Writing a biography of Lancaster’s 19th-century antislavery congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, “was sort of a long-term plan” for historian Bruce Levine.

“He’s kind of a nearly lifelong hero of mine,” says Levine, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an author of several books on the Civil War era.

“I first learned about his existence, really, when I was in college and took a Black history course,” Levine says by phone. “I grew up in the era of the 1960s civil rights movement (and) have always been dedicated to that cause. And when I read about Thaddeus Stevens, everything I read about him appealed to me.”

Levine recently published that biography, “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice,” and will speak about the book at two upcoming virtual appearances — one this week for LancasterHistory and one in April for the Gettysburg-based Thaddeus Stevens Society.

Stevens, who lived and practiced law in Lancaster and is buried in a city cemetery, evolved over time into a crusading, antislavery member of the Radical Republican faction in the U.S. House — one who fought to strip post-Civil War power from the Confederate states and helped shepherd constitutional amendments in the service of Reconstruction.

“I wanted to understand better the relationship between radicals like (Stevens) and what was accomplished in that era,” Levine says. “Because I still think we’re living in a time that needs basic change. … There are issues arising from the fact that the struggle for a real interracial democracy was not achieved, was not successful, was not completed in Stevens’ time.”

In both area Zoom presentations, Levine says, “I’m planning to talk about two questions that … I set out to answer to my own satisfaction when I started working on the book.

“First was, what role did this man (Stevens) play in bringing about what I and other people of greater eminence have called the Second American Revolution (the crusade against slavery)? How does he fit into the story?” Levine says. “And the other is how does somebody become such an individual? Where does this kind of person come from?

“In terms of (his) hostility to slavery, I try to explain in the early chapters of the book that I think there are a number of factors involved.,” Levine says. “The fact that he’s born and raised in Vermont, I think, is really important … the fact that its constitution is the first one to denounce slavery.

“He grows up in a family of religious Baptists, and New England Baptists were strongly against slavery,” Levine says. “He goes to college and he reads things that are critical of slavery. … One thing after another piles on to push him in that direction.

“Nonetheless … you see inconsistency in his early life,” Levine says. “While he is opposed to slavery, he doesn’t yet make antislavery the central guiding principle of his business” or other parts of his life.

“It’s not until the middle of the 1830s, when things are really heating up nationally, on the subject of the South’s attempt to suppress the abolitionists,” Levine says, “that you see Stevens pulling himself together and saying, ‘Nope. … Can’t equivocate on this anymore. Can’t treat this as a side issue or a secondary issue. This is the issue.”

What you won’t find in Levine’s book is a lot of stories about Stevens’ daily, personal life that don’t have a significant bearing on his political work and persona.

“My interest in Stevens was always in him as a political figure,” Levine says. “Where I found his personal life influencing that, as I do in the study of his youth, I try to include that.”

You won’t find a lot in the book about Stevens’ relationship with Lydia Hamilton Smith — a Black businesswoman with whom he lived — for example, because Levine says his research didn’t reveal evidence that “Mrs. Smith in some profound way shaped his politics.”

Levine says he got assistance with his book from LancasterHistory and others he met in Lancaster when attending advisory meetings about the organization’s development of the Stevens & Smith Historic Site at Queen and Vine streets.

“I’ve had a very happy relationship with Lancaster,” Levine says.

He says he had a few surprises in the course of his research for the book.

“Before I knew much about (Stevens’) early years, I had just assumed that there would be a straight line from the sort of radically democratic, ‘small d,’ influences on him in his youth to the man he became in the era of the Civil War,” Levine says. “So I was surprised to discover expressions of what I think we would call conservatism in him during his time as a younger man. …

“I was also relatively surprised to learn that Stevens was not one of the first … immediately after the Civil War, to call for Black voting rights,” Levine says. “It takes him a beat before he gets on board with that,” which the author traces to Stevens’ early belief that people should own property in order to vote. Otherwise, Stevens thought, they wouldn’t have a way to educate themselves, or resist their employers’ economic influence,” Levine says.

“And so I didn’t realize that’s how he had come to that call for turning the plantations over to the former slaves.” Levine says.

Levine’s book brings Stevens’ political career to life, offering the reader vivid scenes from the floor of both the Pennsylvania state house and the U.S. House of Representatives.

He describes Stevens’ plea for public education, in the state House in 1835 — asking lawmakers to follow the example of his native New England, where “free schools plant the seeds and the desire of knowledge in every mind, without regard to the wealth of the parent or the texture of the pupil’s garments.”

Levine offers the reader many views of Stevens making fiery speeches against slavery, using religious rhetoric to warn that America will be subject to punishment by “the sword of the destroying angel” and “an avenging God, who is now punishing the sins of this nation for the wicked wrongs which for centuries we have inflicted on a blameless race.”

After some of these speeches, Stevens found himself facing “Southern congressmen gathered around his desk, scowling, sneering, and cursing at him” — even threatening him with a Bowie knife — Levine writes.

Levine also reminds the reader of Stevens’ famous, barbed wit, with one of the author’s favorite stories featuring an off-the-cuff Stevens comeback:

“Walking down a narrow lane one day, he found himself confronting a political antagonist. ‘I never get out of the way for a skunk,’ the other man sneered. ‘I always do,’ Stevens replied, and promptly stood aside,” Levine writes.

Levine hopes readers of his latest book find inspiration in Stevens’ story.

“I’d like to think that people who believe in equality can read this story and take heart from what was achieved in Stevens’ time, and from the fact that someone who starts off advocating an advanced degree of equality, when it’s not popular at all, can achieve a substantial amount along those lines if the winds of history are in his sail.”

Levine adds he hopes readers will see “that a political minority can change the course of history if the circumstances are right. And that hard work and consistency and courage and high principle can pay off in reality.”

• What: Two upcoming virtual talks by author and historian Bruce Levine.

• LancasterHistory event: Virtual talk, via Zoom, at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 18.

• Admission: Free to the public, but advance registration is required, online at bit.ly/rhc21mar18. A Zoom link will be emailed to you.

• Thaddeus Stevens Society event: Virtual talk, via Zoom, at 4 p.m. Friday, April 2. Registration is required for this free program. Email info@thaddeusstevenssociety.com and you’ll receive the Zoom link via email shortly before the event.

• “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice.”

• By Bruce Levine, Ph. D.

• Simon & Schuster, March 2.

• 320 pages ($28).

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