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Erik Visits an American Grave (V)

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Below is the grave of one of the great American heroes, Thaddeus Stevens.

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Stevens hardly needs to be explained to most LGM readers, but briefly, a Whig lawyer who took an anti-slavery position early, he became a leading Republican at the party’s outset while representing a southern Pennsylvania district. As early as 1837, he fought for the black vote at a Pennsylvania constitutional convention. He helped defend the black defenders of self-emancipated slaves after the Christiana Riot in 1851, helping turn this incident into an attack on the Fugitive Slave Act. During the war, he became the leader of the congressional Republicans demanding immediate action on slavery and to allow African-Americans to play a full and complete role in American civic and social life, a position to put him far to the left of the majority of his own party. After Lincoln’s death, Stevens of course became the great enemy of Andrew Johnson, pressing for Radical Reconstruction and leading the fight against the president. He supported land redistribution for the former slaves, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which Stevens played a major role in moving through Congress as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. The enmity against Stevens became so great that he was the model for the Republican congressman and villain of supporting miscegenation and black rights in D.W. Griffith’s legendary racist 1915 film The Birth of the Nation.

Unlike a lot of Republicans, not only did Stevens’ sympathy with slaves not end with emancipation, but he also supported other oppressed groups as well. He fought against giving states control over reservations, noting that the states would abuse Native Americans far worse than the federal government (almost certainly true even given the horrible treatment that actually did take place under federal authority) and supported an 8-hour day at a time when former abolitionists were talking about the rise of a mild form of American class politics as if a socialist revolution was going to destroy the United States.

Stevens may or may not have had a long-term sexual relationship with his African-American housekeeper, a woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith. Certainly the rumors said he did and this was repeated by Steven Spielberg in the film Lincoln. Either way, Stevens did not oppose interracial marriage, placing way outside of the mainstream for white men of his day. Stevens left Smith most of his inheritance and she lived in his house after he died.

Thaddeus Stevens is buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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  • Rob in CT

    The peril of being right before your time:

    With the Republicans unwilling to embrace black suffrage in their platform and the Democrats opposed to it, Stevens feared Democratic victory in the 1868 elections might even bring back slavery. He told his fellow Pennsylvania politician, Alexander McClure, “My life has been a failure. With all this great struggle of years in Washington, and the fearful sacrifice of life and treasure, I see little hope for the Republic.”

    When interviewed by a reporter seeking to gain his life story, Stevens replied, “I have no history. My life-long regret is that I have lived so long and so uselessly.”

    But talk about making the right enemies:

    The [Franklin, Louisiana] Planter’s Banner exulted [upon his death], “The prayers of the righteous have at last removed the Congressional curse! May … the fires of his new furnace never go out!”

    • Steve LaBonne

      It saddens me greatly to know that he died believing that he had lived in vain.

      • witlesschum

        I think that’s the nature of a man like Stevens and somewhat the nature of the liberal project.

  • prufrock

    It says something that an “Erik visits a grave” entry is the most positive thing posted by anyone over the past couple of days.

    As an aside, I’d consider my life well lived if I were the inspiration of a D.W. Griffith villain.

    • Warren Terra

      Also I think the first grave visited of a hero instead of a monster.

      • Are you calling Eng and Chang monsters?

        Sorry, couldn’t resist.

        • rea

          They were slavers, so perhaps yes.

        • Warren Terra

          I forgot that entry. But now that you’ve reminded me: they probably don’t count as being monsters, not being unusually bad, but their slaveowning and possibly other actions make them maybe part of their contemporary banality of evil.

  • Sly

    Stevens did not oppose interracial marriage, placing way outside of the mainstream for white men of his day. Stevens left Smith most of his inheritance and she lived in his house after he died.

    Technically his will provided that she can stay in the house for five years after his death and provided an annuity of $500 a year or a lump sum payment of $5,000, whichever she preferred, and she used the money to buy the house.

    His actual heir, his nephew (also named Thaddeus) fared a lot worse. He got $2,000 and a chance at the entire state provided he “abstained from intoxicating drinks” for a period of years. Apparently he couldn’t do it, so the remainder of the estate went to establish an orphanage that, as per Stevens’ will, could never be segregated by race. That’s where most of the money went.

    Thaddeus Stevens is buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

    And it’s worth noting that, at the time of his death, Shreiner’s Cemetery was the just one of a handful of integrated cemetery’s in the entire state of Pennsylvania, and the only one in Lancaster county. Which is why he insisted on being buried there.

    • lu5cus

      It is noted by the man himself: On the south face of the monument in Eric’s photo, Thaddeus put his epitaph –

      “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not for any natural preference for solitude. But finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death, the principles which I advocated through a long life. Equality of man before his creator.”

  • Malaclypse

    If you have not yet been to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, I cannot recommend the trip enough.

  • ice weasel

    That grave is one block from my house.

  • Bruce Vail

    Oddly enough, Stevens was taught as a villian of American history in my High School in a Republican region of New York state (Hudson Valley)in the first half of the 1970s.

    The spin was that the Radical Republicans were intent on punitive measures against the defeated South, contrary to the wishes of the Sainted Lincoln. The impeachment of Johnson was depicted as a gross offense against the Constitution, and was properly defeated by a handful of brave, principled senators (see Kennedy’s ‘Profiles In Courage).

    • Welcome to the Dunning School!

