Thaddeus Stevens: “In rebuilding, it is necessary to clear away the rotten and defective portions of the old foundations, and to sink deep and found the repaired edifice upon the firm foundation of eternal justice….”

This morning I listened to the debate on impeachment that took place on the floor of the house. The defenders of Donald Trump were arguing that the impeachment of Donald Trump would divide the country and undermine national unity. Mike Pence said essentially the same thing last night when he refused set in motion the process to invoke the 25th Amendment.

As I listened, I pulled David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory off the shelf. The book has a lot to say about calls for “unity” and “healing” in the wake of a tragedy. Here are some pertinent quotes:

p.3: “Americans faced an overwhelming task after the Civil War and emancipation: how to understand the tangled relationship between two profound ideas–healing and justice.”

p.3: “Human reconciliations–when tragically divided people unify again around aspirations, ideas, and the positive bonds of nationalism–are to be cherished. But sometimes reconciliations have terrible costs, both intentional and unseen. The sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by the late nineteenth century, but it could not have been achieved without the resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage.

p.53: “In 1866-67, all sides in the epic Reconstruction debates seemed to hear and speak in the tones of requiem. But this requiem was badly out of tune, its harmony discordant.”

p.55: “But in the minds of radical leaders healing could wait. As the House of Representatives was about to vote on the Fourteenth Amendment., [Thaddeus] Stevens declared: ‘in rebuilding, it is necessary to clear away the rotten and defective portions of the old foundations, and to sink deep and found the repaired edifice upon the firm foundation of eternal justice….’ The tragedy of Reconstruction is rooted in this American paradox: the imperative of healing and the imperative of justice could not, ultimately, cohabit the same house.”

Weekend in Gettysburg and Lancaster

I started off the weekend in Gettysburg where I visited the brand new (July 2013) Seminary Ridge Museum.  This is a must stop the next time you are in Gettysburg.  The museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, is housed in a building that played a pivotal role on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and served as a hospital in the months following the battle.  The museum has three floors, covering the first day of the battle, the care of the wounded in the Seminary hospital, and the role of religion and slavery in antebellum America.  I am currently writing a more extensive review of this museum.  Stay tuned.

Seminary Ridge Museum
Has nothing to do with the Battle of Gettysburg, but I couldn’t pass this pic up.  It is a Lutheran seminary after all

General John Buford’s View from the cupola on the morning of July, 1, 1863

A better view from the cupola

On Saturday I was in Lancaster, PA.  My daughter was playing in the MLK Kickoff Classic, one of the largest volleyball events on the East coast.  During breaks from the games, while Allyson bonded with her teammates, I wandered around historic Lancaster.  Last December I participated in a conference on the Conestoga Indian massacre of 1763, but I did not get a chance to make it to the Fulton Opera House, the site of the jail in which the Paxton Boys killed several Indians who were being kept there under the protection of the government.  Here are few pics I snapped at the site:

Site of the second phase of the Conestoga Massacre–December 1763

On Monday, we were still playing volleyball.  Our site was moved to Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster.  Not much early American history here (the school was founded in 1905), but there was a cool statue of Thaddeus Stevens.

Thaddeus Stevens Did Not Say That

Jay Case, writing at his blog “The Circuit Reader,” debunks the notion that Thaddeus Stevens uttered these words about Abraham Lincoln:

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” 

According to Case, James Scovel, a New Jersey state senator during the Civil War, is to blame for putting this false quotation into circulation.  Here is a taste of his very interesting post:

When I first saw the film, I figured that Spielberg or one of the writer’s had made the quote up.    It didn’t fit with what I know Stevens, who had been a harsh critic of Lincoln for years.  I couldn’t imagine Stevens calling Lincoln “pure” unless he said it sarcastically.Would Thaddeus Stevens have taken kindly to getting misquoted?
Then I did a quick internet search and discovered that Thaddeus Stevens really did say this.  The internet sites referenced a couple of books by historians.  Oh.  OK.

But……I was still a bit suspicious because, well, I am a product of graduate school.  I started digging a bit more.  I knew the film took a lot from Doris Kearns Goodwin, so I checked out, Team of Rivals.  I couldn’t find the quote there.  I went back to the internet and found several people referencing a book entitled Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights by somebody named Milton Meltzer.  I was not familiar with him or the book.  So I kept looking.

Then on an Amazon site I saw that Paul D. Wolfowitz had written that the quote came from someone else.  What a minute.  That Paul D. Wolfowitz?  The deputy Defense secretary under Bush, who pushed so hard to get us into Iraq, has been spending time on Amazon critiquing books about Lincoln?  Or is it just somebody else who says  they were Paul D. Wolfowitz?  Either way, I had trust issues here.  So I had to dig some more.

I found Meltzer’s book.  He wrote books for young adults, so his book did not have footnotes.  Auuggh.  This is why we need footnotes.  I checked Allen Guelzo’s biography, Redeemer President.   He had the quote and his footnote referred to a book by Fawn Brodie.  I checked David Donald’s acclaimed biography of Lincoln and he also had the quote.  He referenced Fawn Brodie.  (This happens:  sometimes historians just quote one another if they have a clever little piece of history).  So I tracked down Fawn Brodie, who wrote Thaddeus Stevens:  Scourge of the South  in 1959.  She had the quote, which she got from an article on Thaddeus Stevens published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in April, 1898.  In that article James M. Scovel attributed the above quote to Stevens.  Paul D. Wolfowitz, even if it was a fake Paul D. Wolfowitz, was right.

That’s it.  As near as I can tell, all roads lead back to James Scovel.  Stevens died in 1868, but I can’t find any other source that gets the quote any closer to him than Scovel’s 1898 recollection.

Who was James Scovel?

Read the rest here.  This is some serious detective work.