Stevens portrayal -- aka Austin Stoneman -- in the
1905 book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr.
How mean was Thad?
By Ross Hetrick
Thaddeus Stevens was “perhaps the most despicable, malevolent
and morally deformed character who has ever risen to high power
in America,” James Truslow Adams, a prominent historian in the
early 20th century wrote. This is quite a statement directed at a
man who fought ceaselessly for the liberation of slaves, was
acknowledged by friend and foe as generous to a fault, opposed
capital punishment and was never charged with maleficence in
And even though Stevens now enjoys a much better assessment
as one of history’s greatest champions of equality, his reputation
continues to be plagued by accusations that he wanted to “punish”
the south and had a personal animosity towards the leaders of the
Confederacy, creating the image that he was consumed by
But in reality, every position he took had a very practical purpose
of creating an equal society in the south for both black and whites.
Hans L. Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens, Nineteenth
Century Egalitarian, tackles the issue of Steven’s vengefulness
head on. Citing various examples of Stevens generosity to friend
and foe, Trefousse writes: “His motivation was not vengeance --
‘I have never desired blood punishment to any extent, even for the
sake of example,’ he said in 1866 -- but he was deeply anxious to
reshape Southern society. There were punishments more appalling
than death, he thought. ‘Strip a proud nobility of their bloated
estates, reduce them to a level with plain republicans; send him
forth to labor, and teach their children to enter the workshop or
handle the plough, and you will thus humble the proud traitors,’ as
he put it. This was not vindictiveness, it was a matter of
democratic purpose.” [Trefousse 172]
The demonizing of Stevens is part of a long time campaign by Confederate apologists to blame abolitionists for causing the Civil
War. They contend that if they has just kept their mouths shut, everything would been fine and the southerners would have
gotten rid of slavery on their own. The most recent example of this propaganda is The Copperhead, a film by Ron Maxwell, in
which a crazy abolitionist ends up killing himself as the result of his own zeal.
Similar vitriol has long been directed at Stevens. A famous example is The Clansman, the 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr., in
which a caricature of Stevens -- named Austin Stoneman -- is portrayed as a troll filled with hate. Dixon describes him as,
“Honest and dishonest, cruel and tender, great and mean, a party leader who scorned public opinion, a man of conviction, yet the
most unscrupulous politician, a philosopher who preached the equality of man, yet a tyrant who hated the world and despised all
men.” [Dixon 172] This book was then made into the famous movie, Birth of a Nation, in 1915, which helped revive the Klu
Klux Klan in the 1920s.
Stevens certainly gave his enemies plenty of ammunition by using terms like “extermination,” “exile” and starvation.” when
talking about the Confederates. In one particular exchange, he was asked if he intended to build a penitentiary around the south.
“Yes sir, a penitentiary which is built at the point of the bayonet down below, and if they undertake to come here, we will shoot
them. That is the way to take care of those people. They deserve it, at least for a time.” [Palmer II 140}
Of course, neither Stevens nor anyone else ever proposed stationing guards at the borders of northern states. It was pure
fancy. The issue Congress was actually debating was restricting voting rights for people who had participated in the rebellion.
Stevens's bark was definitely worse than his bite. In fact, the positions that some critics cite as punishment for the south were
aimed at creating a more equal and prosperous south that would have benefited the vast majority of the south’s population. In the
case of restricting voting, that was just practical politics. Stevens wanted to give loyal whites and newly enfranchised blacks the
chance to create governments that would provide such things as public school, which were nearly non-existence in the south.
Anther Stevens’s position that has been labeled as punishment is his proposal to confiscate land from the richest rebels and to
redistribute it to the free blacks. This proposal, popularly known as “40 acres and a mule,” would have affected 70,000 people
out of 9 million, or less than 1 percent, who owned 78 percent of the 500 million acres of land in the former Confederacy.
