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Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Frustrated Ambition

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 26, Number 3, September 1998
pp. 546-551 | 10.1353/rah.1998.0041

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Reviews in American History 26.3 (1998) 546-551
Hans L. Trefousse. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. xv + 312 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.

Hans L. Trefousse's Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian marks the culmination of a remarkable biographical transformation. Few historical figures have been the subject of more consistent attack and scorn than the Pennsylvanian who led the "Radical" Republican forces in the House of Representatives during the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction. James F. Rhodes condemned Stevens as a "violent partisan." William A. Dunning labeled him "truculent, vindictive, and cynical." Claude G. Bowers thought he was "as much a revolutionist as Marat in his tub." James G. Randall found him full of "vindictive ugliness" (p. xii). Even Fawn Brodie's 1959 Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, while certainly the least condemnatory biography, nonetheless focused on charges of sexual impropriety and corruption to such an extent that the reader is left with little admiration for the man affectionately known to his supporters as "the Old Commoner."

By the time one finishes Trefousse's biography, virtually none of the old historiographic edifice remains standing. Trefousse concludes that Stevens was not a reckless firebrand but a perceptive politician who understood that his forceful calls for abolition, the arming of black troops, equal rights, and black suffrage would prepare the public for their eventual implementation by more moderate leaders such as Lincoln. And far from being the "Dictator of the House," Trefousse argues that Stevens rarely succeeded in translating his convictions into law. His plans for the confiscation of southern land were ignored and his proposals for equal rights and suffrage protection for the freedmen were watered down until they became pale imitations of Stevens's original enlightened efforts. The only stereotype of Stevens that remains intact by the end of Trefousse's biography is his legendarily sarcastic wit. Both his friends and enemies agreed that Stevens's capacity for sarcasm was unequalled. Other than that, Trefousse's interpretation of Stevens is one that would have been almost unthinkable to historians a few generations ago.

Stevens's early life was not an easy one. He was born in 1792 with a deformed foot, and his father abandoned the family when young Thad was twelve. After the disappearance of his father, Stevens's mother moved the family to a town with an "academy" so Thaddeus could prepare for college. He entered Dartmouth as a sophomore but soon transferred to the University of Vermont, from which he graduated in 1814. His graduation almost did not come about, however, when a few days before commencement Stevens and a friend killed with an axe a cow that had wandered onto campus and its irate owner demanded his expulsion. Thaddeus paid for the cow and graduated.

The story of Stevens's rise to prominence reads like that of many antebellum political leaders. He decided to seek his fortune by moving south and west to Pennsylvania. He read law and after being admitted to the bar, moved to the small town of Gettysburg (which had fewer than 1,500 inhabitants when he settled there in 1816) in order to establish a legal practice. He quickly distinguished himself as an attorney and won his first public office, a seat on the Gettysburg town council, in 1822. By this point he was already practicing regularly before the state supreme court, and though his forte was said to be his withering cross-examinations rather than appellate work, he had an enviable court record in every aspect of his practice. It was a lucrative practice as well. After nine years in Gettysburg he owned more town property than any other inhabitant.

Like most young attorneys, Stevens took any case that came his way. One, according to Trefousse, was especially important in helping shape Stevens's career. In the early 1820s Stevens defended a slaveowner whose slave had sued for freedom on the grounds that she had been taken by her master to live in Pennsylvania. Stevens argued that the slave should not be freed because even though she had lived in the state more than the six...


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