America’s Long Journey: Vengeance

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


Thaddeus Stevens, the man who more than any other shaped the vindictive reconstruction policy that supplanted Lincoln’s reconciliatory approach, was an honest man, no hypocrite, no fool. But if any one man blighted the chance of postwar reconciliation, he was the man. Not out of greed, or avarice for power, not even for revenge of anything personal he had ever suffered, but out of hatred.

Stevens hated the men who had caused the Civil War. He hated the slave-owners who for 15 years and more tried to make slavery national. He hated slavery, and those who advocated and practiced it, and those who defended it. Having lived for years in the shadow of the triumph of slavery – for so it appeared to many a man in the years before the war — and then living through four years of unprecedented slaughter and destruction, years in which defeat seemed all too possible – he came through to the other side determined to take his revenge upon evil.

The arch fiend in this tragedy was not a man or a faction or a party. It was not even the human scavengers who preyed upon the helpless. The fiend was – hatred. And Abraham Lincoln knew that.

Stevens knew that Lincoln could not be depended upon to hate enough; perhaps it was as well that he was gone. Chamberlain’s magnanimous gesture at Appomattox, Sherman’s lenient terms to Johnston – Grant’s lenient terms to Lee, for that matter – seemed, to him, just short of treason. For what if the enemy’s seeming defeat was actually a sham, a biding of time? Lee in the mountains instead of prison? Criminal leniency! Nor was he alone in these thoughts.

No one ever embraces hatred without paying the full price sooner, then later. In the case of reconstruction, it was paid by all concerned – by the south initially, by the entire country for generations ultimately. Look at Mr. Lincoln’s golden words: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” and contrast them to the brutal military occupation and martial law that unnecessarily humiliated and demoralized the defeated south, that set up puppet governments to assure Republican majorities in the national legislature, for the surer plundering of the national treasure. Is it not obvious that Lincoln would have been a great obstacle to this gigantic crime? And – this is a rhetorical question, but it needs to be posed – which of the two approaches made better policy? Which fostered better citizenship? Which sooner bound the nation’s wounds?

The Union soldier did his duty and fought for two causes he deeply believed in – preservation of the union and abolition of slavery. That vision was betrayed and perverted by a policy of calculated hatred, generating generations of hatred and strife. The enemy was hatred; the danger was hatred; the temptation was hatred, and the serpent in the garden, day and night, was hatred, and appeals to hatred, and the stirring up of hatred.

(And, a side issue. Jefferson Davis and his government failed their people in the way they let the war end. Davis and his government fled, rather than surrender, and of course in the event were captured anyway. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army and made the best terms for them he could, even though he thought he would be imprisoned, maybe executed. General Johnston did the same. Davis did not surrender his government; he fled. If he had surrendered, even if he had been tried and executed, he would have helped his people, for he would to some degree have drawn the lighting.)

4 thoughts on “America’s Long Journey: Vengeance

  1. Such an interesting post. It fits with an earlier Smallwood post in which he describes Watkins and another younger soldier, one fighting for each side, and tells about why they fight, as opposed to why we would think they were fighting. And Smallwood talks about their connection to their conception of God and the difference that made. You really bring the struggles at that time to life.

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