Skip to Main Content

Thaddeus Stevens

Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice

About The Book

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.

Excerpt

Chapter One: A Son of Vermont CHAPTER ONE A Son of Vermont
Shortly after noon on Thursday, December 17, 1868, the U.S. House of Representatives put aside pressing business to pay tribute to one of its most influential members and surely its most colorful one. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had died late in the previous summer, and on this day one man after another took the floor to honor his courage, integrity, eloquence, slashing wit, and especially his dedication to and achievements on behalf of human freedom. Stevens was born and raised in Vermont, and one of its congressmen read aloud a resolution from its legislature that claimed the deceased as “a son of Vermont.” Another congressman from that state explained that its people had always held “that the strong love of freedom and independence for all men” that the mature Stevens displayed—“his hatred of all forms of oppression, and his efforts to elevate and benefit the masses”—that these qualities and others “were, to some extent, due to his being born in Vermont.”1

Stevens had indeed grown up in a state proud of its recent struggle to protect its small farms and achieve a democratic form of government. His family’s strong Baptist faith stressed individual rights, egalitarianism, and mutuality. Schooling exposed him to the classics of the ancient world, an Enlightenment-influenced Protestantism, and liberal capitalist principles. These and other early influences contributed to the young man’s evolving personality, values, and view of the world.

Stevens’s parents had moved to Vermont from Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1786, just three years after the Revolutionary War ended. Along with some other families, Joshua Stevens and Sarah Morrill Stevens left their homes in hopes of escaping the economic hardships then afflicting Bay State farmers by resettling in a place whose soil was both cheaper and more fertile. Traveling 150 miles northward, they reached Danville, a small Vermont hill town set near a tributary of the Connecticut River. A few years later, Joshua managed to obtain a mortgage with which to purchase a farm there, and Sarah before long gave birth to four sons—Joshua Jr. in 1790; Thaddeus in 1792; Abner in 1794; and Alanson in 1797.2

Even in their new home, the Stevenses continued to struggle against poverty. The first two sons, Joshua Jr. and Thaddeus, were born with club feet—Joshua with two, Thaddeus with one. That left the boys unable to perform all the heavy labor that farming required. It also exposed them to ridicule. Someone who knew Stevens in his youth recalled that other youngsters would “sometimes… laugh at him, boy-like, and mimic his limping walk.” Thaddeus, that neighbor added, “was a sensitive little fellow, and it rankled.”3

The Stevens family’s difficulties deepened when Thaddeus’s father disappeared around 1804. The cause of that disappearance is unclear. Some suggest that Joshua Sr. simply fled his family’s woes. Some say that after abandoning his family, he died in the War of 1812. After trying for three years to manage the Danville farm without a mate or sufficient aid from her children, Sarah moved herself and her sons to nearby Peacham to live with her brother. Thaddeus then remained in Vermont another seven years, until 1811, when he was nineteen.4

Vermont’s political atmosphere in those years encouraged commitment to equality and democratic government. As Congressman Luke Poland noted in a eulogy for Stevens, that state was born in a fierce and protracted fight against what its residents viewed as “unlawful and unjust” attempts to oppress them. At stake in that fight were access to land and the right of democratic self-government. Although that struggle preceded Thaddeus’s birth, Poland also noted, “the heroes and statesmen who were her leaders in those trying days were still alive” during Stevens’s youth, and they continued to give “tone and temper to public sentiment and opinion for many years” afterward.5

Both before, during, and after the American Revolution, the region eventually known as Vermont—then commonly called the New Hampshire Grants—was claimed by both New Hampshire and New York. New Hampshire usually provided would-be settlers from New England with comparatively inexpensive land titles. But the colonial province of New York pronounced those claims invalid and during the 1760s bestowed titles of its own upon Yorker landlords and businessmen; some of those titles covered thousands of acres that overlapped with claims that Yankee farmers and speculators had previously staked.6

Even Yankee farmers whose deeds Yorkers did not challenge had good reason to oppose New York’s claim to govern the region. The colonial province of New York contained huge manors, especially along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, where many hundreds of poor, landless tenants worked land owned by wealthy families who wielded great power in provincial government. That power enabled the province’s elite to enforce payment of the often heavy debts of the region’s hard-pressed small farmers.7

When Yorkers, most of them absentee owners, tried to supplant Yankee farmers in the Hampshire Grants, the Yankees resisted, often violently. They rioted when Yorker-created courts tried to enforce the small farmers’ debts. They attacked, kidnapped, and even jailed officials attempting to evict them; freed neighbors arrested by such officials; destroyed the fences, crops, homes, and other property of Yorker newcomers; and forced the closing of local courts.8