      • LeeEsq

        Its telling that Dunning sounds similar to dung.

      • There is an actual Dunning School in my town.

        • LeeEsq

          I’m sorry.

      • Bruce Vail

        Yeah, I get the Dunning school thing overall, but a Putnam County NY public school still seems an odd place for it to land. That part of the state went Republican in 1860 and never went back (a relative in neighboring Dutchess County used to brag that they never voted for FDR in any of his many elections, even though the Roosevelt Hyde Park home was in Dutchess). So it wasn’t like the Southern (or Northern) Democrats were shown as the good guys.

    • EliHawk

      One can completely side with the Radical Republicans on Reconstruction and still think that attempting to remove Johnson from office over the Tenure of Office Act was a terrible usurption of power that would have set a pretty terrible precedent. Impeachment doesn’t exist to be a vote of no confidence.

      • witlesschum

        “High crimes and misdemeanors” could mean a lot of things.

    • Porlock Junior

      “Oddly enough, Stevens was taught as a villian of American history in my High School in a Republican region of New York state (Hudson Valley)in the first half of the 1970s.”

      Is there anything unusual in that? This is a serious question for those with memories that go that far back, or farther.
      ETA – OK, I shouda read farther.

      In my high school studies, in the mid to late 1950s, the villainy of the vindictive bastards called Radical Republicans was a strong theme, and ISTR that this came up in more than one course.

      This was in a rich (not unanimously) and conservative (ditto) enclave in Alameda County. While that county (home to Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) is not famous for devotion to the GOP today, it did tend to vote for Republicans (one of whom was Earl Warren).

      Then again, here’s another shapshot of the times, from our Am Hist text, written by a famous scholar, Samuel Eliot Morrison. While I hadn’t heard of him, I remember my shock on reading his description of the generally OK, not too bad life of Southern slaves, who worked in the fields while the pickaninnies played– well, you really don’t care *what* they played, do you? Nor did I; to my childish West Coast sensibilities in 1957-58, it was amazing that anybody would actually *use* that word straight up. Sort of like using that other word, the one that is less printable this days than shit.

      (I apologize for even using that P word, but I hope that if I didn’t write it out, people today wouldn’t even know what I meant. Progress!)

      • witlesschum

        I remember James Loewen quoting from Morrison’s high school textbook in one of his books, something very close to ‘Well, Sambo (most assuredly Morrison’s word) whose state raised the abolitionists to wroth and tears probably suffered least of all the classes in the South from the Peculiar Institution.’

        Its possible you could create a more wrongheaded and less accurate description of southern slavery, but I’m damned if I can imagine what it might be. I suppose Morrison* should get a sliver of credit for at least acknowledging the idea that the Old South was a bad deal for poor whites, but, y’know less than the SLAVES THEMSELVES!

        That was mainstream history taught in public schools relatively recently. Whenever anyone uses ‘revisionist’ as a term of abuse, remember that.

        *Before I’d read Loewen as a teen, I’d read Morrison’s The Two Ocean War as preteen, so I remember experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance about someone whose book I’d read saying something else so obviously terrible and dumb.

  • LeeEsq

    Thaddeus Stevens is a real American hero and probably the first or one of the first true liberals in the modern sense in American politics. He would be very saddened about what happened to the Republican Party but happy to know that Americans elected a Black man to the Presidency twice.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    That is pretty much what was in my history book in Kentucky in the late sixties. Another reason to be skeptical of taught history. Especially, history of the American South. Which may be the only history told by the losers.

    • LeeEsq

      Japan will have some words with you

      • Warren Terra

        Similarly the Jewish People.

        • LeeEsq

          We’re sill here despite many people’s best efforts. That makes us the winners.

    • navarro

      true that! i am a texas native and i am old enough to remember the civil war taught as “the war between the states” over economic and political independence grounds. my mother’s textbook referred to it as the “war of northern agression.”

      • Malaclypse

        Last summer, I did a bike tour through a bunch of small towns in Western MA. They all had very old memorials in their town commons, celebrating the brave lads who fought in the War To Crush The Rebellion.

        I really like that version.

      • Porlock Junior

        Hey wow, I thought that colossal asshole of name for the Civil War was a recent invention! Never ever heard of it until well into the Internet Age.

        • witlesschum

          I believe you can find reference to a War of Southern Independence in a few old places, too?

  • Denverite

    I named one of my kids after Thaddeus Stevens. Not joking.

    The fucker’s the worst of the lot though.

    • Rob in CT

      One would expect a strong personality…

  • matt w

    I was once stuck in traffic (in the passenger seat) next to the Thaddeus Stevens historical marker in his birthplace of Danville, Vermont. It was during the first debt ceiling crisis and I was reflecting that his advocacy for the Fourteenth Amendment could turn out to save us all in yet another way.

    The most notable part of this story is that I managed to get stuck in traffic in Danville, Vermont.

  • Bruce Vail

    Tony Kushner/Stephen Spielberg deserve a Hollywood History Honorable Mention for their treatment of Stevens in their Lincoln movie.

    Tommy Lee Jones was a poor choice to play the part, though. It needed somebody with more intensity, say, Gary Oldman.

    • Rob in CT

      Dunno, I liked the TLJ performance.

      • Bruce Vail

        I like TLJ as a general rule. Perhaps it’s his signature ‘rough around the edges but heart of gold’ persona that seemed to clash with my notion of Stevens.

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