Two Views of Thaddeus Stevens
To the Editor:
I have read with great interest Professor T. Harry Williams’s article, “Thaddeus Stevens; An American Radical,” in the June issue of your publication. I could not help noticing that it was in the main a commentary on my biography of Stevens, Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great.
Professor Williams has written: “Without going into detail, it may be said that the Reconstruction policies of Stevens and Johnson embodied the differences between, to use modern terms, a hard peace and a soft peace.” This is not stating the problem fairly. The principal differences between Stevens’s and Johnson’s Reconstruction policies were the following: Johnson was in favor of a peace that would have made three votes cast in the former rebel states equivalent to five votes cast in the loyal states, in elections for the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Stevens opposed this. Stevens was in favor of equality before the law for Negroes and whites. Johnson opposed this.
Two-fifths of the population of the South was composed of Negroes, none of whom, either under Johnson’s or under Stevens’s plan, would have been given the right of suffrage. Before the war three-fifths of the slaves were counted in the basis of representation in national elections. Now that slavery was supposedly abolished, all would have been counted under Johnson’s plan, increasing the South’s representation in the House and the Electoral College by about 20 per cent. This increased representation would have enabled the South, with the aid of its allies, the Copperheads of the North, to gain control of the Federal government at the next Presidential election. A study of the election returns of 1868 leaves no doubt about this. As victors are not in the habit of surrendering to the vanquished, this would almost certainly have resulted in an uprising in the North. It was Johnson, not Stevens, who proposed a “hard” peace—hard on the North and on the freedmen, for whom special codes were made which Johnson’s own generals characterized as a renewal of slavery.
Stevens proposed that representation in the House and the Electoral College be based not upon the number of inhabitants, but the number of voters in each state. This would still have made a vote cast by a former rebel equivalent to a vote cast by a man who had fought to save the Union, as far as representation in the House and the Electoral College was concerned. It would likewise have given the South an incentive to educate the freedmen and make voters out of them so as to increase its representation in the national government. With that end in view he proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Realizing that the South would refuse to ratify the amendment, he proposed that it be submitted for ratification to the loyal states only, and that the former rebel states be placed under territorial government until they consented to subscribe to the amended Constitution. On April 30, 1866, he presented a bill to that effect. The Conservative Republicans, agreeing with Lincoln that the Southern states had never ceased to be members of the Union (a contention to which few constitutional lawyers would care to subscribe) rejected the bill. When, as he had predicted, the Southern states refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, the only course left open to the Republicans was to dissolve the Southern state governments, confer the elective franchise upon the freedmen, and submit the amendment for ratification to the newly elected legislatures. Had Stevens’s advice been taken it would have been unnecessary to force Negro suffrage prematurely upon the South.
I must call Professor Williams’s attention to two errors of fact which appear in his interesting article. Stevens did not begin his legal career at Lancaster but at Gettysburg. He was not defeated for Congress in 1852, but declined to be a candidate.
Mr. Williams writes:
I have great respect for Mr. Korngold’s sincerity of opinion and depth of feeling for human liberty. These characteristics have, however, led him to adopt several historical positions that are, in my opinion, extreme and untenable. I have no intention of entering upon a fruitless semantic controversy over the terms “hard” and “soft” peace. As to Mr. Korngold’s analysis of the kind of Reconstruction that Stevens wanted and his claims for the merits of the Stevens plan, I have only to say that Mr. Korngold has a right to his opinion. He may be correct, but I do not see that in his book he proves his case by documentation. To repeat what I said in my article, I think that Mr. Korngold has written what is in some respects a valuable book—but he sees only one side of Reconstruction.