Digging into a Historic Rivalry

As archaeologists unearth a secret slave passageway used by abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, scholars reevaluate his reputation and that of his neighbors and nemesis, James Buchanan

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When Buchanan died, on June 1, 1868, seven years after leaving office (and three years after the end of the Civil War), the New York Times appraised him harshly: “He met the crisis of secession in a timid and vacillating spirit, temporizing with both parties, and studiously avoiding the adoption of a decided policy,” the paper’s obituary writer concluded. “To every appeal from the loyal men of the country for an energetic and patriotic opposition to the plots of the Secessionists, his only reply was: ‘The South has no right to secede, but I have no power to prevent them.’ ” By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, the obituary continued, Buchanan had “retired to the privacy of his home in Wheatland, followed by the ill-will of every section of the country.”


having served in Congress from 1849 to 1853, Thaddeus Stevens had been reelected in 1858 after a nearly six-year hiatus. 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 1861, 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.


Once peace was declared, on April 9, 1865—and in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination less than a week later—Stevens understood immediately that former slaves could exercise their new freedoms only with the support of the federal government, and even, of federal troops. “He believed that he was living at a revolutionary moment,” says Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 and a professor of history at ColumbiaUniversity. “The Civil War had shattered the institutions of Southern society. 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 1866, with two years left to live, and in almost constant pain from a variety of ailments, the 74-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. After several months’ debate, Congress passed the 14th Amendment in June 1866. (It would be ratified by the states in 1868.) The legislation was not as far-reaching as Stevens had hoped; in particular, it did not include a provision to grant freedmen the vote. Nevertheless, in a speech he delivered before Congress shortly after the bill’s passage, Stevens demonstrated a willingness to accept compromise: “Do you inquire why . . . I accept so imperfect a proposition? . . . Because I live among men and not among angels.”


Despite his attempt to create a legislative solution, Stevens watched as Lincoln’s successor, Tennessean Andrew Johnson, permitted Southern state assemblies, which included many former Confederates, to enact laws that effectively denied freedmen their civil and economic rights. Anti-black rioting swept Southern cities, leaving hundreds of African-Americans dead. “There was violence all over the place,” says Foner. “Law and order had broken down everywhere. The failure of the first phase of Reconstruction discredited President Johnson and opened the door to men like Stevens. The Radicals [Stevens’ wing of the Republican Party] were at least seen to have a coherent agenda.” Stevens saw his opportunity: enfeebled though he was by age and illness, he redoubled efforts to block the rising power of defeated Confederates.



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