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Social justice and impeachment: Thaddeus Stevens was a trailblazer for both

Ornery, witty and devoted to Black equality, Stevens was a real ally.
Image: Portrait of Thaddeus Stevens with blue overlay against a yellow background
Rep. Thaddeus Stevens fought for equality after the Civil War.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Thaddeus Stevens is a name that not nearly enough Americans have heard. It never popped up when I was learning history in school, using textbooks that still described the "carpetbaggers" of Reconstruction-era America as sly Northern villains. Stevens, an early Republican member of the House of Representatives, served in an era when his clear moral stance was often shunned. He was a civil rights icon and the exact kind of ally Black Americans need again today.

By the by: I know that this piece is publishing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so I want to acknowledge that it feels weird to be praising a white man at this particular moment. But Stevens has been on my mind lately, both as the new Congress gets to work, with its mandate to undo some of President Donald Trump's most racist policies, and as the Senate prepares for Trump's second impeachment trial.

I first learned about Stevens in 2019, when I was hosting a podcast covering Trump's first impeachment. I was particularly fascinated by the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, the only one to take place before I was born. Luckily, historian Brenda Wineapple had that year published her engaging book "The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just America." Wineapple focuses on Stevens and the other members of Congress who tried to steer post-Civil War America away from its racist past as they challenged Johnson, who became their main obstacle after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

Stevens has seesawed in historians' eyes over the last 150 years, but Wineapple, like most more recent scholars, is full of praise for his anti-slavery stances. An abolitionist, the ornery, witty congressman with a club foot was serving his first term when he staked out his position against the Compromise of 1850, which he presciently called "the fruitful mother of future rebellion, disunion, and civil war." By the end of the next year, he'd resigned from the anti-Jackson Whig caucus, ending any chance of renomination to his Pennsylvania seat for a third term.

It was almost a decade later when Stevens returned to Congress as a Radical Republican, as his coalition called itself. Think of him at this point as a Civil War-era cross between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rather than accept a piecemeal dismantling of chattel slavery, Stevens's version of the "squad" was all for a swift and complete end of what they, rightly, saw as an overwhelming force of evil.

Stevens couldn't accept the notion that "one race of men are to have the exclusive right forever to rule this nation" over all others: "Wherein does this differ from slavery except in degree?"

But if Stevens was frustrated during the war by Lincoln's slow acceptance of total emancipation, he was livid at Johnson's version of Reconstruction. Rather than ensure that the newly freed Black population of the South would have equal rights, Johnson readily welcomed the Southern states back into the political fold, admitting them back into Congress and appointing as their leaders white supremacists who, like him, believed "this is a white man's government."

In poor health at the age of 73, Stevens still had the strength to organize Congress against Johnson. He couldn't accept the notion that "one race of men are to have the exclusive right forever to rule this nation" over all others. "Wherein does this differ from slavery except in degree?" he asked in a speech to Congress in December 1865. Using his knowledge of House rules, and in cooperation with the Senate, Stevens made sure that Southern states couldn't be seated in Congress until they'd rewritten their constitutions to provide rights to formerly enslaved Black residents.

He stuck by what he knew was right, even when it was unpopular, but he also knew better than to let the perfect get in the way of the good. As the watered-down version of the 14th Amendment neared passage, he said that his "bright dream" for true equality had vanished — but he would still vote for the amendment. He would do so, he told his colleagues as debate concluded, because "I live among men and not among angels" — "mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities."

Meanwhile, Johnson, in many ways the Trump of his era, was the "one of the chief architects of Andrew Johnson's impeachment," as Wineapple put it. His unpopularity helped the Republicans gain a veto-proof majority in the 1866 midterms, setting up a clash between the two branches of government. Congress took over Reconstruction, setting new standards for Southern reintegration. The House and the Senate overrode Johnson's veto to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, granting citizenship to all Black Americans and enshrining legal protections for them ahead of the eventual enactment of the 14th Amendment. Johnson in turn moved to hinder the military's role in protecting Blacks in the South from white militias' violence.

In their outrage, Stevens and the other radicals boxed Johnson in legislatively; when he removed the secretary of war in violation of a recently passed law, they immediately struck. It was Stevens who announced Johnson's impeachment to the Senate on Feb. 25, 1868. He was dreadfully sick by the time the impeachment trial commenced, to the extent that he could read only half of his closing arguments before passing them on to one of his fellow prosecutors. For all his efforts, though, the Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote.

By the time Stevens died in 1868, he'd become reviled in the South as a vicious tyrant with an irrational hatred of Southerners. This view continued to grow as adherents to the Dunning School burrowed their revisionism of the Civil War's causes deep into America's understanding of itself. But Stevens stood by his ideals even in the face of death: When he'd learned that the burial plot that he'd chosen wouldn't allow Black people to be buried there, he immediately sold it and bought one in an integrated cemetery.

Stevens knew that Johnson's treatment of Black people meant he didn't deserve to be in office long before he committed the acts charged in his impeachment. He believed long before Lincoln in the need for true equality between all Americans. And long after his death, he remains a touchstone for morality in Congress. His legacy is one that lawmakers would, in my opinion, do well to emulate as they move forward with rebuilding this country and implementing President-elect Joe Biden's agenda.

The second impeachment trial of Trump is a good start, as senators ponder again whether it matters whether a law was actually broken in his speech to his supporters on Jan. 6. — Stevens argued that it didn't. And as they decide what to do about their colleagues who advocated for overturning the election, I urge them to ask themselves, "What would Thaddeus do?"