A “powerful” (The Wall Street Journal) biography of one of the 19th century’s greatest statesmen, encompassing his decades-long fight against slavery and his postwar struggle to bring racial justice to America.
Thaddeus Stevens was among the first to see the Civil War as an opportunity for a second American revolution—a chance to remake the country as a genuine multiracial democracy. As one of the foremost abolitionists in Congress in the years leading up to the war, he was a leader of the young Republican Party’s radical wing, fighting for anti-slavery and anti-racist policies long before party colleagues like Abraham Lincoln endorsed them. These policies—including welcoming black men into the Union’s armies—would prove crucial to the Union war effort.
During the Reconstruction era that followed, Stevens demanded equal civil and political rights for Black Americans—rights eventually embodied in the 14th and 15th amendments. But while Stevens in many ways pushed his party—and America—towards equality, he also championed ideas too radical for his fellow Congressmen ever to support, such as confiscating large slaveholders’ estates and dividing the land among those who had been enslaved.
In Thaddeus Stevens, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine has written a “vital” (The Guardian), “compelling” (James McPherson) biography of one of the most visionary statesmen of the 19th century and a forgotten champion for racial justice in America.
Historian Levine (The Fall of the House of Dixie) reassesses the life of abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens in this fascinating yet flawed biography. Levine traces Stevens's rise from poverty in Vermont, where he was born with a club foot in 1792, to chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War and early supporter of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act and undermining Reconstruction measures passed by Congress. Levine is at his best documenting the evolution of Stevens's views on slavery, from the seeds of abolitionist thinking planted as a student at Dartmouth to his rise in the tentatively anti-slavery faction of the Whig Party in the 1840s, brief alignment with the nativist Know-Nothings in the 1850s, and pivotal role as a leader of the radical Republicans pushing for the Emancipation Proclamation and a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Though he provides valuable historical context and ably tracks the era's landmark legislation through Congress and the White House, Levine falls short in explaining how Stevens accrued and exerted his outsized political power. Still, this is an accessible and well-researched introduction to one of the most consequential lawmakers in U.S. history.