Thaddeus Stevens by Bruce Levine

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Thaddeus Stevens
Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice
by Bruce Levine
Simon & Schuster, 309 pp., hardcover $28

In most respects a conventional biography, Thaddeus Stevens revisits the life and times of a consequential American character. Levine limns the forces that shaped Stevens’ sensibility and his commitment to racial justice as his most notable cause. Stevens’ family background, his education at a Vermont academy and later at Dartmouth College, his disability (a club foot), and the influence of Calvinist religion all contributed to his belief in the value of education in a free and economically vibrant society, his hatred of special privilege, and his advocacy of government’s role advancing the well-being of its citizens.

Stevens’ hatred of slavery and his tenacious commitment to equal rights for all Americans emerges as the book’s key leitmotif. For Stevens’ life in Gettysburg and Lancaster as an attorney, entrepreneur, and champion of education, Hans Trefousse’s 1997 biography remains an essential source. Levine’s primary focus is Stevens as a true revolutionary.

If enacted, Stevens’ ambitious agenda, which included uprooting the planter aristocracy’s power by seizing large swaths of Southern land and distributing it to the newly freed slaves, could have made for a different and more egalitarian country after 1865. That was not to be, nor was Stevens able to secure the conviction of a thoroughly racist president, Andrew Johnson, whom he helped to impeach in 1867.

After his death in 1868, Stevens fell into obscurity, then re-emerged at the hands of pro-Southern writers and filmmakers as the arch devil of the Civil War and Reconstruction. (The character based on Stevens in The Birth of a Nation was the chief villain of that inflammatory and influential 1915 film.) Yet today, owing to recent scholarship and Tommy Lee Jones’ riveting portrayal of Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, we see Thaddeus Stevens in a different light. Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice further refreshes our understanding of this remarkable American figure, who in Bruce Levine’s lucid study seems more pertinent than ever on social justice issues.

Michael J. Birkner
Gettysburg College