Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

This is some serious detective work.

I love it. Props!