Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South OR (Thad on the Couch)

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens

Congressman Stevens was the de facto leader of the Radical Republicans, a group that ruled Congress in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. One of the few times in American history where legislative power supplanted the executive. Stevens, as a member, lived on the western side of Capitol Hill – B Street NW ( Constitution Avenue). Stevens has been depicted in popular culture throughout the last 100 years, namely in D.W. Griffiths “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”  (2012). He died in 1868. The following is a book review of “Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South” by Fawn Brodie.

Upon Stevens’ death, Senator Simon Cameron said, “From the time of his entry into public no man assailed him without danger or conquered him without scars.” Indeed, it could be said that any man who conflicted with Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, did not end up in a pleasant place. Just ask President Andrew Johnson who faced an impeachment trial largely instigated by Thaddeus Stevens.

Stevens’ reputation has undergone a rehabilitation of sorts over the course of the last 60 years– this revisionist view of the Radical Republican can be attributed to the groundbreaking biography written by Fawn M.Brodie.  In it, she mixes two disciplines: psychoanalysis (at its cultural peak in American life during the 1950s) and history. The final result produces a biography that captures the essence of a man who the de-facto leader of the Republican Party in the late 1860s. A man who played a major role in passing the 13th, 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Freedman;s Bureau. Stevens never wavered in his support for full suffrage of African-Americans.

What made Stevens so adamant for equality for those relegated to second-class status? Brodie, examining the childhood, early adulthood, and congressional career comes to the conclusion that Thaddeus Stevens had an issue with entrenched power largely spurred by the rejection of his cobbler-trained father and the loneliness he felt because of his disability (clubbed foot). This was further exacerbated by the refusal of the free masons to allow Stevens as a member. (He was accused by one for murdering a slave girl during his younger days). When Andrew Johnson became President, Stevens transferred much of his hatred and resentment on Johnson, a free mason and Democrat, who publicly called Stevens, “an assassin.” This ultimately, led to the impeachment of a president over his firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. However, However, Johnson was acquired by the Senate in a close vote.

Stevens, devastated by his political loss, died several weeks later. In his final will and testament he asked to be buried in a racially integrated cemetery. He hoped that his longtime companion/housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, a free African-American woman, would be buried next to him. Ironically, Smith, one of the few people he ever became emotionally intimate with, chose to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.

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