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.

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