In 1775, the Grants declared themselves a self-governing republic, eventually adopting the name of Vermont (from the French les Verts Monts, after the Green Mountain range that runs from north to south down the middle of the region).9 Although the small Vermont republic remained independent until admitted to the United States as a state in 1791, Vermont troops fought alongside the other insurgent colonies against Britain early in the war. That struggle further fanned the flames of social conflict at home. In the summer of 1777, revolutionary Vermont moved to finance the war’s costs by seizing property belonging to imperial Loyalists and selling it at public auction. Such land seizures, when added to acreage forfeited by Yorkers and Loyalists who fled Vermont, represented a major transfer of property from one group of people to another. While speculators took advantage of the situation, this agrarian upheaval enabled many poor settlers—those already in Vermont as well as others who arrived from elsewhere in New England after the revolution—to obtain farms at low prices.10

Thaddeus Stevens was thus born in a state that owed its very existence to struggle by small farmers for land. In waging that struggle, Vermont’s Yankee settlers drew strength from and reinforced a code of cultural, economic, and political values deeply rooted in New England. Those included belief in democratic government based on a broad-based suffrage and a conviction that the best society was one whose members owned their own small farms and whose mutual assistance helped to prevent creation of great extremes of wealth and poverty. Individual rights were prized, but personal interest must not threaten the welfare of the community.11

As colonists in North America waged their war for home rule against the British Empire, a second conflict broke out over who would rule at home. What kind of constitutions should newly born states adopt, and what kinds of state governments should those constitutions create? Some states, like New York, adopted constitutions structured to protect the interests of the social and economic elite against the dangers of too much democracy. They created weak and unwieldy bicameral legislatures in which effective veto power lay with upper houses elected solely by citizens with considerable property. They often placed more power in the hands of state governors whose lengthier terms of office placed them further above the reach of voters.12

Vermonters rejected that government model in favor of a more democratic one. The constitution they adopted in 1777 created a unicameral legislature that was stronger than the governor. Its members would be elected annually, with nearly all adult males enfranchised. (The one striking exception to this inclusive approach was a religious one. Vermont’s constitution guaranteed full religious freedom only to Protestants and limited membership in the legislature to them.)13

The generally democratic spirit that suffused Vermont politics and structured its government did something else of historic importance. Vermont’s constitution was the first in North America to condemn the enslavement of human beings. Echoing and elaborating upon the Declaration of Independence, its preamble announced that “all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” From that premise Vermonters drew at least one conclusion absent from the U.S. Constitution, adopted a decade later. “No person born in this country, or brought from over sea,” Vermont’s constitution held, “ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years.” To be sure, that passage was ambiguous and incomplete. It rejected the enslavement of adults more clearly than it actually outlawed it. And it said nothing about the enslavement of children. Still, it expressed greater hostility to slavery than did any U.S. state (or the British Empire) at that time.14

Of course, Vermont’s population was not homogeneous politically, and being born and raised there did not guarantee growing up to be Thaddeus Stevens. Stephen A. Douglas, whose political principles the adult Stevens despised, also spent his youth in that state. But Stevens’s family displayed a marked attachment to Vermont’s democratic and egalitarian traditions. Joshua and Sarah apparently named their second son after Tadeusz KoSciuszko, the Polish-Lithuanian soldier who had joined the American fight for independence. More tellingly, Thaddeus long remembered his family’s regard for the revolution’s most egalitarian document, the Declaration of Independence. From his “earliest youth,” he would later recall, he was taught to read it and “to revere its sublime principles.”15

The Stevens family’s Baptist faith echoed and reinforced those principles. Sarah Morrill Stevens was very devout and saw to it, as she later recalled, that her son was “taught the scriptures” at an early age. The town of Danville’s first Baptist congregation formed in the year of Thaddeus’s birth, and his family duly joined it.16

The Baptist denomination had arisen in England within seventeenth-century Puritanism, which prized simplicity of doctrine and ritual and the active involvement of church members. Puritans were also Calvinists and held to the doctrine of predestination, believing that God decided the spiritual fate of all humans before their births and that the great mass of humanity would be damned. Only the few, the “elect,” would be saved, and God would stand by them, strengthen their arms, and relieve them of any conflicting obligations to earthly powers, including kings.17

