The grimmest face in the American picture gallery is that of old Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania abolitionist who forgot nothing, forgave nothing and made himself the living symbol of the so-called radical viewpoint after the Civil War—the view which saw the South as a set of conquered provinces that could and should be remade even at the expense of completely destroying the structure of the society which had existed there. In most accounts of the tangled, tragic reconstruction era, Stevens is cast as the villain.
Now comes Mr. Korngold to tell a different sort of story. He sees Stevens not merely as a humanitarian dedicated to the fight for the underdog, but as a man who was not vindictive or cruel; a statesman who was finally driven to espouse unrestricted Negro suffrage (with all which that entailed) solely by the intractability of the southern leaders who had lost the war but who refused to accept defeat.
Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great , by Ralph Korngold. Harcourt, Brace and Co. 460 pp. $6.
More than that: Mr. Korngold argues that Lincoln was extremely reluctant to interfere with Negro slavery, that he was no particular friend of the colored race and doubted that the Negro could ever be assimilated in American society, and that he finally became the “great emancipator” largely because Stevens forced his hand. It was Stevens rather than Lincoln, as Mr. Korngold sees it, who accepted the challenge presented by the Civil War and made of the war a great instrument for broadening the base of American citizenship.
Stevens’ original reconstruction plan, Mr. Korngold insists, was comparatively mild. It would have given the vote to no Negro, taken the vote from no white man, confiscated no southern propetry and executed, imprisoned or exiled no southern leaders. It failed, as Mr. Korngold sees it, because of southern intransigeance, aided by the “soft peace” policy of President Andrew Johnson.
Here, obviously, is a sharply argumentative book. Mr. Korngold is pleading a cause, and he frequently overstates his case, especially when he shows Stevens leading Lincoln down a path Lincoln would not otherwise have followed. Nevertheless, this book has a good deal of value. It may help to put gnarled, brooding Thaddeus Stevens in a slightly different perspective, and it does suggest that a fresh look at the whole reconstruction period may be in order.