Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was often the focus of attention during the Civil War, and his irascible reputation as a leader of the Radical Republicans has been revived thanks to the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln." The great actor Tommy Lee Jones plays Stevens in all his sarcastic brilliance, battling to get the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives while conducting his private life outside the bounds of conventional Washington society.
With public attention once again focused on Stevens, it's worth noting that books about him published more than a century ago are now available, for free, as scanned copies via Google Books. The vintage books can be read online, downloaded as .pdf files, or read on iPads or other tablets using Google's Play app.
The following is selection of classic books on Thaddeus Stevens. They contain priceless information and anecdotes about the eccentric political powerhouse who was revered as "The Great Commoner."
Four months after the death of Thaddeus Stevens, as Congress neared the end of its term, the House of Representatives suspended all business and devoted December 17, 1868 as a day of tributes.
Friends and legislative foes, including New York's former mayor Fernando Wood, stood and delivered speeches about Stevens, some of which contain remarkable observations and beautiful prose. The Government Printing Office published this official record of the proceedings.
An excerpt from the speech of Congress James Ashley of Ohio:
"When I first entered this House, ten years ago, Mr. Stevens was one of the first to take me by the hand and welcome me. From that day until the day of his death he was my friend, and often my adviser and counselor. However often I may have differed with him as I often did there was one question about which we never differed: the question of the necessity of the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery.
"Of the practicability and justice of destroying slavery he never doubted. I am thankful that he was spared to witness the end of that indescribable villainy. I rejoice to know that as the gates of the Eternal World opened up before him he was permitted to look back upon the land he loved and nowhere behold the footprints of a single slave.
"Because of his unwavering fidelity to the poor bondsmen, who, in the presence of a nation of oppressors, were manacled and powerless and dumb, I came to venerate him; and because I venerated him I come today to cast a garland upon his tomb."
Published only 14 years after Stevens's death, this 1882 biography by E. B. Callender is essentially a glowing tribute to the man. The author was a Boston lawyer affiliated with the Republican Party, and part of his stated purpose in writing the book was to present Stevens as someone politicians should emulate.
The portions dealing with Stevens's early years contain much anecdotal material that provides insight into his later character traits, with the general tone calling to mind Horatio Alger tales of triumph over great adversity. Stevens had been born with a deformed foot, and always walked with difficulty. And according to Callender's account, when Stevens began practicing law, other lawyers mockingly "referred to him as 'the club-footed attorney.'"
Callender seemed to have access to a great stock of letters and documents pertaining to Stevens. There are fairly detailed accounts of political battles waged by Stevens which include transcriptions of dramatic speeches delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There are some examples of the sarcasm for which Stevens was known, such as referring to another Congressman's speech as "his pathetic winding up." More strident examples of classic Stevens invective are missing, and the author deftly explains that many of his comments were purposely kept out of the officially transcribed accounts of debates:
"In the halls of Congress how often he annihilated the weary argument of some doubting Thomas by a single query, a droll assertion not now preserved for often in the record we come across the reporter's note, that 'Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania, from his seat made some remark inaudible to the reporter.'"
This 1899 biography by Samuel W. McCall presents a more balanced view of Stevens while presenting a fairly detailed account of his lengthy career. The section on the zenith of Stevens's political career, the period when he was wielding great power as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, provides an interesting perspective on how power in wartime Washington was divided between the Congress and the administration of Abraham Lincoln.
The author, who was serving as a congressman from Massachusetts when he wrote the Stevens biography (and would later serve as governor of Massachusetts), wrote with some insight into the business of Capitol Hill. And he alluded to how driven Stevens must have been during the war years:
"A review of the course of Stevens upon all the measures coming before the House would involve practically a history of legislation during the war. He was so unquestioningly leader that no man was next to him, and his industry and energy responded so fully to the demands, that he was almost always on his feet or in charge of measures before the House.
"When the enormous amount of committee work which he was called upon to perform is remembered, and especially the preparation of revenue and appropriation bills, which would alone be a sufficient tax upon the strength of an ordinary man, it is almost incredible that one at his advanced age should have been able to attend so constantly upon the sessions of the House and perform the part that he performed there."
Author and history professor James Albert Woodburn published this lengthy biography of Stevens in 1913. The focus is mainly on the Civil War and Reconstruction, but a closing chapter titled "Closing Days and Characteristics," contains a number of lively anecdotes.
Professor Woodburn, in the final chapter, wrote about the reputation Stevens had for gambling. It was said he enjoyed playing cards for the competition, and was known to frequent gambling houses which flourished in Washington at the time. One story was attributed to James G. Blaine, who would, decades later, nearly win the presidency in the election of 1884:
"Mr. Blaine, during his first term in Congress was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and he met Stevens coming down the steps of what was then known to be a high-toned gambling house. Immediately after his cordial greeting to Mr. Blaine, Stevens was accosted by a negro preacher who earnestly requested a contribution toward the building of a church for his people. Stevens was fresh from his earnings and promptly taking a roll of money from his vest pocket, he handed the negro a fifty dollar bill, and turning to Blaine he observed with solemn mien,
'God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.'"
The issue of Stevens's personal life is also dealt with in Woodburn's book, and in a fairly forthright fashion, considering the book was published in 1913:
"Many stories of another kind were told of Stevens in derogation of his moral life…
"His personal and political enemies charged him with all kinds of misdemeanors with the other sex. According to these his colored housekeeper was his mistress; he was the father of mulattoes; and to his latest years he was nothing short of a 'hoary, habitual, and beastly debauchee.'"
Woodburn offered a defense of Stevens, though it seems purposely weak:
"Impartial witnesses who knew him best would not hesitate to brand such stories, in their main content, as false and malicious slanders."
As for the famously difficult temperament of Thaddeus Stevens, in the concluding passages of his book, Woodburn, from the vantage point of the early 20th century, emphasized that Stevens was very much a product of a different time.
"His hatreds were not personal, and the enemies he faced in heat and passion were, as he thought, not his own enemies, but the enemies of his country, the enemies of a righteous and noble cause. It was for this sake and not for his own that he used the language of denunciation. He must be judged not by the feeling and disposition of these later and happier times of peace, reconciliation, and good will between the sections, but by the times of strife and passion in which he lived."