Baptists subscribed to much of that general Puritan outlook, in some ways further emphasizing personal choice and responsibility. Their name reflected insistence that the full church membership conveyed in the ceremony of baptism should occur not routinely at birth but only once a person reached adulthood and made a conscious decision to accept the church’s doctrines and responsibilities. The same stress on individual choice led Baptist congregations to permit, even to encourage, their members to amend or challenge the sermons of their ministers.18

Complementing and somewhat qualifying this stress on personal choice and responsibility, Baptists prized membership in a community bound together by ties of mutual respect and mutual assistance, helping one another both spiritually and practically.19 Thaddeus’s mother personified that commitment. When spotted fever struck the county in 1805, she threw herself into the work of nursing the afflicted back to health. Her son accompanied her as she did so, and his mother’s selfless conduct reinforced his sense of responsibility to the unfortunate and fostered an open-handed generosity toward them.20

The Baptists of Vermont were strongly egalitarian and democratic in their political inclinations. They remained acutely conscious that they had suffered persecution in England, and in both Massachusetts and Vermont they found themselves taxed to support another (the Congregational) church. In reaction, they favored separation of church and state, an expansive freedom of religion, and a democratic form of government, expecting that greater democracy would better protect their liberties. The same concerns led them to demand transparency in government and to oppose secretive fraternal associations, fearing that secrecy could cloak authoritarian and repressive plotting against their rights.21

The next stage of Stevens’s early shaping took place in schools. Sarah Stevens doted upon this son and made him (as a close colleague of his later put it) “the Joseph of the family.” She determined early that he must obtain a good education and prepare himself for one of the professions. Thaddeus himself recalled that this “very extraordinary woman” had “worked night and day to educate me.” She taught him to read, helped kindle in him a love of reading and a hunger for reading matter, and enrolled him in the state’s public (“common”) schools. Finding books scarce in rural Vermont, Thaddeus tried at age fifteen to establish a library in his community. In 1807 he began attending the Peacham Academy, a tuition-based high school, to prepare himself for college.22

Four years later, Stevens enrolled in Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. For reasons that are unclear, he passed all or part of his junior year at the University of Vermont, returning to Dartmouth for his senior year and graduation. Like many others with few means, he helped to finance his higher education by working as a teacher in a nearby school. He also skipped the freshman year at Dartmouth, enrolling instead as a sophomore. This was another stratagem that indigent students commonly used to reduce the cost of their education. In order to do that, Stevens would have had to perform well on the entrance examination by demonstrating an acquaintance with the Greek and Latin classics, something that the young man had probably obtained at the Peacham Academy.

To which ideas was Stevens exposed in college? One influence would have been the Dartmouth faculty, which was Federalist in political sympathy and therefore likely to prefer some restrictions on the suffrage and to support government aid to commercial and industrial development. A second influence would have been the particular books listed in the college curricula, which included works by John Locke, William Paley, Joseph Butler, Jonathan Edwards, and the Swiss theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui.23

Neither a lazy nor a frivolous student, Stevens doubtless took his reading assignments seriously.24 In those books he would encounter strenuous efforts to grapple with the Enlightenment’s challenge to religion. That took the form not of demanding blind faith in received doctrine but of asserting that human reason was not only perfectly compatible with belief in God and acceptance of Christianity but led naturally to belief and acceptance.25 Those books would also expose Stevens to strong views about subjects later called sociology, political science, and history. Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui argued for strong and activist government in the hands of an educated and capable elite. In Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, William Paley endorsed policies that served existing social and political relations. He held that private property was necessary for productivity, prosperity, and social order and must be protected, and he criticized trade unions for fomenting social turmoil. Allowing people who owned no property to vote was dangerous, Paley also explained, because the poor were volatile and undependable; a really broad-based political democracy would lead to mob rule.

But the young Stevens would not have found in Paley’s book a complacent satisfaction with all aspects of the status quo. Private property could produce abuse and exploitation, Paley conceded. And that author flirted with some egalitarian-seeming notions, criticized the idleness and self-indulgence of the rich, contemplated a graduated income tax, and urged a significant degree of religious freedom.26

The books that Stevens read probably had an ambiguous impact upon students’ thinking. In religious, social, and political terms, the authors were basically conservative, aiming to defend Christianity and existing society by inoculating readers against religious skepticism and social and political radicalism. But, as some feared, their adaptation to the Enlightenment might also serve as a bridge out of strong religious belief. And their acknowledgment of societal inequities could encourage more extensive and more fundamental kinds of social and political questioning.27

