Is Kindness Strength?—
Aesthetic Realism & Thaddeus Stevens (contin.)

by Dale Laurin

Selective Justice is Unkind

Thaddeus Stevens took many ethical stands he was rightly proud of but, like other people, he didn’t always feel kindness was prudent. So he put limits on what others deserved, particularly those close to him. He had a few trusted friends, but Fawn Brodie, his biographer, writes that he “seems to have kept a barrier always between himself and [them].” When he became father to his two orphaned nephews, Stevens seemed more interested in their obedience than in what they felt. I believe this is a reason why, despite his justice elsewhere, he felt lonely, bitter, and unhappy. Thaddeus Stevens needed to know what Eli Siegel wrote in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO), #76: “the seeing of other persons rightly, familiar or strange, cannot be dissevered from seeing the world rightly. Seeing is continuous.”

This is what I have the good fortune to be studying in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by the Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, in which international ethics is seen as continuous with ethics in the kitchen. In a class some years ago, my wife Barbara Buehler expressed concern about the way I dismissed things—like a pot of homemade broth she asked me to keep an eye on, which I quickly forgot, causing much broth to boil away.

Ms. Reiss asked Barbara: “Do you think Dale Laurin can feel that he’s given so much value to things not himself that he’s got to recoup by showing things are meaningless—like chicken stock?” And she asked me: “Do you think you have to have your way of shrugging things off?” Yes, I answered. “Do you think Barbara Buehler is treacherous because she’s excited about too many things. If she could [just] be nice and dull and worship you?” I’m grateful to Ellen Reiss for her incisive, kind criticism. I’m glad to tell you there is greater kindness, respect and happiness between Barbara and me, which grows with every week!

Criticism is Kind and Strong

Thaddeus Stevens served in the US House of Representatives during the time of the great struggle in American history over whether freedom and justice were the rights of ALL people. Ellen Reiss explains with passionate clarity in TRO #916:

“The great cause of the Civil War…was slavery. And slavery is a form—utter, elemental—of man’s seeing man with contempt: it is the epitome of the feeling, You are different from me; therefore you are less; I do not have to see you as real; and I have pleasure looking down on you….[T]he fight, Shall I see the world and people with contempt or respect? is the fight within every individual right now.”

Every consultation I am honored to teach with my colleagues is about this. For instance, we have asked men: “You don’t like the way your supervisor sees you, but have you also gotten pleasure ‘lording’ it over another person?—your wife, for instance? You say that you listen to her opinions, but ‘when push comes to shove’ do you let her know who’s the boss? Can you say three things you respect her for that have nothing to do with you? Does thinking about this have you care for her more, and also have you like and respect yourself more?” I know for myself—and from the many men we have spoken to—answering these questions does encourage honest pride and deeper trust and love between husband and wife.

In the first speech Stevens gave in the House, opposing passage of the Compromise of 1850—sanctioning the western extension of slavery—his anger was beautiful and kind. He said:

“You and I…are free, while we fasten iron chains and rivet manacles on four million of our fellowmen, tear their wives and children from them…sell them, and doom them to perpetual eternal bondage. Are we not, then, despots…as history will brand, and God abhors?… [Any] Northern man…who would directly or indirectly, by omission or commission, by basely voting or cowardly skulking, permit [slavery] to spread one rood over God’s free earth, [is] a traitor to liberty and a recreant to his God.”

House speaker Howell Cobb of Georgia, a supporter of slavery, was heard to say: “Our enemy has a general now.…He does not want higher office, therefore we cannot allure him.…He is earnest. He means what he says. He is bold. He cannot be flattered or frightened.” This is such a tribute, for it shows that standing up for what people deserve always commands the highest respect, even from those whose comfort and egos are threatened. And how true and relevant this is today!

Stevens was hated by many, but what people deserved was more important to him than being liked. “I would sooner lose every friend on earth than violate the glorious dictates of my own conscience,” he said. “There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty.” Yet he unknowingly worked against this kind cause in his support of laws promoting business interests—high tariffs, canals, railroads, and, as some accused, his own ironworks. Eli Siegel is the historian who showed that our profit-based economic system—of which slavery was a most pernicious form—is, by its very nature, unkind and weakening to the self of man. “Only contempt,” he wrote, “could permit a man to make money from the work of another—as man has done these hundreds of years.…I have seen the unhappy, painful, often unendurable consequences of ill will in economics from the time of…Themistocles to Abraham Lincoln.”

It is important that when the Civil War broke out, Stevens decisively chose kindness over profits. As Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he took command of financing the Union war effort and publicly denounced bankers who demanded gold as interest on loans to the government—putting greed above the very survival of the nation. And when Confederate armies, heading for what would be the decisive Battle of Gettysburg, made a detour to vengefully loot and destroy Stevens’ iron foundry, his response was beautiful. “It was just about the savings of my life,” he said, but if “the government shall be re-established over our whole territory, and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a cheap purchase.”

In 1865 the war against slavery was won, but not against injustice: 1866 saw the highest number of black lynchings, a Ku Klux Klan membership of 500,000, and the pardoning of 14,000 Confederate prisoners by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson—74 of whom were elected to Congress. Stevens felt the only way to stop Johnson from selling out the Union victory and to win full rights for African Americans was to strictly monitor the readmission of Southern states.

As leader of the Republican-controlled House, Stevens—74 and in failing health—became, in effect, the most powerful man in the nation. He spurred the House to pass laws, override every presidential veto, and finally vote to impeach Johnson himself. Most of what Stevens fought for was beautiful, including what I believe is one of the kindest pieces of legislation in US history—a bill he submitted calling for the division of all plantations over 5,000 acres into 40-acre farms—one for every family of a former slave.

In an essay titled “36 Things About America: An Arithmetical Assemblage of Notations on the Persisting,” Eli Siegel has this deep, surprising sentence showing something of Stevens’ permanent meaning: “Thaddeus Stevens is still trying to bring out good things in Robert E. Lee and the other way round.” This bringing out of good things describes as well the kind purpose of Aesthetic Realism itself and the consultations my colleagues and I are so proud to give. In bringing out the best thing in every person—our desire to like the world—and in criticizing the worst—contempt, Aesthetic Realism enables people to feel on a solid basis, truly strong, truly kind.

Return to part 1


Dale Laurin, a consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, worked is an architect with the New York City Department of Design and Construction. To learn more visit www.AestheticRealism.org. 

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