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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Thaddeus Stevens: Forgotten Hero

In this age of celebrity worship, it might be time to revisit some of America's forgotten heroes. Thaddeus Stevens was an abolitionist before it became popular. An impeccably honest man, he earned a modest fortune by saving and investing. Once, passing the auction of a widow's homestead (she had been left destitute by the death of her husband and could not pay the bills,) he bought the place gave it to the widow and then went on his way as anonymously as he had arrived. Perhaps too humorless, he thought most people were selfish and evil. He avoided church even though he had been raised a Baptist, but paid for the schooling of two young men who wanted to go to seminary but couldn't afford it. He always said whatever he wanted and believed. In 1838, he refused to sign the Pennsylvania Constitution because it gave the vote only to white men. He worked hard to end slavery, worked for free schools (not a popular stance for a politician as it meant increasing taxes, ) and provided free legal support for runaway slaves.

He actually believed Jefferson's "All Men are Created Equal." To him "all men" meant "all men," not just all white men. He began battling for abolition, emancipation and equal rights. He was the chief author of the fourteenth amendment and the foundation for the fifteenth amendment. Unlike Lincoln, he had little faith in moderation and compromise and he wanted strong laws to control behavior in the south after the Civil War. He was a leader of the Radical Republicans and was hated by Andrew Johnson. He was very ill during the impeachment trial and had to be carried into the Senate. He died shortly after Johnson's acquittal.

I recommend Fawn Brodie's Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. David Herbert Donald's biography of Charles Sumner for more details.
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