On one subject, however—human slavery—Stevens’s formal education would have had a straightforward effect, bolstering the aversion to bondage that was common among New Englanders and that Vermonters had written into their own constitution. In the ancient classics, he later recalled, he “found… one unanimous denunciation of tyranny and of slavery, and eulogy of liberty. Homer, Aeschylus the great Greek tragedian, Cicero, Hesiod, Virgil, Tacitus, and Sallust, in immortal language, all denounced slavery.” As early as 1808, students at the University of Vermont were engaging in organized debates over the rights and wrongs of slavery and emancipation. Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy contained an extended and passionate denunciation of slavery, deeming property in human beings an abomination. “The slaves, torn away from parents, wives, children, from their friends and companions, their fields and flocks, their home and country,” Paley protested, “are transported to the European settlements in America, with no other accommodation on shipboard than what is provided for brutes.” Once in the Americas “the miserable exiles are… placed, and that for life, in subjection to a dominion and system of laws, the most merciless and tyrannical that ever were tolerated upon the face of the earth” and did so “with rigour and brutality.”28

How could this great moral wrong be righted? Paley’s basic conservatism made him quail at the thought of eliminating even so abominable a tyranny hastily. “The emancipation of slaves should be gradual,” he said, “and be carried on by provisions of law, and under the protection of civil government.” Paley counted on the spread of Christian enlightenment to put an end to “this odious institution.” “By the mild diffusion of its [Christianity’s] light and influence,” he wrote, “the minds of men are insensibly prepared to perceive and correct the enormities, which folly, or wickedness, or accident, have introduced into public establishments.” Wasn’t that, after all, the way that “Greek and Roman slavery, and, since these, the feudal tyranny, has declined before it”?29

After graduating from Dartmouth in August 1814, Stevens moved to southern Pennsylvania, evidently hoping to find a teaching job where a friend had already done so.30 He succeeded in the town of York and began teaching at the York Academy while studying law. In late August 1816, at twenty-four, he passed the bar in neighboring Maryland and then opened a law office in Gettysburg, the small county seat of Adams County. A lawyer and judge who knew him then observed “a mind which instantly and clearly comprehended” any problem at hand and a “strength of judgment” that quickly produced “a sound solution.” Stevens’s manner of speaking, moreover, was both “eloquent and curt” and “impressed the force of his convictions” upon his listeners. Even a longtime political opponent conceded his skill at “present[ing] the strong points of a case in a more powerful manner” than could most other lawyers. The young attorney’s appearance was impressive, too. He was tall and physically imposing. Just under six feet in height, he boasted a large frame and, despite his limp, had become muscular and athletic. His face radiated dignity, intelligence, and intensity. (His hair was brown until he lost it all in his mid-thirties to alopecia, after which he never appeared in public without a wig.)31

As his law practice prospered, Stevens invested in local real estate and ironworks and launched a political career. Between 1822 and 1831 his neighbors elected him to the borough council, where he served for a time as its president. In 1833 voters sent him to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and did so again in each of the next two years. He failed to win reelection in October 1836 but the following month became a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837–38. He returned to the state House in 1837. In the summer of 1842, financial reverses induced him to move to the larger town of Lancaster, which offered greater opportunities to a rising attorney and politician.

When he settled in Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens’s general outlook reflected what he had internalized, modified, or discarded from his family and their values, his Vermont neighbors, and his formal education. His relationship to the Calvinism of his youth was complicated. Raised by and long close to his devout mother, he claimed at the end of his life that he had “always been a firm believer in the Bible” and that only “a fool… disbelieves in the existence of a God.” And while admitting that he had not lived piously, he also insisted that, having been “raised a Baptist,” he continued to “adhere to their belief.” Apparently bolstering that claim was the fact that Stevens rented church pews while living in Gettysburg as well as Lancaster.32 And throughout his life he would invoke both God and scripture in support of his political convictions.

But the Thaddeus Stevens whom his friends and acquaintances knew differed from this image. His law student and then political associate Alexander Hood saw in him a religious skeptic whose mind rebelled against any belief that was “in conflict with his own reason.” Another longtime friend and ally, Edward McPherson, agreed in an unpublished memoir that Stevens was not “a Christian in any religious sense,” that he “gave the same admiration to Socrates [that] he did to Jesus.” Indeed, McPherson went on, “in regard to Religion, for nearly the whole of his life he sat ‘in the seat of the scornful’?” and while “as a general thing he was too guarded to speak his thoughts openly,” still “at times, among those whom he thought it would not too deeply offend,” he expressed views on that subject that “were exceedingly course and extremely contemptuous.”33 It seems most likely, therefore, that although the adult Stevens believed in God, he had little use for organized religion.

