What inspired you to pursue writing this
biography of Thaddeus Stevens?
I've admired the Radical Republicans most of
my life, and Stevens has always seemed to me
the greatest and boldest among them. And while
I've learned much about him from his earlier
biographies, I've never felt that they did a
satisfactory job of pinpointing the precise nature
and source of his political outlook or adequately
placing him in his historical context. I hope to do
I believe that this is a particularly good time to
write about Stevens. So many of the causes
about which he felt strongly and for which he
fought so hard are back in the news today.
Numerous state and local governments are
targeting the voting rights of national minorities.
The Supreme Court has facilitated such efforts
by invalidating key sections of the 1965 Voting
Rights Act. The kind of extreme economic
inequality that Stevens deplored has come under
Bruce Levine in front of Thaddeus Stevens grave.
intense public scrutiny, but meanwhile powerful politicians and equally powerful media outlets work
hard to de-legitimize and dismantle the social safety net and to blame poverty upon the poor. The
public schools, which Stevens prized so highly, have for decades been starved of funds, leaving them
in many places the shriveled refuges of mostly poor black and Latino children. Congress is largely
paralyzed, for which ailment pundits tirelessly prescribe the remedy of "compromise" -- directing that
message principally at the representatives of those whose rights and living standards are under attack.
Your working title is Thaddeus Stevens: Revolutionary. How was Stevens a revolutionary?
It's clear to me that the Civil War and Reconstruction represented a social and political revolution --
a fundamental change in social structure and governance. Stevens and his allies pointed the way and
blazed the trail toward that achievement, both before, during, and after the war.
Why do you think there are so few biographies about Stevens even though he was such a
pivotal figure in our history?
Actually, quite a number of Stevens biographies have appeared since his death. But for a very long
period of time -- maybe from the 1880s down through the mid-1960s -- the history profession
generally depicted him as a villain rather than a hero because the profession championed a sour view
of the Reconstruction policies for which he fought. James Ford Rhodes, an early president of the
American Historical Association, condemned Stevens as a "violent partisan." William A. Dunning of
Columbia University, who profoundly influenced generations of scholars, labeled Stevens "truculent,
vindictive, and cynical." To James G. Randall (a "dean" of Lincoln scholars whose name adorns the
chaired position I occupy at the University of Illinois), Stevens was filled with "vindictive ugliness,"
"unfairness, intolerance, and hatefulness." Historical literature directed at a wider public has
conveyed a similar message. A very popular 1929 biography of Andrew Johnson denounced Stevens
as a "horrible old man ... craftily preparing to strangle the bleeding, broken body of the South," a man
who thought it would be "a beautiful thing" to see "the white men, especially the white women of the
South, writhing under negro domination." James Truslow Adams's best-selling The Epic of America
(1931) damned Stevens as "the most despicable, malevolent and morally deformed character who has
ever risen to power in America." John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage sang
the praises of Andrew Johnson while breathing hostility to Thaddeus Stevens, “the crippled, fanatical
personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement.” Even Spielberg's more recent
Lincoln movie, which celebrates the passage of the thirteenth amendment, offers up an obstinate,
doctrinaire Stevens who was more of an obstacle to emancipation than a major force in its
achievement (even though, in fact, Stevens and others were demanding an emancipation amendment
to the constitution a year before Lincoln endorsed the idea).
What are the special difficulties in writing about Stevens considering that he did not keep a
journal and is said to have destroyed some of his papers near the end of his life?
Yes, there are many such difficulties. Another one is that we have very little by him concerning his
first, formative twenty years or so of life. Nor have previous biographers left us a convincing
interpretation of Stevens's fixation with anti-Masonry or explanation for his relationship with the
nativist Know Nothing party in the 1850s. But challenges like these just make the job.... challenging!
Do you believe your book will have a better public reception than past Stevens biographies
because of the Lincoln movie and changing attitudes toward the Confederacy and
I hope so. Although by the time the book appears the Lincoln movie will be a distant memory --
and the public in general has a very short memory. We'll see.