruction and was perpetuated well into the twentieth century by William A. Dunning, George Fort Milton, James Ford Rhodes, Claude Bowers, James G. Randall, T. Harry Williams, and others. Current exchanged vindictive hatred of the South for crass political opportunism as Stevens's chief motivation. Ralph Korngold and Fawn Brodie began to rehabilitate Stevens's reputation on this score in the 1950s. Again, however, it is Trefousse who is Page [End Page 78] the biggest champion of a Stevens compelled by principled motivations in his policies regarding the South.
Trefousse observes that vindictive motives are generally incongruent with personal characteristics of charitableness—a trait which everyone agreed was indicative of Stevens's private life. His largesse and concern for the poor was legendary (pp. 171–72). Trefousse points out, as had Brodie before him, that Stevens espoused confiscation and other stern policies well before Confederates destroyed his Pennsylvania ironworks during Lee's Gettysburg campaign (p. 135). Also evident in Stevens's policy were sincerely held legal and constitutional principles. Trefousse argues, for example, that Stevens's measures "flowed from his conviction that ... the insurgents were defeated belligerents, outside of the Union, and not necessarily from mere vindictiveness" (p. 195). And as always, Trefousse returns to the theme of Stevens's honest egalitarian impulses. "Strip a proud nobility of their bloated estates, reduce them to a level with plain republicans; send them forth to labor, and teach their children to enter the workshop or handle the plough, and you will thus humble the proud traitors," he quotes Stevens. "This was not vindictiveness," Trefousse asserts, "it was a matter of democratic principle" (p. 170). Likewise, his relentless impeachment crusade against Johnson was "not so much motivated by individual dislike" of the president, Trefousse contends, as by the conviction that "only the president's removal from office could safeguard the gains of the war" and insure attempts through Congressional Reconstruction polices to bring egalitarian reform to the South (pp. 224, 231).
Another of Trefousse's consistent themes is debunking the tradition of a manipulative, tyrannical Stevens lording over fellow legislators "in grim and relentless mastery." Trefousse insists that Stevens was not, as Current has asserted, "the greatest dictator Congress ever had." Again Trefousse incorporates well the scholarship of the last three decades. Beginning in 1960 with Eric L. McKitrick's insightful analysis of Stevens as a "marginal politician," historians increasingly have challenged old assumptions about the nature of Stevens's political power. McKitrick argued that Stevens was "a picturesque and adroit politician, but a very limited one," and he characterized Stevens's political career as "a long comic sequence of devilish schemes which, one after another, kept blowing up in his face." By the mid-1970s Eric Foner was arguing that Stevens was limited to staking out radical positions that Page [End Page 79] events—not Stevens—forced the Republican party to embrace ("Thaddeus Stevens, Confiscation, and Reconstruction," 1974, reprinted in Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War, 1980), and Michael Les Benedict was surmising that Stevens's reputation as a tyrant rested more on his personality than on his power (A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869, 1974). By the end of the 1980s, Allan Bogue was confirming that even as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens was "less than complete master" of his own committee (The Congressman's Civil War, 1989).
In his own 1969 book on the Radicals, Trefousse had been content to deem Stevens "the most influential radical in the lower House." In this biography, however, he expressly acknowledges McKitrick's position and then expounds on the theme of Stevens's marginality. Trefousse shows how from his early days in Pennsylvania politics onward, Stevens was often his own worst enemy in limiting his political effectiveness. "If he were a little more cautious and prudent, he would be a dangerous political adversary and excellent leader," he quotes Stevens's Democratic adversaries as saying, "but in making a bold stroke, he is apt to demolish the work he would complete" (pp. 54–55). Trefousse is careful throughout to recognize Stevens's adroitness at guiding measures through Congress (though much of the committee work was done by others). In particular, he praises Stevens for his work with Lincoln administration officials in financing the Union war effort. He observes, however, that Stevens viewed himself as a failure. Defeat of confiscation and other measures he deemed necessary to protect the freedmen, as well as the failure of impeachment proceedings against Johnson were some of the indications that "his influence in Congress was far from all-powerful" (p. 224). He was an astute parliamentarian and "a great advocate who tirelessly pushed his ideas," Trefousse asserts, "but he was not the absolute ruler of Congress" (p. 188). Indeed, "[h]is legacy was one of pointing the way," Trefousse concludes, "[i]t was never one of domination" (p. 238).
In acknowledging Stevens's limited individual influence in the overall development of Republican wartime and Reconstruction policy, Trefousse implicitly raises the question Eric McKitrick posed almost forty years ago: Why is Thaddeus Stevens—who was always "a troublemaker but never a power"—so important in the history of his time? McKitrick suggests that Stevens is a caricature type of the kind of cunning political trickster that American poli- Page [End Page 80] tics always celebrates, but "almost never allows ... to manage its majorities." Foner interprets Stevens as an important ideologue whose failure exposed the limitations of bourgeois capitalist culture to accept significant social change—that Stevens's passing "marked in some ways the end of an era, symbolizing the transition from ideology to political expediency as the guiding force of the Republican party." Trefousse does not address the question directly. By granting Stevens the sincerity of his egalitarian convictions, however, Trefousse finds importance in Stevens's life beyond an example of political burlesque or as a passing ideological marker. For Trefousse, Stevens is symbolic of the prophetic reformer ahead of his time, but "pointing the way."
In this biography Trefousse illuminates and makes concrete—through the documentation of one man's life—the themes and conclusions he drew regarding a whole class of politicians in his important 1969 study of the radicals. He ended that book by lauding the radicals for their (unfulfilled) vision of the equality of all citizens which "laid the foundation for the achievement of their goals in the twentieth-century." "They deserve to be remembered for it," he concluded thirty years ago. He likewise ends this book by lauding Stevens for leaving a legacy espousing interracial democracy that "made possible racial progress in the twentieth century." "It was a goal for which he assuredly deserves to be remembered," he concludes again today (p. 245).
The next time James McPherson updates the bibliography in his textbook Ordeal by Fire, he, or any other historian, will need to add Hans Trefousse's Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian to the list. Page [End Page 81]