The Baptist faith that surrounded Stevens in his youth seems nonetheless to have left its mark. McPherson noted that Stevens remained “at all times a reader of the Scriptures” and that “his knowledge of them was extensive and accurate.” Hood recalled seeing Stevens vigorously defend the doctrine of predestination against a critic. In doing so, Hood said, Stevens demonstrated “such an intimate acquaintance with the theological writers of the Calvinistic school” that the critic asked if he had ever trained for the clergy. Stevens replied with a dismissive grunt and a curt affirmation that he had “read the books.”34

As students of religion have noted, belief in predestination has commonly served to bolster the optimism and self-confidence of subscribers who presume themselves to be among the “elect.” But if Stevens no longer adhered fully to Calvinist doctrine, what belief animated his defense of predestination that day? It seemed to Hood that even though Stevens was no longer genuinely religious, he remained “a fatalist in the strongest sense of the term.” Stevens’s assertion decades later that neither secession nor the Civil War was an “accidental” occurrence but were instead “predetermined and inevitable” seems to accord with Hood’s claim.35 But if it was not grounded in Calvinism, what was the nature of Stevens’s fatalism? Was it a belief in some kind of cosmic fate? Or was it simply an understanding that real, often intractable earthly circumstances—including material conditions, human frailties, and large social forces—limited options and shaped the lives of individuals and nations?36

Stevens also retained the dark view of human nature that underlay Calvinism’s belief that only a few would achieve salvation. McPherson recorded that while Stevens in later years agreed “that an honest man was not an impossibility,” he continued to believe that such men “were very few indeed.”37 He would invoke that view publicly at the end of his life in a shorthand explanation of the nation’s decades-long “depart[ure] from the principles of the Declaration of Independence” in tolerating slavery and racial inequality for so long. That had occurred, he summarized, because “man still is vile.”38

Stevens’s personal life exhibited an ambivalence similar to the one apparent in his spiritual life. Although when still “a young man he would occasionally take a glass of wine,” he would later abstain from both tobacco and alcohol. He “was not an immoral man,” Hood observed, but neither was it accurate “to say he had no vices.” Stevens was an enthusiastic gambler and, perhaps, something of a sexual libertine. Later in his life he confessed to having spent “too much” of it “in idleness or frivolous amusement.” The abolitionist Protestant minister Jonathan Blanchard called him “one of that sort of prophets who… are at once the violators of God’s law, and the champions of His cause.”39

One of Stevens’s oft-noted characteristics was a pronounced and lifelong sympathy for the disadvantaged and mistreated. As another colleague later put it, “nature had given Mr. Stevens a generous heart,” so “he seemed to feel that every wrong inflicted upon the human race was a blow struck at himself.” Observers and chroniclers have attributed that generosity of spirit to various sources, especially his own physical handicap, and perhaps that did play a part. Stevens himself credited the indigence he had known in Vermont. “When I reflect,” he said in the 1830s, “how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and, perhaps, as a consequence, hereditary pride are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and the rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty.”40

But perceiving poverty’s silver lining did not make Stevens idealize his straitened, provincial youth. It seems clear, on the contrary, that at an early age he found life in his hard-pressed rural community wanting. His first direct exposure to a world outside it apparently occurred in 1804; in that year, at age twelve, he went on a family trip to visit relatives in Boston. Although the adult Stevens rarely discussed that trip, Alexander Hood inferred that it convinced young Thaddeus that he must “become rich and live like the wealthy men did there.” But Hood admittedly had trouble squaring that inference with the fact that “there never was a man who cared less for money to be spent upon himself” than Thaddeus Stevens. Other acquaintances agreed about Stevens’s relative disinterest in wealth.41

Whether or not exposure to Boston ignited an ambition for personal gain, it probably opened young Thaddeus’s eyes to a kind of life that was not only materially richer but also more stimulating, exciting, and filled with opportunities than was his own, which he would some years later refer to sardonically as “indigent obscurity.” Appreciation of economic development’s benefits would shape much of his adult life.42

About The Author

Ruth Hoffman

Bruce Levine is the bestselling author of four books on the Civil War era, including The Fall of the House of Dixie and Confederate Emancipation, which received the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship and was named one of the top ten works of nonfiction of its year by The Washington Post. He is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 1, 2022)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476793382

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

“Bruce Levine… restores [Stevens] fully to his place in the American pantheon... A fitting monument to one of the most formidable gladiators ever to stride the halls of Congress.”
 The Wall Street Journal