Stevens hoped this measure, -- which was not adopted -- would help provide economic support to the freedmen, who had
nothing, and would also destroy the slaveholders's aristocracy that had lead the south into the disastrous war. “No people will
ever be republican in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless,” Stevens said. “Small
independent landholders are the support and guardians of republican liberty.” [Palmer II 288}
While he would rail against Confederate leaders, he apparently did not have any personal animosity towards them. In fact, he
offered to represent Jefferson Davis if he had ever been brought up on treason charges. While having full confidence in Stevens’s
legal abilities, Davis turned him down knowing it was actually an effort to show that the Confederacy had left the union and was
therefore “conquered territory,” that could be administered by Congress. [New York Times July 15, 1881]
On another occasion, Stevens actually defended southern leaders who were accused of having a hand in the Lincoln
assassination. “These men are no friends of mine,” he said. “They are public enemies; but I know these men, sir. They are
gentlemen and incapable of being assassins.” [Trefousse 171] Even the destruction of his iron works near Chambersburg, PA, by
Confederates in June 1863 did not elicit calls for vengeance. “If finally, the government shall be re-established over our whole
territory and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a cheap purchase.” [ Palmer I 400]
Some biographers seemed to be intent in finding fault with Stevens even as they recounted incidents that contradicted their
positions. Richard Current in his 1942 biography, Old Thad Stevens, A Story of Ambition, tells a story about him at Bedford
Springs, a resort in western Pennsylvania. “He found the vast rambling hotel almost empty of guests. There was no one left for
him to play euchre or whist with. But the small boys who peddled flowers and maple-sugar candies were still on hand. One day
several of them were running races around the fountain. After each race the winner would trot up to the old gentleman sunning
himself on the porch steps nearby and leaning on his cane. And the old man would bestow the prize -- a silver quarter. Then he
would handicap the winners and start the boys off again, so that each might receive a coin.” Yet just a few paragraphs later
Current refers to one of Stevens’s associates as a “henchman,” implying he was engaged in some criminal enterprise. [Current
Even though Steven’s proposals always had sound, practical purposes, he would often inflame the debate by using provocative
terms like “skunk,” “slimy creature” and “piles of political putridity.” This can be attributed to a combative childhood and an
early political career where invective was rewarded with electoral success.
Born with a clubfoot -- seen as the mark of the devil -- Stevens early on developed a remarkably quick wit, which put would
be bullies in their place. This trait was intensified in his early Pennsylvania political career where a large German population
reacted well to his bombast. He writes about this in a October 23, 1854 letter to David McConaughy, an unsuccessful candidate.
Stevens says he should have been more outspoken. “You fought the jesuits [Catholic Democrats] wrong,” he wrote. “It should
have been a bold open defiance and denunciation. Then the german democrates [sic] would have voted with you.”
The demonizing of Stevens was so widespread during his entire political career that some people were shocked to find Stevens
was so affable in person. In one account, a student in the 1830s at Gettysburg College -- then Pennsylvania College -- was
traveling from Harrisburg to Gettysburg by stagecoach with a friendly stranger who entertained him and other companions and
then played darts with them at tavern they stopped at. When the proprietor referred to the stranger as Mr. Stevens, the student,
named Byng, was shocked. “The noble gentleman, so wise, courteous, brave and trustful, who had already fascinated me beyond
any human being with whom I had been brought in contact, I had heard called Mr. Stevens; and surely was the veritable
Thaddeus stevens, who I had been taught to believe as fierce and unrelenting as Nena Sahib [who revolted against the British in
India] and as politically base as the traitor [Benedict] Arnold.” Stevens saw the surprise in his face and with a smile “half sad and
half mischievous” he said, “you have heard that I was one of the devil’s children and that even this poor clubfoot was a proof of
my parentage, but Btyng, look at me through your own pure eyes, and I will engage to stand fire.” [Hoch 85-86]
To Stevens, political debate was more of a sport in which hyperbole was routinely used. And sometimes he would make fun of
himself for exaggerations. In one speech, he described one of his colleagues as a “contemptible animal, which armed by nature
with a fetid, volatile, penetrating [smell].” But later in the same speech, he said: “It is my purpose nowhere in these remarks to
make personal reproaches. I entertain no ill-will toward any human being, nor any brute, that I know of, not even the skunk
across the way to which I referred.” [Palmer I 123]
Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian, by Hans Trefousse
Selected Writings of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. I&II, Edited by Beverly Palmer and Holly Byers Ochoa
Thaddeus Stevens in Gettysburg: The Making of Abolitionist, By Bradley R. Hoch
The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr.
The New York Times, July 15, 1881
Old Thad Stevens, A Story of Ambition, By Richard Current
P.S. I would like to hear from people who might disagree with this assessment. Is there evidence that Stevens genuinely hated
Confederate leaders and wanted to punish them? Please cite actual actions and proposals rather than rhetoric. Let me know by
email at firstname.lastname@example.org -- R.H.