When Radicals Ran the U.S. Congress

Against the Current, No. 218, May/June 2022

Mark Lause

Thaddeus Stevens:
Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice

By Bruce Levine
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021, 336 pages, $18.99 paperback.

IT IS HARD to explain the importance of a Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) or the Radical Republicans, or even institutions such as the U.S. House of Representatives, to those only familiar with the present Congress.

In his final days, Stevens could look back on a lifetime of achievements that arguably did more good for more of the people of his country than any other member of the U.S. House of Representatives in its entire history.

Almost twenty years before, he had walked into what looked like an exclusive gentlemen’s club of well-connected lawyers. They generally deferred to a hard-drinking cabal of Bible-thumpers who actually held many — sometimes most — of the people of their districts in actual slavery, if not in contempt.

Stevens left a body that had actually broken the power of that cabal and generated new Constitutional Amendments eliminating slavery, guaranteeing equality before the law for those previously held in slavery or excluded by virtue of their race, and ensuring the right to vote of those people.

He did so through the organization and leadership of a Radical caucus within the Republican party. One of the most important figures ever to have sat in the Congress, Stevens had every reason to expect more from history.

Bruce Levine built Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice over the ideological ruins of generations that deliberately chose to get it wrong because it was politically useful to do so. Events left Radical Republicanism orphaned by history, even as unrepentant Lost Causers produced generations rationalizing slavery and its legacy.

From Reconstruction to Red Scare

With few exceptions, politicians, academics and the molders of popular culture yielded ground to new institutionalizations of white supremacy. A decade after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v Ferguson (1896) ruling that sanctioned racial segregation, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman (1905) shaped an entirely fictional narrative to justify its victory, a view that D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) brought to millions who would never look deeper.

The movie portrayed Stevens as Austin Stoneman, a crippled and embittered cynic about the unity of the country motivated only by exacting revenge on the poor defeated South. The first Southerner to occupy the White House since Reconstruction, Woodrow Wilson liked both the book and the movie.

Among academics, the son of a New Jersey businessman, Professor William A. Dunning of Columbia University, inspired a current of scholars who parlayed pseudo-constitutionalist “principles” into a lawyerly plea for deference to the Jim Crow South. The so-called Dunning school dominated the understanding of Reconstruction and of Stevens, in academe and beyond.

None of this went far enough for Otto Eisenschiml, an oil company executive dissatisfied with the “official” view of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From the late 1930s onward, he wrote a series of books conjuring a conspiracy theory that blamed the president’s murder on the Radicals.

Although groundless in terms of evidence, Eisenschiml wrote in a world where the U.S. authorities increasingly encouraged Americans looking to their left to see hidden agendas within hidden agendas. Like Russian babushka dolls, American “radicalism” contained socialism, which masked a Communist movement in which nested a network of Soviet agents.

Through the advent of the Cold War, Eisenschiml’s writings outsold those of professional historians by leaps and bounds, providing themes for Broadway plays and movies.

There were dissenters: Black and radical writers such as W.E.B. Dubois had always made unanswerable criticisms of the fashionable condemnation of the Radicals. The 1950s and 1960s saw a new civil rights movement erode the old dogmatism, with a delayed but very real impact among historians.

Their concerns increasingly centered on the previously enslaved working class with whom Stevens had sympathized so deeply. An outsider, the German-born Hans Trefousse, a veteran of the war against Nazism produced a series of studies in an effort to rehabilitate the Radical Republicans, including Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (1997).

(Read Bruce Levine’s article on Thaddeus Stevens in ATC 214 —ed.)

Public Life of an Outsider

Levine’s Thaddeus Stevens offered a surgically focused biography of the “public man,” shed of any preoccupations about answering the legion of rumors arrayed against his personal life and motives. He offers useful insights into some of what shaped his subject’s view of the world early in life.

Stevens overcame serious obstacles, including a clubfoot and his father’s abandonment of the family, but he got through Dartmouth, went into law, and settled at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he also invested in an iron works.

Perhaps a lingering sense of being an outsider drew him to the Antimasonic party before joining the Whigs and moving to Lancaster in 1842, at the age of fifty.

Levine rightly places Stevens’ strong and early views on slavery and race at the center of his public life. He publicly challenged Pennsylvania’s disenfranchisement of free Blacks and quietly helped runaway slaves escape north. His election to Congress in 1848 launched a national career, inseparable from the rise of antislavery politics and the new Republican Party.

After the national victory of that party, Southern secessionism hoped to spark a panic in the loyal states and, particularly, intimidate political leaders. Through it all, few remained as level-headed and uncompromising as Stevens.

The importance of Stevens belies the general preoccupation of scholars of the period with generals and their commanders-in-chiefs. As the thrust of history has carried the United States from a republic of sorts towards an imperial government, focused on strong executive leadership (“the imperial presidency”), the structures that shape civil society, notably the media, have always preferred the executive, particularly when set in the drama of war.

Stevens became the principal voice of the Radical caucus of the Republicans in Congress because he had the clearest vision and sharpest approach to their goals. His insistence upon the immediate abolition of slavery made him a critic of the reluctance and caution in the course of his own party’s leadership.

Levine’s subject played a unique and decisive role in shaping what became the disruptively transformative character of the Civil War: its astronomical cost. As the chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, Stevens became a vital innovator in financing the war. In the Legal Tender Acts, the government took charge of the money supply and addressed the immediate demands of the war by printing Federal “greenbacks.”

