thaddeus Stevens pic
Thaddeus Stevens courtesy

Many colorful characters are recorded in America’s history of civil rights for black Americans. I have blogged about some well-known African-Americans who championed civil rights. However, many whites willingly faced persecution from their peers for defending their black countrymen.Thaddeus Stevens was one such hero.

Early in his career as a lawyer, he defied the law and hid runaway slaves in a cistern in his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He tirelessly fought for the emancipation of the slaves, and worked with Lincoln to pass legislation to finance the Civil War. Afterward, he fought for the rights of recently freed slaves, insisting that white landowners’ plantations be confiscated and divided among the new freed men. Most republican congressmen disagreed, finding his opinions divisive and impractical. He could never get legislation passed to that effect. He fiercely fought for his principles and never backed down from unpopular arguments. During the southern reconstruction, he and other radicals believed that the South should be treated like conquered provinces with no constitutional rights. Lincoln replied that only individuals, not states, had rebelled.

Stevens reacted in horror as white state legislatures passed black codes intended to restrict the freedom recently obtained by black Americans. Although in ill health in his later years, he continued to fight for legislation that promoted rights for blacks.

Thaddeus Stevens was an intense character with strong views. His peers painted him as an angry radical who would not compromise under any circumstances. Modern history has been kinder to the outspoken Stevens. In hindsight, he was far ahead of his time in his compassionate treatment of blacks. We could perhaps fault him for his lack of mercy toward those who had condoned and promoted slavery. But he was a man who wanted justice for the oppressed. Upon his death, much of his inheritance went to his black housekeeper of twenty years, Lydia Hamilton Smith. He never married.

If it seems there is an absence of heroes these days, we can find them in the pages of history. They can inspire us to be heroes in our time, and to stand up for what is right. My middle grade novel about a boy who runs away on the Underground Railroad, Dark Enough to See the Stars can encourage the hero in all of us.

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