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Bruce Levine On Thaddeus Stevens Book: 'Abraham Lincoln Respected Him, But Found Him To Be A Royal Pain'

(CBS Local)-- Thaddeus Stevens is a name that many people aren't familiar with, but the former Republican Congressman was one of the most important voices in the fight against racism and slavery during the 1860s.

Stevens was amongst the first at the time to look at the Civil War as an opportunity to remake the country into a true multiracial democracy. Historian and author Bruce Levine recently released the definitive biography on Stevens for Simon & Schuster called "Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice" and he hopes a new generation will learn about Stevens and his impact on our country.

"It was challenging to put this book together," said Levine, in an interview with CBS Local's DJ Sixsmith. "It's not like nobody has written a biography on Thaddeus Stevens. In fact, in the 19th century there were a number of them written and even more recently than that. Somehow he has managed to evade a good deal of publication attention. As with other figures like Abraham Lincoln, there is no diary. Trying to figure out the inner life of this person was tough. The cherry on top is Thaddeus Stevens' handwriting was almost illegible. Even his correspondents complained to him 'how do you expect me to read this letter.'"

Stevens represented Pennsylvania in Congress in two different stints from 1849-1853 and then from 1859-1868. He was one of the first representatives of the newly formed Republican party in the late 1850s. Levine was blown away by how far ahead of his time Stevens was on the issues of equality, gender and racism.

"It was not only exciting, it was inspiring," said Levine. "I first came across Thaddeus Stevens when I took a course in college that was called Black History. I read a book a history of this era by the great Black writer W.E.B Du Bois. Then, I came across Thaddeus Stevens. The more I learned about him, the more interesting he became. He has really been a hero of mine for most of my life. It wasn't until I began researching this book that I began to discover just how interesting he was and how complicated his story was. He's in favor of women's rights and women's suffrage. He defends the reputation of Native Americans. He criticizes the state of California for discriminating against Chinese immigrants. It was startling to discover at an earlier stage of his life, he was a good deal less democratic than that. In other words, his life was a journey."

One of the other fascinating parts of Stevens' story was his relationship with President Lincoln.

"It was basically cordial," said Levine. "Stevens says at one point what do we do with someone who is too slow. He says this in correspondence with another ally. What do we do with someone who is too slow, but is marching along our road. Even if it's too slowly. He says the answer has to be praise him publicly and criticize him privately. Keep pushing him. I think Lincoln respected Stevens, but found him a royal pain and a nuisance. He looked at Stevens as someone headed in the same direction as him."

Levine's book is available now wherever books are sold and watch all of DJ Sixsmith's interviews from "The Sit-Down" series here.

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