Art for The Unreconstructed Radical.
Hon. Thaddeus Stevens. | Mathew Brady/National Archives
Richard Kreitner,  May 13

The Unreconstructed Radical

Thaddeus Stevens stood fiercely against “odious” compromise

Hon. Thaddeus Stevens. | Mathew Brady/National Archives
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Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice, by Bruce Levine. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages.

Bruce Levine’s new biography of Thaddeus Stevens, the craggy-faced scourge of America’s failed Reconstruction, arrives at an opportune moment. After the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the unfinished business of the Civil War, thanks to a photograph showing one rioter hoisting the Confederate battle flag amidst the seat of the government that flag’s original devotees had sought to destroy. One of the questions that most consumed Stevens in the aftermath of the war—how to bring insurrectionists to justice—was suddenly alive again. With fierce if fleeting talk of expelling those members of Congress who had sought to override the result of the presidential election—even the night after the riot, while broken glass still glistened below the rotunda—it seemed as if American democracy might actually summon an appropriate response to its attempted overthrow.

“They have violated the 14th Amendment,” newly inaugurated Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri tweeted. “We can’t have unity without accountability.” Section 3 of that amendment, drafted in part by Stevens, ratified in 1868, and directed at ex-Confederates, bans anyone from federal office who, having previously sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

Alas, the moment for such accountability seems to have passed, and Congress has moved on, despite several Republican members remaining proudly unapologetic about having helped foment the Trumpist mob. It’s one more sign that there is no more important period to study these days than Reconstruction—just as there is no more head-turning irony than watching the vast disparity between what a radical Republican like Stevens stood for then and what radicalized Republicans stand for today.

Arguing for the disfranchisement of traitors after the Civil War, Stevens counseled a policy of no mercy. Defeating the Confederacy, he knew, meant yanking out root and branch the economic system of slavery and the racial bigotry underlying it. He warned that the failure to fully address the causes of a rebellion against democracy would sooner or later lead to its recurrence. Levine’s study of the neglected, much maligned Stevens offers an opportunity to reflect on what this country might have been—and the merest glimmer of hope for what it might still be.

Arguing for the disfranchisement of traitors after the Civil War, Stevens counseled a policy of no mercy.

A new assessment has long been sorely needed. The best earlier account, Fawn M. Brodie’s comprehensive 1959 effort, is marred, Levine notes, by uncritical indulgence in the mid-century psychoanalytic frenzy; Brodie interpreted the clubfooted bachelor’s “crusade” for racial equality as “a substitute for deeper needs.” And nearly a century after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation popularized the Lost Cause view of Stevens (who is thinly fictionalized in the movie as Austin Stoneman) as a diabolical villain bent on vengeance against the defeated South, the Tony Kushner/Steven Spielberg Lincoln of 2012 cast Tommy Lee Jones as a more sympathetic version of the Pennsylvania congressman. Levine notes that while the film got much right about Stevens, it presented him as “too radical for his time and therefore as much of an obstacle to emancipation as a force behind its achievement”—a portrayal notably similar to then-president Barack Obama’s own view of those misguided malcontents endlessly needling him from the left.

Levine’s book, written in crisp and no-nonsense language, if occasionally a bit wooden, largely succeeds in recovering a richer, more complicated Stevens—and in reinstating his reputation. Appreciated here in full, his career gives the lie to the oft-repeated idea, common in politics and certain kinds of history, that radical ideals and practical achievements are inevitably and always at odds. Both his defenders and critics—including the Confederate officer who ordered the destruction of Stevens’s Caledonia ironworks during the Gettysburg campaign—testified in almost identical terms to the man’s power and effectiveness. Fiery, fearless, Stevens became famous for his razor-like witticisms directed at pro-slavery foes—and sometimes at his own weak-willed friends. The “Evil Genius of the Republican Party,” as the New York Times called him, Stevens once disavowed any intent to insult his colleagues, not even that “skunk across the way” (a Democrat who had called Stevens “a bad man” without “even one patriotic impulse”). Another time, when a fellow congressman jumped to the racist Andrew Johnson’s defense by noting that the president was, after all, “a self-made man,” Stevens shot back that he was “glad to hear of it, for it relieves God Almighty of a heavy responsibility.”


