New book on Civil War Congress to include Stevens's role
Fergus M. Bordewich, the author of seven historic non-fiction books, is now
working on a book about the role Congress played during the Civil War. This will
include Thaddeus Stevens, who was a powerful congressman at the time.
Bordewich graciously agreed to answer the following questions about his project.
More information about Bordewich can be found at his website:
www.fergusbordewich.com or at his Facebook page.
What inspired you to write about the Civil War Congress and when do you expect
it to be published?
The title of my new book is "Congress at War". It will be published by Knopf in
2019. I have long been interested in Northern politics during the Civil War, and
particularly the transformation of long-marginalized abolitionists such as Thaddeus
Stevens and Ben Wade into power-wielding members of government. I have also felt
that the political history of the war as it is generally written overemphasizes Abraham
Lincoln as a seemingly independent actor at the expense of Congress, which
frequently wrestled with the president over war policy, authored much significant
wartime legislation, and on racial policy in particular was far in advance of Lincoln.
Fergus M. Bordewich
Congressional Radicals pressed for a hard-war policy long before Lincoln agreed to it. The wartime overhaul of the national currency
system originated in Congress, as did the legislation that brought into being the Transcontinental Railroad, the Homestead Act, and the
Land Grant Colleges Act. It was Congress that was responsible for funding the war, and it was Congress that fought successfully for
the recruitment of African-Americans, and for what became the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery. The story behind all this
transformative legislation is dramatic, full of twists and turns, and has never been fully told.
How large a role do you expect Thaddeus Stevens to play in this book?
Stevens will figure very prominently in my book, and may well emerge as its central figure. He will certainly be the first among
equals within the group of four or five men who I'll place at the center of my narrative. The others include the Radical Republican
Senators Ben Wade of Ohio and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the more conservative Republican Senator William Pitt
Fessenden of Maine, and as a counter-example to the Republicans, the Copperhead Democrat Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio.
Stevens has been called the greatest parliamentarian in U.S. history. Do you agree with this and what was an example of this skill?
Stevens was indeed a brilliant parliamentarian, perhaps the best among the Radical members of the House of Representatives. In his
frequent role of floor manager, he relied less on emotive and incisively sarcastic rhetoric -- of which he was also a master -- than on
deft parliamentary maneuver to construct majorities, derail opposition, and advance legislation. I should say, by the way, that his
speeches are always fun to read: they are full of vivid images, colorful turns of phrase, and pungent jabs at his opponents. In an age in
which political rhetoric was treated as an art form, Stevens really stands out. That said, I hesitate to dub him the "greatest" of
American parliamentarians. The skills required for parliamentary success may change over time along with the rules of order. A good
case can be made for James Madison's astonishingly deft management of the House of Representatives during the First Congress, and
certainly for Henry Clay as both Speaker of the House and later as a leading Senator, and in the twentieth century for, say, Joe
Cannon and Sam Rayburn. Stevens certainly ranks in the top tier, but I'd probably give the laurel to Clay.
What do you see as Stevens's greatest achievements during the Civil War Congress?
Stevens's achievements were many and great. His clarion advocacy for abolishing slavery and for the rights of African Americans had
immense influence. Less well-known was his profoundly important role -- along with William Fessenden in the Senate -- in raising the
enormous sums of money that were necessary to finance the Union war effort, and in the massive overhaul of the nation's chaotic
and unstable currency system.