With antislavery Northerners flocking to the Republicans, the new party made a startlingly strong showing, with 33 percent of the vote. While Buchanan temporized, Stevens was living a double life, as a prominent lawyer and politician—and as a clandestine activist.
His fierce abolitionist views were well known, but the extent of his secret work on behalf of fugitive slaves is only now becoming clear. Even when Stevens lived in Gettysburg, he had begun to volunteer his time to defend runaway slaves in court. After his move to Lancaster in , he regularly aided fugitives traveling from the city of Columbia, Pennsylvania, a key center of Underground Railroad activity 14 miles to the west.
Stevens also paid a spy to report on slave catchers active in the area, passing on what he learned to fugitives. These are the eighth set of slaves I have warned within a week. Perhaps fugitives arrived in Lancaster from Columbia, where an African-American lumber merchant, William Whipper, shipped them eastward toward Philadelphia and to freedom on railroad freight cars fitted with secret compartments.
Slaves may have been hidden in the cistern for a few hours, or days, until they could be passed on to other locations. In , Stevens entered into a partnership with a year old widow, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a light-skinned mulatto her father was white who would act for the next 25 years as his housekeeper, property manager and confidante. It was a remarkable—and courageous—relationship in an era when segregation was virtually universal.
Even in the North, blacks were almost completely excluded from colleges and public schools and barred from theaters, libraries, eating places and accommodations. Silk merchant Lewis Tappan, the most influential abolitionist in New York City during the antebellum period, declined to hire black clerks in his store because he considered them untrustworthy. Genuine partnerships between whites and blacks were almost unheard of. It is likely, given her connections in the local African-American community, that Smith managed the movement of fugitives in and out of the Stevens house.
Able to shuttle easily between the divided worlds of black and white, she was ideally suited for such a mission. Stevens, in any case, treated Smith as his equal. Southern politicians had warned that they would lead their states out of the Union if Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for president, won. In the election, opposition to him split among two Democrats, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, and a fourth candidate, John Bell.
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Lincoln was elected in November No sooner had the race been decided than the Southern states began to make good on their threats. But he responded with characteristic equivocation. On December 20, , South Carolina seceded; ten other Southern states followed. He retained Southern cabinet officers who were, in effect, agents of the South and who continued to influence him in ways that were pretty close to treasonous. He spent so much time on details that the larger issues escaped him.
When things got tough, he got immobilized. Even when members of his cabinet began resigning to join the embryonic Confederacy, Buchanan focused on his pet project, a plan to purchase Cuba from Spain. As a private citizen in Lancaster in , he proclaimed his support for a Northern victory. But by then almost no one was listening.
Stevens saw the Civil War as an opportunity to end slavery once and for all, and as the war loomed, he approached the zenith of his power. Although he considered Lincoln too willing to compromise on the matter of race, Stevens, in his capacity as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, acted as a key backer of the administration and the war effort.
In December , more than a year before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed only those slaves in Rebel territory , he called for the enactment of abolition. Stevens wanted not just reunion of the states, but to remake Southern society completely. He wanted to take the land away from the wealthy planter class, and to give it to blacks, and to reshape the South in the image of the North, as a land of small farmers, political democracy, and public schools, and with the principle of racial equality engraved in it.
Stevens was also very old, and he knew that if he was ever going to accomplish anything of what he wanted, it had to be now. By , with two years left to live, and in almost constant pain from a variety of ailments, the year-old Stevens was also pressing aggressively in Congress for a new amendment to the Constitution that would require states to afford their citizens equal protection under the law, without regard to race. It would be ratified by the states in The legislation was not as far-reaching as Stevens had hoped; in particular, it did not include a provision to grant freedmen the vote.
I accept so imperfect a proposition? Because I live among men and not among angels.
Anti-black rioting swept Southern cities, leaving hundreds of African-Americans dead. The failure of the first phase of Reconstruction discredited President Johnson and opened the door to men like Stevens. By early , so weak that he could deliver speeches only in a whisper, Stevens pleaded with Congress to act, even as his colleagues had to crowd around him in order to hear. Stevens got what he wanted: more federal troops would be dispatched to the South, eventually to become an army of occupation 20, strong to protect the rights of freedmen and of whites loyal to the Union.
Stevens also continued to argue forcefully in Congress that blacks everywhere must have the vote, still denied them even in some Northern states. It was also Stevens, in his final battle in , who led the attempt to impeach Johnson for firing a Radical member of his cabinet, though the real issue was whether the Congress or the president would determine the course of Reconstruction policy.
As personally unpopular as the president was, many members of Congress felt that this time Stevens and the Radicals had overreached in their attempt to reduce the power of the executive branch. When the heads were counted in the Senate that May, the effort to oust the president failed by a single vote.
Stevens died a few months later, on August 12, In the years immediately preceding the war, he had been vilified for views considered outside the national mainstream. But he lived long enough to see at least some of his ideals enacted into law. But they were still in the law. In the 20th century, the amendments would remind Americans of what those laws had once stood for: they were the standard that the nation had set for itself. The North had won the Civil War on the battlefield; in some respects, however, the victory was short-lived.
By , federal troops had withdrawn completely from the South. Vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized blacks. The South, and indeed most of the nation, slumped into almost a century of institutionalized segregation. As for Stevens, perhaps the nadir in his reputation was reached in with the appearance of movie director D. During the s, Wheatland was restored, with the support of public donations, to its midthcentury splendor.
Reel Vs. Real: Thaddeus Stevens
Later, as snowflakes swirled in the streets of Lancaster, archaeologist Jim Delle unlocked the front door of the row house where Stevens lived, only a block from the square where crowds of spellbound supporters had once listened to his surging oratory. Moldering industrial carpeting, cracked plaster and graffiti lent an atmosphere of desolation to the ground-floor room where Stevens likely wrote his most famous speeches.
Lancaster, PA: Home of the Worst President (and Best Congressman) in American History
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