Levine opens his book with the intriguing if not entirely convincing claim that much of Stevens’s later radicalism can be traced to his boyhood in fairly egalitarian post-revolutionary Vermont—where he was born in 1792, four years after the ratification of the Constitution, and lived until the age of nineteen. He seems to have been named after Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish war hero who fought for the American rebels in the War of Independence. Thaddeus and his older brother were both born with clubfeet, which left them unable to help out with farm chores, and subject to ridicule. Thaddeus was “a sensitive little fellow,” one neighbor recalled, “and it rankled.” In 1804, his father mysteriously disappeared—he likely just fled the family.

From all this hardship, privation, and trauma, Stevens absorbed important lessons, and he remained grateful for the rest of his life that his Creator had “bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty.” His doting mother taught him to read and enrolled him in the state’s public schools before he went on to Dartmouth. Stevens later said he found in the classics “one unanimous denunciation of tyranny and of slavery”—he must have skipped over Aristotle. After Dartmouth, he moved to southern Pennsylvania to take a teaching job, and two years later, after passing the bar, hung up his shingle in the quiet village of Gettysburg. Levine doesn’t tell us much about what happened next. Somehow, he made enough money as a lawyer to invest in real estate and iron production. After that he entered politics, winning election to the state legislature.

What Levine does do, and very well, is unspool the various threads of Stevens’s political philosophy and show how they both bolstered and sometimes contradicted one another. Committed to industrial development, Stevens believed that the government had to aid the creation of an internal national market by protecting domestic manufacturers from foreign competition and building the roads, canals, and bridges needed to get goods to market. Believing the government also had to give everyone a decent chance to participate in the newly thriving market, he championed public schools in Pennsylvania. On this, as on so many other issues, we are still catching up to him: Stevens advocated free and universal education to all who needed it, adults and children alike.

Tracing his career through the antebellum period, Levine shows both the moments when Stevens stepped out far in advance of his contemporaries and those when he was as prone as anyone else (or nearly so) to moral blindness and the claims of political expediency. He is unsparing regarding Stevens’s brief flirtation with nativism in the early 1850s. He also critiques Stevens’s belief, inherited from classical republican theory, that the masses of ordinary people, if dependent on wage labor, would be easily swayed and duped by their social and economic superiors. This assumption eventually informed his Reconstruction-era proposals, but it operated earlier to keep him from supporting universal white male suffrage. At a Pennsylvania state constitutional convention in the 1830s, Stevens fought unsuccessfully to open suffrage to Black men even as he defended a requirement for voters to pay a certain amount of taxes before being granted the vote. He didn’t think “the vile, the vagabond, the idle and dissipated” should get to elect their own rulers, and even wanted to reduce the representation of Pennsylvania’s cities in the state legislature, echoing Thomas Jefferson’s fetish for small landholders. Whatever else he was, Stevens wasn’t an especially probing economic thinker. “That there was a tension between this view of the independent farmer as the ideal citizen and his own lifelong advocacy of manufacturing based on wage labor seems never to have occurred to him,” Levine notes.


What set him apart were his denunciations of human bondage. As early as 1830, the young William Seward, later Lincoln’s secretary of state, described Stevens as “abhorring slavery in every form.” Levine shows that there was nothing inevitable in one of the most vocally anti-slavery politicians of his time living and winning election in a part of Pennsylvania bordering on the slave state of Maryland. As an attorney, Stevens served as counsel both for escaped slaves seeking freedom and for masters trying to reclaim their “self-stolen” property. Something changed around 1835, however, amid the fallout from the nullification crisis in South Carolina, the rising abolition movement in the North, and the effort by slavery’s backers in Congress to stymy further discussion of the issue. Like many Northern backers of protectionism, Stevens opposed the crisis-ending compromise hammered out by Henry Clay in 1833, which gradually reduced the tariffs to which South Carolina had objected. Rewarding Southern threats to leave the Union, he predicted, would lend “strength and dignity and future hope to triumphant treason.” He would have preferred to see President Andrew Jackson march into South Carolina and hang the nullification leaders from the nearest tall tree. At least then Americans would “never again have heard a rebellious minority shouting ‘disunion!’ ‘civil war!’ ‘bloody devastation!’”

Stevens didn’t pretend, as Lincoln did, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were twin statements of the same egalitarian ideals.

From that point on, Stevens rarely let up the fight against slavery and those in power, North and South, who did its bidding. In his first speech as a congressman, in 1850, at the beginning of the most intense and protracted debates about slavery the country had yet seen, Stevens pulled no punches, describing “a palpable conspiracy” by slaveholders to “disorganize and dissolve” the federal government, and to commit “sedition” and “treason against the nation.” In no other legislature in the world, Stevens observed, would such threats “not be followed by prosecution and punishment.”

