The greatest unknown person in American history
April 1, 2021
By Ross Hetrick
In the new biography of Thaddeus Stevens, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine lets it be known on the first page that Stevens was recognized by both friend and foe as a Civil War giant. He quotes the famous black abolitionists Frederick Douglass as saying: "There was in him the power of conviction, the power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of conscious ability [that] at last made him more potent in Congress and in the country than even the president and cabinet combined."
On the other side, Levine said Confederate General Jubal Early said he had Stevens's Caledonia iron works destroyed in the lead up to the Gettysburg battle because Stevens had done more damage to the Confederacy than any other U.S. congressman.
Levine's book, entitled: Thaddeus Stevens, Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter For Racial Justice, is the first significant biography of Stevens since the 2005 publication of Gettysburg author Bradley Hoch's Thaddeus Stevens In Gettysburg: The Making Of An Abolitionist. Levine gives unprecedented attention to Stevens's formation as a youth and young man and includes a great deal of detail and political analysis missing from previous biographies. He also says Stevens was one of the foremost leaders in what is increasingly being called the "Second American Revolution," where the government was fundamentally changed through the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.
By all rights, Stevens should be nearly as famous as Abraham Lincoln, a man he worked closely with to win the war and end slavery. Yet, he is largely unknown, even in the Pennsylvania cities of Gettysburg and Lancaster, where he spent most of his life. Much of the reason lies with how popular history is told and the way in which the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction was deliberately distorted.
Stevens's first problem is that the history that is taught is the story of presidents and generals. And while Stevens was master of the House of Representatives -- his critics called him the "dictator of the House" -- his achievements are usually lumped under the label of "Congress," as in "Congress impeached Andrew Johnson," or "Congress imposed military control on the South."
More importantly, Stevens was one of the victims of the incredibly successful southern propaganda effort know as the "Lost Cause," which downplayed slavery as a cause of the war and made heroes out of Confederate leaders. It also demonized Stevens as a man bent on inflicting vengeance on a prostrate south. Ironically, a chief promoter of this disinformation was Jubal Early.
But things have been turning around for Stevens's fame in the last few decades. A Stevens statue was erected in Lancaster in 2008 and in 2012, he was brought to the big screen in the Lincoln movie where Tommy Lee Jones portrayed him as a champion of equality. And next year, another Stevens statue is scheduled to be erected in Gettysburg, where he lived from 1816 to 1842.
If the trend continues, perhaps Stevens will be able to join the Mount Olympus of American history.
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's web page: thaddeusstevenssociety.com