From his perspective, the war had to be won as quickly as possible without the usual obsessions about cost. At the same time, other Radicals controlled the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which did what it could with limited resources to combat fraud by contractors and agents of the government. (Not surprisingly, later critics of the JCCW portray it as an obstacle to a military authority unfettered by pesky elected officials.)

Secondly, Stevens took the position that secession constituted a self-exclusion of the rebellious states from the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. With the later Wade-Davis Bill, this drew the clearest war-time line between the Radicals and the rest of the Congress.

Reconstruction and its Shortcomings

War and emancipation radicalized some officeholders, and, in the aftermath of the Union victory, new figures entered the government, as insistent as Stevens that the readmission of the Southern states would require Radical change.

Northern voters agreed, and over three-quarters of the ballots cast in the Congressional elections of 1866 went to the Republicans and, disproportionately, for those who allied with the Radical caucus.

They initiated new Constitutional amendments ending slavery everywhere in the United States, and guaranteeing Black equality before the law and the right to vote. Enforcement of voting rights was, as it apparently remains to this day, a different matter.

Stevens and the Radicals understood that the fundamental issues turned on the question of “free labor,” but so did their enemies.

At their heart, armed white neo-Confederate terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged in response to land occupations and strikes waged by the newly freed people of color.

Relying on its time-honored use of race, the reactionaries chose to make their open fight against the Radicals through the old political institutions, using the common language of “liberty” to establish what would actually be the opposite.

Reconstruction’s disappointing results make little sense without acknowledging the deep flaws in the wartime Union cause and the limits of the institutionalized Radicalism among officeholders. Despite new Constitutional Amendments, the Federal will to enforce them proved wanting, and would do so for generations.

The resulting restoration to power of former Confederate elites represented the Federal betrayal not only of African-American aspirations, but also those of Southern whites who had hoped to escape a return to the political dictatorships of those elites. Nor can these retreats from Radicalism be separated from Washington’s more direct and deliberate reaffirmation of the U.S. race war on Native peoples and the more quiet abandonment of civic equality for women.

Stevens and his some of his colleagues transcended the domesticated institutionalized Radicalism, serious in its own right but operating generally within institutional constraints. His personal ties with people of color, his role in the Underground Railroad, and his confidence in the ultimate wisdom of the voters set him apart, as it did the best of his colleagues.

In his own case, Stevens had an absolute and unflinching faith in what Frederick Douglass called a “Composite Nationality” based on “a perfect human equality.”

Scholars tend to excuse the racism of the period based upon “the times,” ignoring the fact that some Americans were not so bounded. Of those, none held a higher office in government than Thaddeus Stevens or his comrade Benjamin Franklin Wade, the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and the next in line to become president had Andrew Johnson been impeached.

Wade not only shared Stevens’ insistence on the absolute equality of former slaves under the law, but had long advocated the equality of women and legislation requiring businesses to improve the lot of the working class.

The most consistent Radicals embraced the need to confiscate the land and property of the traitors for redistribution it to those who had made that land and property valuable, the former slaves.

These demands came directly from those toiling in those fields, but most Republicans became convinced that such a move would alienate white landowners.

Reconstruction Remains Unfinished.

The issues that inspired Radical Republicanism could scarcely be more relevant in the current political climate. The slaveholders couched the defense of their “peculiar institution” in the language of “liberty.” They couched their alleged right to own slaves in the same terms that capitalists defend their ownership of anything today.

Conversely, officeholders and the media have become obsessed with repeating that “our democracy” is at stake, while entirely oblivious to the fundamentally undemocratic features of the power structure they protect. They wage a rhetorical war against the oligarchs in the service of oligarchies.

Officeholders of all stripes seem to reach their often self-imposed institutional limits with sanctimonious symbols and rituals. Douglass’ vision of a “Composite Nationality” based on equality claims the trappings of victory, even as reactionaries whine about Martin Luther King to assert that racism ended with the election of Barack Obama.

Reconstruction is unfinished, and so is the writing of its history. New work is, or will, carry research into the field beyond those in public office, to recover and document the popular efforts to reconstruct a nation, aspirations that fueled the hopes of the Radical caucus of Thaddeus Stevens.

Now, as then, the impetus for change comes from that same source: the people, whose only real political power lies ultimately in their numbers and a commitment to concerted action. Only with this recognition will radicals once more gain practical strength barge into the halls of power and resume the noble work of Stevens and his caucus.

May-June 2022, ATC 218

1 comment

  1. The tragedy of Reconstruction is that it “could have been different”. The basis of a true democracy in the South existed politically if the leadership of the National Republican Party had not “grown tired” of enforcing the 14th and 15th amendments …. Then, there was still a possibility of a black-white alliance “at the bottom” via the Farmers’ Alliances and later Populist Party. Again — racism interfered and white populists opted for Jim Crow after 1896 —

    Of course a truly radical plan based on “40 acres and a mule” would have REALLY transformed the South — and it could have been done just by confiscating the land of traitors. (anyone who served as an officer in the Confederate army….)

    (and by the way, it wouldn’t hurt for educators to keep reminding people that the greatest act of treason in American History was not Benedict Arnold (that was peanuts compared to….) but the entire secession and Southern War against the United States …. )

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