While he spoke, Southern congressmen gathered menacingly around his desk. Stevens stayed “as cool as if addressing a jury in his county court-house,” one observer noted.

Throughout the book, Levine stays alert to what really made his subject stand out from the background of his tumultuous times. He often compares Stevens and Lincoln, usually to the latter’s disadvantage. Long before the war, both supported a ban on slavery in Washington, D.C., where, unlike in the Southern states, the issue was widely seen as within the federal government’s control. But Lincoln thought it should take effect only after receiving the support of the district’s white male citizens (likely an insuperable obstacle, as he himself admitted). Stevens also went significantly beyond Lincoln in endorsing the power of Congress, under the commerce clause, to prohibit the sale of slaves across state lines. Crucially, Stevens didn’t pretend, as Lincoln did, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were twin statements of the same egalitarian ideals. Rather, he flatly noted that the latter—with its guarantees for the institution of slavery—often “contradicts the principles” of the former. During Reconstruction, Stevens would define his goal as “regenerating the Constitution and laws of this country according to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Not for him the fiction that the two were already aligned. If the Constitution were put to a vote again, with all its perverse compromises, he would reject it out of hand, he said: “In my judgment not only the slave States but the General Government, recognizing and aiding . . . slavery, is a despotism.”

Far more directly than Lincoln, Stevens attacked not only slavery but racism itself. Countering the claim that Black people were too illiterate or uncivilized to become productive citizens, Stevens observed that “they have been reduced to this degraded condition by our acts and . . . they have been prevented by us from rising in the scale of moral dignity.”

Yet, like Lincoln, he initially supported colonization—the “voluntary” deportation of free Blacks from the United States to the Caribbean or western Africa. Stevens didn’t endorse colonization as an alternative to granting Black people full and equal civil rights in the United States; he supported both, and in any case he gave up on the idea by 1850—denouncing attempts to “exile . . . free people of color, and transport them from the land of their birth to the land of the stranger!”—while Lincoln continued to advocate for it well into his presidency.


Sticking strictly to political biography, Levine refuses to indulge in conjecture over Stevens’s private life. A tossed-out reference to his having been “perhaps, something of a sexual libertine” goes unelaborated. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of Stevens’s relationship with his longtime housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a free woman of color to whom he bequeathed a large enough sum of money for her to purchase the Lancaster home they had long shared. Levine dismisses persistent rumors of romantic intimacy as the work of Stevens’s enemies, and takes the Lincoln film to task for thoughtlessly parroting them. While he may be right that the relationship has garnered too much attention, without at least probing into the matter—or anything else in his private life—the book falls short of offering a definitive account of Stevens’s life. The Lancaster home, now called the Stevens & Smith Historic Site, is slated for renovation and will open as a museum; presumably it will offer a fuller airing of the question.

Likewise, one wishes Levine offered more about Stevens’s possible involvement in the Underground Railroad. Hints that he gathered information about slave-catchers prowling the Lancaster area and “passed along what he . . . learned” to fugitives are tantalizing but ultimately frustrating in how little they tell us. Recent archaeological discoveries at the Stevens residence suggest he may have given refuge to fugitives in his own home; Levine mentions them but does not tell us what those discoveries are.

If Stevens did personally aid runaways escaping to freedom—thus breaking the infamous Fugitive Slave Law—it helps explain his sympathy for John Brown, whose 1859 attempt to ignite a South-wide slave rebellion started the year-and-a-half countdown to civil war. Going significantly farther than other Northern officeholders in embracing the cause of the abolitionist martyr, Stevens told Congress that Brown “deserved to be hung,” not for being a terrorist, but “for being a hopeless fool.” His error? Trying to conquer somnolent, decaying Virginia with only seventeen men when everyone knew it would require at least twenty-five. At that, a Southern congressman whipped out his Bowie knife, but Stevens, characteristically, kept calm, dismissing the disturbance as “a mere momentary breeze.” A year later, during the secession crisis, after yet another provocative Stevens speech, dozens of Southern members began cursing and threatening him. Fellow Republicans formed a phalanx around his desk, guarding him from attack.


