An Uncommon Woman: The Life of Lydia Hamilton Smith

Penn State Univ. (Keystone Books). Nov. 2023. 280p. ISBN 9780271096759. pap. $24.95. BIOG
Former broadcast journalist Kelley examines the life of Lydia Hamilton Smith (1813–84) within the context of her relationship to Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist and congressman who served as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War. Smith, a Black woman who was born free near Gettysburg, was ostensibly the manager of Stevens household and properties, but many historians have speculated that she and Stevens had a more intimate relationship. Kelley seeks to do for Smith what Annette Gordon-Reed did for the Hemings family in The Hemingses of Monticello, which is to provide a biography of a figure given only glancing attention in the annals of history. He painstakingly makes his case for Smith’s significance to Stevens, although he admits to a fair amount of conjecture. He also demonstrates Smith’s intelligence, fortitude, business savviness, and devotion to Stevens. But some readers may find the prose to be a bit dry in places, which could limit the book’s appeal.
VERDICT An important contribution to Civil War discourse, women’s studies, and Black history.
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