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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

By early 1867, so weak that he could deliver speeches only in a whisper, Stevens pleaded with Congress to act, even as his colleagues had to crowd around him in order to hear. “The South,” he charged, “is covered all over with anarchy and murder.” It is said that the oration was one of the few in Congress that resulted in the changing of votes on the spot. Stevens got what he wanted: more federal troops would be dispatched to the South, eventually to become an army of occupation 20,000 strong to protect the rights of freedmen and of whites loyal to the Union.

 

Stevens also continued to argue forcefully in Congress that blacks everywhere must have the vote, still denied them even in some Northern states. “We have imposed upon them the privilege of fighting our battles, of dying in defense of freedom, and of bearing their equal portion of taxes; but where have we given them the privilege of ever participating in the formation of the laws for the government of their native land?”

 

It was also Stevens, in his final battle in 1868, who led the attempt to impeach Johnson for firing a Radical member of his cabinet, though the real issue was whether the Congress or the president would determine the course of Reconstruction policy. As personally unpopular as the president was, many members of Congress felt that this time Stevens and the Radicals had overreached in their attempt to reduce the power of the executive branch. When the heads were counted in the Senate that May, the effort to oust the president failed by a single vote.

 

Stevens died a few months later, on August 12, 1868. In the years immediately preceding the war, he had been vilified for views considered outside the national mainstream. But he lived long enough to see at least some of his ideals enacted into law. “Stevens was ahead of his time because he truly believed in racial equality,” says Trefousse. “Without him, the 14th Amendment, and the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing suffrage to the freedmen, would have been impossible.” (Stevens did not live to see ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870.) Says Trefousse: “In practice, those amendments were effectively nullified in the South in the years after the end of Reconstruction. But they were still in the law. In the 20th century, the amendments would remind Americans of what those laws had once stood for: they were the standard that the nation had set for itself.” In fact, the 14th and 15th amendments became the foundation upon which virtually all 20th-century civil rights legislation would be built.

 

The North had won the Civil War on the battlefield; in some respects, however, the victory was short-lived. By 1877, federal troops had withdrawn completely from the South. Stevens’ amendments had, in essence, been dismantled, and harsh discriminatory laws had been enacted. Vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized blacks. The South, and indeed most of the nation, slumped into almost a century of institutionalized segregation.

 

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