Impressive as Stevens’s positions and predictions from the 1850s are, it would be entirely possible to write a book about the run-up to the Civil War that never mentions him. Indeed, Levine himself has done so, in the 1992 edition of Half Slave and Half Free, where his name comes up only in passing. The same is far from true of the war itself, still less Reconstruction. In spurring Lincoln and other Republican moderates to move more aggressively to abolish slavery, stamp out the rebellion, and, he hoped, prevent either from rising again, Stevens made his name as one of the most consequential radicals in American history.

The South’s move to secede after the 1860 election hardly surprised Stevens. Who could blame the slaveowners, he noted, given that the threat had so often succeeded in the past in getting them what they wanted? What was new was the insistence in much of the North that the fundamental plank of the Republican Party’s platform—banning slavery in the western territories—shouldn’t be bargained away, that there should be no more slavery-serving compromises. Unlike, say, William Seward, Stevens refused to consider any deal to avert secession. He opposed the Lincoln-backed Corwin Amendment, which would have offered ironclad constitutional protection to slavery in the states where it already existed—even though he thought it redundant. “Rather than show repentance for the election of Mr. Lincoln,” Stevens said, “I would see this Government crumble into a thousand atoms.”

Yet he also condemned those who favored letting the South go as guilty of “moral treason.” He wanted to fight to keep the Union together and use that fight to dismantle the institution that had caused the conflict in the first place. Stevens was one of the first to see the looming war as an opportunity. The Constitution had been ratified at a moment of Northern weakness; now that the sectional scales had shifted, the time was ripe for repealing its “odious” compromises. “If this Union should be dissolved,” he insisted, “if it should be torn to pieces by rebels, our next United States will contain no foot of ground on which a slave can tread, no breath of air which a slave can breathe.”

Stevens was sixty-nine years old when the Civil War began—some thirty years past the then-average U.S. life expectancy—but a fellow congressman noted that the fight “seemed to rejuvenate him and inspire him with superhuman strength.” Levine shows us a surprisingly flexible war-time Stevens, adapting to circumstance, constantly checking his priors: “He proved unusually able to grasp the nature of a given historical moment, to perceive that moment’s implicit logic, to follow that logic to its conclusions, and to fight with all the considerable energy and skill at his command for the measures to which those conclusions pointed him, no matter how unprecedented or extreme they might appear.” Still, because he worried—rightly, it turned out—that the job would be left half-done, his “self-assurance and self-confidence” in the war years was matched, Levine writes, by “impatience and frustration.” Thus the intensity, the occasional nastiness, invoked by his enemies and analyzed by his biographers; thus Tommy Lee Jones’ superbly lilting snarl.

In spurring Lincoln to move more aggressively to abolish slavery and stamp out the rebellion, Stevens made his name as one of the most consequential radicals in American history.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens held one of the most powerful posts in Congress, and it made him “equivalent to a modern majority leader,” Levine writes. He could move legislation toward a vote or hold it back for reconsideration, though he still had to wrangle the unwieldy Republican caucus, many of whose members often resisted—and severely disappointed—the boldest plans of their whip-cracking floor leader. Stevens, Levine says, could be “stern and severe in bringing laggards into line.” But he did more than exert raw power; he showed his colleagues the direction in which events were forcing them, whether they liked it or not, and rallied them back to the fight at some of the darkest moments of the war.

For all Lincoln’s steady evolution in ratcheting up the federal government’s anti-slavery policies—first instructing the army to shelter escaped slaves as the confiscated property of rebels, then freeing them, then freeing all slaves of the rebels, before finally passing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery everywhere—Stevens arrived at each of those positions much earlier, and his conception of both the purpose and nature of the war far outpaced Lincoln’s from the start. Lincoln explained in his first annual message to Congress, at the end of 1861, that he had been “anxious and careful” to keep the struggle from “degenerat[ing] into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Stevens never shied away from that possibility—indeed, he welcomed it: “According to my poor judgment, the government must steel itself with sterner resolves, and prepare, if need be, for a revolution.”

In time, Lincoln came to see the truth in what Stevens had long been advocating. Either “we must free the slaves,” the president told his cabinet in the summer of 1862, “or be ourselves subdued.” Only then did he begin drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. By then, however, Stevens was far ahead of him, demanding the truly revolutionary step of arming former slaves—another step Lincoln eventually embraced. When it came out that Black soldiers were being paid less than whites, Stevens agreed they shouldn’t be paid equally—he said that Black troops should get more, for their “perils are greatest.” (Confederates took no Black prisoners but enslaved them or killed them on sight.) The Black abolitionist William E. Walker thanked Stevens for having “guarded our interests with more than a jealous and watchful eye.” People throughout the North sent him similar letters. “God Bless You Thaddeus Stevens,” one western New Yorker wrote. “Amid all the obloquy & insults of pro-Slavers and Devils you have dared to stand up a man.”


