Sunday, May 17, 2009

To Live as Thaddeus Stevens Lived

I'm reading right now Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Thaddeus Stevens, Delivered in the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., December 17, 1868.

These words by one Mr. Godlove S. Orth (what a great name), of Indiana, struck me:
His love of truth made him an earnest man, acting upon the principle that whatever was worth doing at all was worth doing well. He never espoused a cause until he was satisfied of its merits and justice, and then brought to its advocacy all the strength and vigor of a richly cultivated intellect.
It's hard not to be impressed by Stevens. By all accounts, he was passionately dedicated to the cause of liberty and equality for all human beings. It's a shame that the Second Founders, the architects of the 14th Amendment, those who were dedicated to equality and to the perfecting of the Union, are so easily forgotten today. Not just forgotten, but never known. Perhaps it's one of the enduring legacies of Reconstruction's failures. With the Tilden-Hayes Compromise, and the ascendancy of the "Redeemers" in the South, everything that Stevens and his allies believed in, and fought for, was delayed for another 100 years. Were they, after all, failures?

No, surely not. We do have the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Even if we continue to struggle with their meaning and continuing relevance, even if we continue to fall short of the aspirations and promise of Stevens' vision for America, we have his words, his works, and his life to contemplate.

My conclusion: it would be a good life to believe as Stevens believed, to fight as Stevens fought, and to live as Stevens lived.

UPDATE 1: As is my wont, I have come across another passage worth putting up (and emulating for that matter), after I've already made the main post; so I add:
[Stevens] was a zealous advocate of free speech, concurring fully in the sentiment of Jefferson, that "error of opinion can safely be tolerated so long as reason is left free to combat it."

To him the idea was most preposterous that there should be any subject so sacred as to forbid examination or debate. Whatever seeks to avoid scrutiny or shrinks from investigation is justly subject to suspicion, and that which cannot bear the test of thorough discussion is in its nature inimical to republican institutions.
Emphasis added. Reminder frequently needed in contemporary America.

UPDATE 2: James Albert Woodburn, in his The Life of Thaddeus Stevens, quotes from a speech Stevens gave in 1835 at an Anti-Masonic meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland. First, on the maintenance of liberty:
Two things are indispensable to the continuance of national liberty,--the independence of the public press and the impartial administration of justice.
That's at page 19 of Woodburn. If true, one despairs for the continuance of national liberty. Second, an interesting comment in light of those in the Republican party today who say that they would rather have a smaller number of True Believers than a larger number of mixed beliefs.
Some are afraid of being in the minority,--tame souls who delight to dwell on neutral ground, who tremble lest they should mistake the strong side, who hover around the confines of the battle-field ready to throw up their caps and shout hosannas to the victors. Such men we would advise to remain where they are, in dull and useless slothfulness. Those who are not with us in moral feeling we are better without. We want no hireling forces. Those who address themselves to this warfare must do it from love of country. Who would not rather be vanquished with honorable associates than triumph with a horde of mercenary traitors? If you must fall you will have the consolation to know that you have lived while there was anything worth living for. . . .
At 20-21 of Woodburn. Of course, Stevens was there talking about fighting for equality of and before the law, not about ideological purification so much.


  1. I am currently researching Thaddeus Stevens and agree that this remarkable man has been ignored by most historical narratives. His personal victories over his physical deformity, his sharp wit and cutting sarcasm and his personal courage in facing adversaries all make him a memorable figure. Add to that the role he played in pushing the abolitionist clause through the difficult legislative process, and his distinctiveness becomes clear. Too many have dismissed him as a bitter, hardened old man whose hatred and anger colored all he did. Nothing could be farther from the truth

  2. Steve:

    Thanks for the comment! You said: Too many have dismissed him as a bitter, hardened old man whose hatred and anger colored all he did. Nothing could be farther from the truth." That is so very true. It's funny, you look at a picture of him (, and you think, "Whoa, that's a bitter dude." But I was struck by how generous he was, personally. It's clear that he was a passionate man. His sarcasm and biting wit probably contributed to the idea that he was an angry, mean man. But just browsing through the Congressional Globe ( where his name appears, it's interesting to see so much "(Laughter)" when he speaks. I think he probably used it to great effect. In all, Stevens is a very, very interesting figure.