Dual biography of Stevens and Sumner planned
Manisha Sinha, who holds the Draper Chair in
American History at the University of Connecticut,
Manisha Sinha, the author of the recently published book, The Slave's
Cause: A History of Abolition, is now working on a dual biography of
Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. She graciously agreed to answer
a few questions about the project.
Why are you writing the book about Stevens and Sumner and when do you
expect it to be published?
A long time ago, W.E.B. Du Bois in his book: Black Reconstruction,
identified Sumner and Stevens as the two Radical Republicans who were in
the forefront of the political struggle for black rights and equality during
Reconstruction. Since then they have fascinated me and I recently got the
idea of writing a dual biography of the two men. I am on leave next year on
a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship so I hope to have the
book done by 2018.
Are there any central questions you are trying to answer in the book?
I have just completed a big book on the abolition movement before the
Civil War. I am interested in what happened to the abolitionist vision of an
interracial democracy during the war and its aftermath. I think both Stevens
and Sumner personify how abolitionists and their allies sought to affect
While they were both Radical Republicans, Stevens and Sumner were very different. How did this help or hurt them?
Yes, Sumner was much more the scholar in politics and had close personal ties to Boston’s black and white abolitionists. In a way he
represented adherence to principle rather than the skills of a politician. Stevens was a lawyer and a longtime politician and he had both
the skills and savvy to navigate the political world. But he too had been sympathetic to the abolition movement and defended the
Christiana riot rebels. In their own way both represented the transformation of abolition from a social movement to a political project.
Since this is a joint biography, do you plan to have two parallel stories that merge into one when they start working together?
Yes, somewhat parallel and then I want to concentrate on how Sumner in the Senate and Stevens in the House tried to shape the
course of Radical Congressional Reconstruction.
Both Sumner and Stevens have gotten little popular recognition. Do you have any thoughts on why?
I think for a long time they were reviled as radicals like most abolitionists who came before them. Sumner was seen as sanctimonious
and Stevens as the “scourge of the south” belittling his commitment to African-American rights as merely a ploy to exact revenge on
the defeated South. These are caricatures that are entrenched in American historiography because of Civil War revisionism, which
downplayed the role of slavery in the coming of the war and viewed Reconstruction as a failed era. A proper appreciation of both men
and their life work should overturn these popular caricatures.