As important as abolition was, however, Stevens knew it would be useless without guaranteeing some degree of political and economic equality between the newly freed slaves and their reluctant white countrymen. By the end of his life, he was advocating unequivocally for full civil rights for African Americans (including, after some regrettable hesitation, the right to vote), not only in the South but in the North as well, where ensuring a future of racial equality had hardly been a widely cited reason to go to war.

Reconstruction, in Stevens’s capacious understanding of the term, was to operate simultaneously on two parallel tracks—the first legal and constitutional, the second social and economic. The freed people might as well have been left in slavery if they weren’t going to be endowed with rights that alone could protect them from future oppression, he believed. But he also continued to hold that political liberty would inevitably be a brittle thing unless paired with true economic independence, and that was only possible through the ownership of land. To that end, he called for expropriating the estates of the richest rebels and redistributing them as small farms to former slaves—a form of immediate reparations that, if enacted, would have made “our next United States” an infinitely more just and equal nation.

Before such a radical land-reform program could be considered, however, Congress had to decide what to do with the ex-rebels. Lincoln, before his assassination, had contended that the self-styled Confederate states had never really left the Union; they had only temporarily surrendered some of its protections. He set fairly generous terms for a state’s readmission—only one-tenth of the voters needed to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. To Stevens, this wasn’t nearly sufficient. He wanted to punish all ex-Confederates by banning them from holding public office and even from voting—the demand later weakened into the present version of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Section 3, which only blocked leading rebels from office—and also to empower the emancipated by allowing them to do both. Late in the war, Stevens objected to what he already saw would be the rapid slackening of Northern resolve and the revival of the iniquitous compromise tradition that had upheld both slavery and the Union ever since the founding. For him it wasn’t nearly as pressing to get the Southern states back in the Union as it was to cleanse them of “every vestige of human bondage,” to empower the freed people, and “to inflict condign punishment on the rebel belligerents, and so weaken their hands that they can never again endanger the Union.”

Far sooner than most, Stevens saw that the ascension of Andrew Johnson to the presidency presented a potentially fatal threat to that larger project of Reconstruction. Johnson rapidly accelerated the process of reunification that Lincoln had already begun, freely doling out pardons to ex-Confederates, defending the South’s restrictive “Black codes” that limited the freed people’s rights of labor and mobility (Johnson said in one State of the Union address that “negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people”), and demanding the readmission of Southern representatives into Congress. Johnson did nothing when former Confederate soldiers and politicians were elected as governors and senators; some wore their grey uniforms to work.

Southern whites accepted abolition of slavery because it seemed they were powerless to stop it, but, as Levine writes, they considered it “the outer boundary of change.” Even if specific whites couldn’t own specific Blacks anymore, one Union officer observed, the ex-rebels retained “an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large.” Freed people were forced to work for starvation wages, often for their former masters. Southern whites felt, as the officer put it, that “this kind of slavery is better than none at all.” Ad hoc militia companies intimidated Blacks into submission and brutally assassinated those who refused. The years after the war saw massacres of Black people in Charleston, and Norfolk, followed by even grislier ones in Memphis and New Orleans.

Stevens wanted to redistribute the land of the South’s wealthy slave-owning planters to those they had once claimed as property.

Stevens took the lead in resisting all of this, fighting against the return of normalcy, the much-desired reversion to what South-friendly Democrats called “the Union as it was.” When Southerners (and their Northern allies) insisted, as a certain breed of American politician never seems to tire of doing, that the time had come for unity, for setting aside old partisan hatreds, Stevens shot them down: “Let not these friends of secession sing to me their siren song of peace and good will until they can stop my ears to the screams and groans of the dying victims at Memphis.”

Ultimately, however, these horrific murders and Johnson’s blatant racism strengthened Stevens’s hand, for they showed that nothing less than full and thorough revolution in the South would prevent that status quo antebellum from taking hold again. By 1867, when some Republicans had already started to lose interest in the whole project, Stevens told them pointedly that “radicalism is the only thing now that will save and rescue us.” Levine charts the pivotal role Stevens played in helping to draft and pass the 14th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, and other important measures of early Reconstruction. The novelty and import of these measures can hardly be overstated. As Eric Foner showed in his recent book The Second Founding, they were the first to give the federal government new powers—to protect the rights and liberties of its citizens—rather than take them away.

