Thaddeus Stevens, Social Revolutionary

One of the nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at this year’s Academy Awards, Tommy Lee Jones, played Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) in the Best Picture-nominated Lincoln. Stevens was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania (1849-1853 and 1859-1868), a leading congressional abolitionist, and the most important figure of so-called Radical Republicanism during and after the Civil War. (For more on Stevens, see this Wikipedia entry.)

Jones didn’t take home the Oscar (unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, who won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of President Lincoln), but the film is still a good excuse for saying something about Stevens. In his incomparable Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, historian Eric Foner describes the Stevens Plan for the reformation of the South, announced by Stevens at the Pennsylvania Republican convention in September 1865. (The bulleted points are direct quotations from the book.)

  • [S]eizure of the 400 million acres belonging to the wealthiest 10 percent of Southerners.
  • Forty acres would be granted to each adult freedman.
  • [T]he remainder—some 90 percent of the total—sold “to the highest bidder” in plots … no larger than 500 acres.
  • The proceeds would enable the federal government to finance pensions for Civil War veterans, compensate loyal men who had suffered losses during the war … and retire the bulk of the national debt.

Foner concludes: “As was typical of its author, the plan combined idealism, expediency, and Northern self-interest, all in the service of a far-reaching social revolution…. Stevens’ aims were political in the broadest sense rather than strictly economic…. Confiscation, Stevens believed, would break the power of the South’s traditional ruling class, transform the Southern social structure, and create the basis for a triumphant Southern Republican party composed of black and white yeomen and Northern purchasers of planter land. Even among abolitionists and Radical Republicans, however, only a handful stressed the land question as forcefully as Stevens” (Foner, pp. 235-236, emphasis added).

As Foner emphasizes, that was a plan to break the back of the Southern landlord/slaveholder class. It would also have been a way to prevent the counterrevolution that took place in the South after Reconstruction. Yes, the counterrevolution that would ultimately set back the cause of emancipation and broader social equality for another century, and which powerfully shapes U.S. political and economic life to the present.

D&S Authors on TV

Failed Ambitions: Spain's Economic Collapse
Failed Ambitions: Spain’s Economic Collapse

(1) Failed Ambitions: Spain’s Economic Collapse:  Today’s image comes from this beautiful photo essay from this week’s New Yorker. It reminds me of The Ruins of Detroit, which we featured in this blog post.

(2) D&S Authors on TV:  

Rick Wolff on Bill Moyers:  In a segment called Taming Capitalism Run Wild (though I doubt Rick wants to just tame capitalism!).  And the show also features a segment with Saru Jayaraman of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. She is not a D&S author, but she spoke at a NYC D&S fundraiser a few years ago when she was 8 and a half months pregnant. Her speech was great!

–Bill Black On “Up with Chris Hayes”:  With a lot of other people, on a show called The Press, Sequester, Cyber War (I’m assuming Bill will be talking about and decoding the sequester for people).

–Rob Larson in Qantas In-Flight Magazine: Ok, it’s not TV, but it’s another captive audience:  Rob Larson’s new book, Bleakonomics: A Heartwarming Introduction to Financial Catastrophe, the Jobs Crisis, and Environmental Destruction, which includes chapters that started as articles for D&S, gets a plug on the business page of the in-flight magazine of the Australian airline Qantas. See this pdf; it’s on p. 28.   Go Rob!

(3) Dean Baker on the Minimum Wage:  Great piece by Dean Baker of CEPR has a great piece on the inadequacy of the minimum wage, The Minimum Wage: Who Decided Workers Should Fall Behind?  We are familiar with the fact that since the late seventies, average wages in the United States have stagnated, whereas before that since WWII they’d tracked productivity (can’t find one of the many D&S articles that include graphs showing this, but here’s one from the Internets). What’s interesting about Baker’s piece is that he breaks it down, suggesting that professionals’ income have kept up with productivity, so low-wage workers have born the brunt of wage stagnation.  The declining value of the minimum wage is an indication of this. The question in the title of the piece is supposed to be rhetorical, I guess; Baker never answers it explicitly.  I guess the answer is: the ruling class?

(4) Funny: Three Magic Words for a Wall Street Lobbyist:  From Bartlett Naylor at Citizen Vox: Three magic words for a Wall St. lobbyist: “innovation,” “complexity,” and “liquidity”.  A sample:

Reformers say: “Wall Street behaved relatively well until 1999, when Congress repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall law separating commercial and investment banking and commerce.”

You say: “Financial innovation overran the anachronism of Glass-Steagall. Today’s economy isn’t your father’s Buick.”

Reformers say: “Derivatives that were intended to manage risk actually magnified it through such products as credit default swaps.”

You say: “Derivatives are highly complex. Congressional efforts to address this arena will have unintended consequences and disadvantage American firms who must compete in the global arena.”

Reformers say: “Banks shouldn’t be gambling, but return to sound lending that serves Main Street. We need the Volcker Rule, which prohibits gambling.”

You say: “The Volcker Rule will threaten needed liquidity.”

Try it yourself!  Read the whole post.

That’s it for now.  I’ll be posting our current issue’s cover story, Maurice Dufour’s satirical take on the Alberta oil sands, soon.

–Chris Sturr