“At last, Thaddeus Stevens, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest proponents of racial justice, gets the biography he deserves. Drawing on a career of scholarly engagement with the Civil War era, Bruce Levine expertly relates how Stevens navigated the currents of the Second American Revolution, how he helped to bring about the destruction of slavery and was a leader in the effort during Reconstruction to make the United States a biracial democracy. We need Stevens’ passion for equality today.”
 Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

“He was called everything from Robin Hood to Robespierre to evil genius to fanatic and worse. He was a "radical" in a time when that was not always derogatory. This book reveals in many dimensions a Thaddeus Stevens, who with vicious wit and shrewd political skill, was a primary founder of the second American republic. Through deep understanding of all the contexts of the Civil War era and vivid writing, Bruce Levine gives us the best biography of this towering figure yet written, and a timely story about the power of racial equality.”
— David W. Blight, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

“Often reviled and generally misunderstood, Thaddeus Stevens has been relegated to a dark corner of the American historical stage. The distinguished historian Bruce Levine not only brings Stevens back into the light but also reveals his significance to the revolutionary dynamic of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Levine’s is a riveting read and a thought-provoking biography, more timely than ever.”
— Steven Hahn, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom

“Spirited.”
— The Civil War Monitor

“Vital.” 
— The Guardian 

“This succinct and compelling biography… casts Stevens as a congressional leader of the drive to abolish slavery and implant civil and political equality in the Constitution, though Congress failed in the end to adopt his plan to attack economic inequality by land reform in the reconstructed South.”
 James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era 

“Levine deftly weaves political, social, and intellectual history into eleven brief chapters... helping us to understand 19th-century America as Americans of the time knew it, instead of as Lost Cause advocates… re­imagined it in the years after the Civil War.”
— The National Review

“Levine’s book, written in crisp and no-nonsense language… succeeds in recovering a richer, more complicated Stevens... Appreciated here in full, his career gives the lie to the oft-repeated idea, common in politics and certain kinds of history, that radical ideals and practical achievements are inevitably and always at odds... Levine’s study of the neglected, much maligned Stevens offers an opportunity to reflect on what this country might have been—and the merest glimmer of hope for what it might still be.”
— The Baffler 

“Levine writes in lucid prose with a great depth of understanding... It’s impossible to read this book without seeing a reflection of our own combustible times.”
— BookPage

“This is the fullest, most nuanced, and best written explication of the political career and principles ever written about one of the key figures of nineteenth-century America. It is a major contribution to antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction studies and to American political biography. Anyone interested in how the war evolved and why its aftermath was both so promising and so disappointing needs to read this book.”
— Stephen V. Ash, author of A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War

“W.E.B. Du Bois called the pioneering antislavery politician Thaddeus Stevens a ‘seer of democracy.’ In this superb biography, Bruce Levine has conjured Stevens's bold vision of equality, revealing that Stevens was a profound thinker who saw the essential connection between civil rights and economic rights. Levine deftly traces Stevens's dramatic political journey, with attention to setbacks and missteps as well as to the progress Stevens achieved for America. This is a timely tale of an inspirational leader.”
— Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

“In this taut, authoritative, and much-needed modern biography of Thaddeus Stevens, the benchmark racial egalitarian of the Civil War era, Bruce Levine elegantly captures the steely moral fibre and unwavering political radicalism of an unsettling colleague and formidable foe. This is very fine history. Additionally, Stevens, implacable in the pursuit of racial justice, provides a relevant, stirring, and essential model for our own times.”
 Richard Carwardine, author of Lincoln's Sense of Humor

“At long last, the principled yet astute Thaddeus Stevens is the subject of a sympathetic modern biography. Bruce Levine’s adept book gives us a compelling portrait of the Radical Republican extraordinaire, especially when he was at the apex of his political career during the Civil War and Reconstruction.” 
— Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

“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.”
— Pennsylvania Heritage

“[F]ascinating… an accessible and well-researched introduction to one of the most consequential lawmakers in U.S. history.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Easily the most detailed and important account of Stevens, this well-written biography belongs in every academic library and all other libraries with an emphasis on American history.”
— Library Journal

“[A] fresh approach to the life of abolitionist and congressman Thaddeus Stevens... Levine's biography of the South's much-loathed Northern antagonist is a fine addition to the literature of this ever-relevant era.”
— Booklist

“A convincing rehabilitation of a statesman who fought for equality before it became fashionable.”
 Kirkus Reviews

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images