Thaddeus Stevens and forty acres and a mule
May 1, 2021
By Ross Hetrick
The issue of reparations to the descendants of slaves is making its way to the floor of the House of Representatives where congressmen may soon vote on whether a commission be established to explore the matter. It is an issue that dates back to shortly after the Civil War, when Thaddeus Stevens championed a plan that would have transformed the South. But despite his reputation for pulling off legislative miracles, the plan went nowhere.
Known as "40 Acres and a mule," the plan was to confiscate land from the richest rebels and give 40 acres to each of the one million adult black men who had recently been freed from bondage. Advocates of the plan said freed slaves needed the land so that they would not be subjected to the tender mercies of their former masters.
The idea got a trial run in the last few months of the war when Union General William Sherman was confronted with what to do with the tens of thousands of freed slaves flocking to his lines. His solution was his Field Order 15 issued in January 1865, which divided up 400,000 acres of abandoned property along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts to 40,000 blacks.
While the program had the support of President Abraham Lincoln, it did not of his successor, Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat, and the order was overturned in the fall of 1865 and property returned to its previous owners.
But the idea of 40 acres and a mule did not die there. It was taken up by Stevens, who was the leader of the Radical Republicans and the most powerful congressman at that time. And he wanted to do it in a big way.
Stevens wanted to confiscate 390 million acres owned by the wealthiest 70,000 people in the south. Of that, 40 million acres would be allotted to the 1 million adult black men at 40 acres a piece along with $100 for equipment. The rest would be sold at an average cost of $10 an acre to raise $3.5 billion to support veterans, compensate loyal southerners and northerners who were damaged by the Civil War and pay off the war debt.
Contrary to what his critics charge, Stevens did not want to confiscate "every foot of rebel land." Instead, he wanted to seize land owned by the richest 1.2 percent of the whites in the South who amazingly owned 84 percent of all the property. To Stevens, this lopsided ownership was a threat to democracy and had to be change.
"The whole fabric of southern society must be changed and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost," Stevens said. "Heretofore, it had more the features of aristocracy than than democracy. The Southern states have been despotisms, not governments of the people. It is impossible that any practical equality of rights, can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the whole landed property. The larger the number of small properties, the more safe and stable the government," he said.
Not only was it important to revamp southern society, the measure was crucial to the recently freed slaves, according to Stevens. "On its success, in my judgment, depends not only the happiness and respectability of the colored race, but their very existence," he said. "Homesteads to them are far more valuable than the immediate right of suffrage, though both are their due."
Stevens introduced his proposal twice, first in February 1866 and then again in March 1867. The first time the measure was overwhelming voted down. The second time the measure didn't even get out of committee. In his new Stevens biography, historian Bruce Levine said Steven's fellow Republicans were afraid that such a massive confiscation of property might give ideas to northern socialists and labor leaders. "Republicans also wondered nervously where -- if they began redistributing landed property to exploited and impoverished people -- that road would lead," Levine said.
Stevens's proposal made incredible sense. It would have taken the property from the people who had built their fortunes on the back of slaves and given it directly to the exploited. There would have been no questions about people whose ancestors did not own slaves paying reparations to descendants several generations removed from the enslaved.
But if the plan had been adopted, it most certainly would have been met with howls of indignation by very arrogant white southerners, who were able to magnify a very mild Reconstruction period into a giant resentment that continues to this day. And considering the vicious, unscrupulous way the black population was treated after federal troops were withdrawn, the property probably would have been stolen back.
Yet, despite all the problems and objections to the plan, it would have been the right thing to do.
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: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/