Yet even such sweeping constitutional changes, Stevens saw, would not be enough to guarantee the fruits of the Union’s victory. He wanted to redistribute the land of the region’s wealthy slave-owning planters to those they had once claimed as property. This, he held, would establish a far more egalitarian society in the South and put the freed people in a position of economic as well as legal independence—a precondition, to his mind, for meaningful citizenship. Taking roughly four hundred million acres from the wealthiest white Southerners (those with properties larger than one or two hundred acres), he would give forty acres to each adult Black man, then sell off the rest to raise money for Union soldiers’ pensions and other uses.

But Stevens’s campaign for land reform found few allies among Republicans who feared invading the precious private-property rights they and their deep-pocketed backers held so dear. Abolishing slavery had been one thing, but seizing land? Republicans were already turning against their own democratizing initiatives—shrinking, as the original founders had, from the radical implications of their own revolution. The Times feared that should Congress “take cognizance of the claims of labor against capital” in the South, eventually its interest in the matter “will find its way into the cities of the North.” A Boston newspaper noted that taking aim at the aristocracy of the South would encourage those “socialists” elsewhere “who hold that any aristocracy” should be extinguished.

Stevens was unmoved, declaring with his customary vinegar that his proposals could be “condemned only by . . . that unmanly kind of men whose intellectual and moral vigor has melted into a fluid weakness which they mistake for mercy.” But with the Northern public starting to tire of the whole Southern question—Ulysses S. Grant ran for president in 1868 on the Bidenesque slogan, “Let us have peace”—Stevens’s power in Congress was starting to falter just as his health began rapidly to decline. His final speeches were difficult to make out. He had to be carried into the Capitol in a chair, wrapped in warm blankets. “Stevens seemed to be surviving only by the sheer force of will,” Levine writes. That steely will finally gave out on August 11, 1868. He was seventy-six years old.

Had he lived, Stevens alone couldn’t have prevented the eventual Northern surrender, the de facto abrogation of the most significant progress this country has ever made toward establishing a truly egalitarian, multiracial democracy. But his passing surely smoothed the way. Soon after he died, James G. Blaine, a moderate from Maine, was walking with a friend beneath the rotunda. “The death of Stevens,” Blaine admitted, “is an emancipation for the Republican Party.”


Such is often the fate of any true radical in American politics, any reformer-from-within. The New York Times criticized Stevens in its obituary as having “so fostered hatred of the nation’s enemies, that he refused, even in their helplessness, to extend the fraternal hand.” The great crime of Stevens, a “seer of democracy,” as W.E.B. Du Bois called him, was that he preferred to shape rather than grovel to public opinion. Often condemned in his time and since as a demagogue, Stevens in fact was anything but. He “did not flatter the people,” a fellow congressman noted; “he never was a beggar for their votes.” Had his career ended early, as on one or two occasions it nearly threatened to, it seems likely Stevens’s only concern would have been his diminished ability to do good for his country and his fellow man.

In the headline of its review of Levine’s book (written by the historian Fergus Bordewich), the Wall Street Journal welcomed Thaddeus Stevens “Back in the American Pantheon.” But if reviving Stevens’s reputation means neglecting the contemporary implications of his radicalism, perhaps it would be better not to bother. Defeating and prosecuting white-supremacist rebels would not be enough, Stevens contended; it was also necessary to extirpate the deeper roots of the treason—especially, to his mind, racial despotism. “While you are quelling this insurrection at such fearful cost,” Stevens advised, “remove the cause, that future generations may live in peace.” After the January 6 insurrection, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Journal, to its credit, called for Trump’s resignation. But removing the cause of this latest insurrection would necessarily mean, among many other things, dismantling Murdoch’s Fox News, whose anchors in the weeks preceding the attack fed the Trumpist hordes a steady diet of outright lies and disinformation and encouraged violence—and, in the four months since, have all but actively defended the attack. Restoring radicals to the American pantheon cannot be an excuse to ignore the indictment their words and deeds unmistakably offer of our own heinous complacencies, moral failures, and wildly corrupt institutions.

Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer at The Nation and author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union.

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