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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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