Thaddeus Stevens, a Robespierre for the Civil War
“Free every slave, slay every traitor, burn every rebel mansion if these things be necessary to preserve this temple of freedom.”
The seemingly perpetually unhappy Thaddeus Stevens had a scowl etched into his face in every photographic portrait ever taken. His older brother had been born with two club feet, and Stevens born with one, a disability that left him limping his entire life. He was abandoned by his father at a young age and raised by a Baptist mother, but soon had no use for religion. Stevens was a brilliant student at Dartmouth, but locked out of the elite Phi Beta Kappa society, which at that time was a completely secret society for the intellectual elite and organized by Freemasons. Phi Beta Kappa emerged into the open in 1845, a development that so angered its Yale chapter they formed a new secret society known today as Skull & Bones.
Stevens may have been blocked because of a club foot since Freemasonry did not admit cripples. His stinging wit and biting sarcasm were legendary. Early in his career as a lawyer, a judge accused Stevens of having a contemptuous attitude. He replied, “Sir, I am doing my best to conceal it.” In the 1820s he contracted a disease that caused his hair to fall out and would wear “ill-fitting” wigs for the remainder of his life.
After the Captain Morgan scandal blew the lid off Freemasonry and exposed it as a British-led plot to retake America, Stevens became a devoted leader of the newly-formed anti-Masonic party, the first third party, and one created largely to prevent Andrew Jackson from becoming president. Stevens remained a devoted anti-mason, although the party was crushed when its candidate (William Wirt) failed to capture any state but Vermont. Freemason Jackson was easily elected.
Strange none of Stevens anti-masonic speeches circulate today, although his anti-slavery ones are widely celebrated. After winning his first political campaign in 1833 and ascending to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Stevens led an investigation into Freemasonry in Pennsylvania by subpoenaing the governor, George Wolf, who sought refuge in the 5th amendment. In response Stevens heckled Wolf so severely the investigation backfired and cost him his seat in the House. In response Stevens took up the cause of free education and worked with Wolf to improve the state’s school system.
Stevens morphed into one of the most vocal anti-slavery advocates in the nation, working secretly for the underground railroad helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. In 1854 he joined the “Know Nothing” party, an anti-Irish, anti-German and anti-Catholic secret society born out of the corruption in New York City. For one seemingly devoted to the cause of the little man, Stevens’ acceptance into this society seems out-of-character and opens up the possibility of political opportunism. But then it should be remembered the “peace” movement that opposed Abraham Lincoln in the north, a movement viciously named “Copperheads” by its opponents, was comprised mostly of Irish and German immigrants, who were working with those Southerners who’d moved north of the Mason-Dixon line. Stevens briefly joined the Whig party, but defected in 1855 to the newly formed Republican Party, joining founding members William Seward and Abraham Lincoln.
Tommy Lee Jones did a remarkable job bringing Stevens to life in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, ill-fitting wigs, biting wit and all. Unfortunately, that film is marred with some inaccuracies. Particularly annoying is the opening sequence in which a black soldier faithfully recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech that would not be discovered and made famous until after Lincoln’s death. In fact, few today comprehend the reality Lincoln was extremely controversial while he lived, and looked upon as a tyrant by many. Lincoln never captured a majority of the popular vote and was barely elected. But after the assassination he was quickly transformed into the iconic national saint we know today.
Obviously Stevens lusted for a seat in Lincoln’s cabinet, but was rebuffed, which surely angered him. But within one day of his appointment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Stevens had a bond bill for waging war on the South. He’d end up working closely with Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase on funding and fomenting that war, a mission that included printing the first “greenback” dollars not backed by any bank, as well as the creation of the National Banking Act, which remained in effect until the arrival of the highly secretive private cartel known as the Federal Reserve in 1913.
Stevens pushed for the Emancipation Proclamation from the war’s start, and was furious Lincoln stalled his efforts. Spielberg’s film makes it seem he was being influenced in this mission by his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who was one-quarter black and had married a black man, but was widowed with two children when she went to work for Stevens. Their relationship was the worst-kept secret in Washington, but not widely known by the public until Spielberg’s film revealed it.
The war got really personal when Confederate General Jubal Early sent some raiding parties to destroy Stevens’ Caledonia Forge, a iron furnace that was obviously an important part of the Union’s military-industrial complex. Stevens was on site when one of the raids took place, but was quickly spirited away against his protests. The raids destroyed the furnace, resulting in a $80,000 loss to Stevens. When asked by newspapers if Stevens would have been taken to Libby Prison in Richmond had he been captured, General Early replied: “No, I would have hanged him and divided his bones amongst the Confederate states.”
This might explain why Stevens was so intent on punishing the South as severely as possible, a plan rejected by both President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward, which may have been the flame that drew the Stevens moth into Stanton’s plot as the two seem as unlike as night and day, as one was ruled by scruples while the other obviously had none.
Stevens would go on to lead the failed attempt to impeach President Johnson and save Stanton. But both he and Stanton lost their health rather quickly after the assassination, as both would be dead within a few years. Karma? Stevens remains an enigma because how could he support the rights of blacks so ardently, yet refuse rights of Southerners with equal ferocity? Stevens planned to confiscate all real estate owned by the 70,000 wealthiest Southerners and parcel it out to the freed blacks and loyal Northerners like himself, a plan strongly opposed by President Johnson, who wanted amnesty for all.
Stevens was out-of-town during Lincoln’s assassination and did not return, neither for Lincoln’s wake nor his funeral. Nor could Stevens be bothered attending the Lincoln ceremonies when the funeral train carrying the casket passed through his town on its way to its final stop in Springfield, Illinois. Did Stevens strike a devil’s deal with Stanton to have Lincoln removed so his plan to punish the South and loot it six-ways-to-Sunday could be realized? It certainly seems possible, which is why I have a hard time jumping on his bandwagon.
Coda: “I do not believe sir, in human perfection, nor in the moral purity of human nature….there are some reptiles so flat that the common foot of man cannot crush them.”