Bruce Levine presented a vivid virtual lecture on Thaddeus Stevens a few days ago. The retired history professor based his LancasterHistory-sponsored talk on his new biography, “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice.”
In an entirely different medium, the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan wrote in a monumental 2004 memoir that Stevens and the Civil War provided “the template” on which he created his radical songs about the need for change leading to greater equality and freedom.
Dylan almost certainly would have approved of Levine’s call for contemporary society to draw on the “inspiration and courage and confidence” of Thaddeus Stevens to address current problems of democracy.
“So many of the issues central to (Thaddeus Stevens’) story are back in the news today,” Levine said at the end of his talk. He also emphasized these concerns in his book, the first substantial biography of Lancaster’s Civil War-era congressional representative in two decades.
First, Levine said, many local and state governments are attempting to suppress minority voting. At the same time, the Supreme Court has invalidated important sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Stevens spent much of his life fighting for the equality of the races, including the right of Black men to vote. Levine implied that the congressman would be appalled at ongoing efforts to suppress votes, especially Black votes.
Second, Levine said, even though “the extreme economic inequality that Stevens deplored is under intense public scrutiny today,” powerful politicians and media outlets are working to dismantle the safety net and “blame poverty on the poor.”
Stevens believed that every American should have the opportunity to lead a free and meaningful life. He spent his legislative years working toward that goal by fighting some of the most powerful political and financial forces in the country.
Third, Levine said, “the wanton killing of unarmed Black people by police and white supremacist vigilantes” recall Stevens’ fight against the terror white supremacists imposed on Blacks in the South following the Civil War.
During a question-and-answer session, Levine expanded on Stevens’ constant fight against racism. “Were he living and ambulatory,” Levine said, “Thaddeus Stevens would have been marching in the streets in the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.”
By reacquainting ourselves with Stevens’ principles and actions, Levine concluded his Zoom talk, Americans may find added strength to oppose anti-democratic forces at work in the United States today.
Bob Dylan could make a stirring song out of that.
Levine praises Stevens’s principles at length, tracing them back to the qualities and skills that he brought with him from his native Vermont to Pennsylvania and the nation’s capital: “an iron will and great courage, moral as well as physical, repeatedly refusing to bend before opposition. ...”
It took all of Stevens’ strength, Levine writes, to force change upon a reluctant nation.
Stevens antagonized a lot of people, including most Lancaster County Democrats and not a few Republicans, but eventually led more cautious men, including Abraham Lincoln, to embrace the Lancaster congressman’s ambitious goals for the betterment of the country and all of its people.
Dylan, who studied Thaddeus Stevens as a heroic figure and then wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin,’ ” would find new reason to admire the man in Bruce Levine’s highly readable biography of an extraordinary man who spent much of his later life in Washington but still called Lancaster home.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.