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by William Katz
I'm rooting for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards for his riveting performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. In the film Stevens is cast as the radical whom Lincoln must tame to insure passage of the 13th Amendment. This is Hollywood drama. The ardent abolitionist was as shrewd a politician as Lincoln, and needed no persuasion to support his life’s goal of ending slavery. But as a historian my hope is a win by Jones might focus important attention on the true history of Stevens.
By the time Stevens died in 1868 he had earned the appreciation of millions of slaves he helped free and further admiration as "the father of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments." Today he would be welcomed as a patriot to the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama. But until Tommy Lee Jones donned the man’s grim look, sharp wit, bulky swagger, and advanced racial views, Stevens faced a thrashing in classrooms, textbooks, and movies.
In 1915 Hollywood’s first blockbuster, Birth of A Nation, sought to humiliate Stevens—barely disguised as “Congressman Austin Stoneman.” The film has Stevens ruining the South by elevating ignorant former slaves to high office. This encourages African American officials—played by white actors in black face—to rape white women.
To make its tale believable Birth of A Nation was given a documentary look, a stamp of historical truth, and the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson who called it "history written in lightning." In the final scenes the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save white womanhood and Christian civilization. Its scenes bury the fact that the South’s real rapists during and after slavery were planters who held whips and guns as well as public office. For decades millions of viewers learned to hate black people and cheer the KKK. It took an NAACP national protest to remove a scene showing Klansmen castrating a black man.
Stevens fared marginally better in 1942’s Tennessee Johnson where the famous Lionel Barrymore portrayed Stevens as a malicious, politician plotting to destroy the South and white supremacy. Then a heroic President Andrew Johnson restores "home rule." Ironically, this film was released during the war against Nazi racism.
Between the 1915 silent epic and the 1942 feature America's leading scholars road the same bandwagon. Echoing his profession’s view, Pulitzer Prize historian James Truslow Adams called Stevens "perhaps the most despicable, malevolent, and morally deformed character who has risen to high power in America."
It is true that Thaddeus Stevens unleashed nasty, hateful invective on slaveholders, ridiculed incompetents, and relentlessly elbowed a cautious Lincoln toward emancipation. However, in 1861 Lincoln was not "The Great Emancipator." At his first Inaugural he announced he would sign an Amendment (the original "13th") that would make slavery permanent. For his first 17 months as President he steadfastly refused to propose emancipation. When he first announced his Proclamation, it was a statement he planned to issue a formal declaration on January 1, 1833, but only as a war measure. Stevens, other abolitionists, and people of color were worried—given the President’s record and fondness for compromise, there might be a slip from the cup to the lip.
Stevens walked a different path. "There can be no fanatics in defense of genuine liberty," he said. He did not shrink from hazardous combat against the Fugitive Slave Law and defiantly turned his law office into an Underground Railroad station. When a band of armed slave runaways opened fire on a slaveholder posse led by a U.S .Marshall, Stevens volunteered for their defense and won acquittal for the arrested. Even Stevens' bristling attacks on slaveholders in Congress came with some risk. Twice on the House floor he had to fend off Bowie-knife wielding colleagues.
How did Stevens become such a champion of justice? Born into adversity in Vermont in 1792, his father Joshua was an alcoholic shoemaker who, unable to hold a job, eventually abandoned the family. Resourceful, energetic, and determined to see her four boys educated, his mother Sally paid family bills through long, grueling work as a maid and housekeeper.
Stevens also stepped into life with a clubfoot when society saw this as a Devil’s curse, a sign of mental depravity. From an early age he had to deal with those who derided him, think for himself, and stick to his guns. Dealing with irrational hate may have opened his heart to others society classified as lesser humans.
After graduating with a law degree from Dartmouth College, Stevens opened a law office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His fortunes changed when he bought a Pennsylvania iron works and a forge, and invested in land and he was elected to the state senate where he championed public education.
The angry legislature voted down an education bill because it raised taxes to aid poor families, Stevens charged into the fight. Legislators listened as he argued
"the blessing of education shall be conferred on every son of Pennsylvania, shall be carried home to the poorest child of the poorest inhabitant of the meanest hut of your mountains, so that even he may be prepared to act well his part in this land of freedom, and lay on earth a broad and solid foundation for that enduring knowledge which goes on increasing through increasing eternity."
His speech led to passage of the state’s education law and made him "the father of public education in Pennsylvania."
In 1848 Stevens was elected to Congress raring to fight the "slaveocracy." He was also drawn to issues of economic injustice. In 1852 he opposed employers who sought to "get cheap labor" by lowering American workers' wages to European levels, and by using under paid women laborers. Such efforts, he insisted, keep "the laboring classes [with] scarcely enough to feed and clothe them . . . [and] nothing to bestow on the education of their children."
In 1853 Stevens had to return to his law office in Lancaster to pay business debts of over a quarter million dollars. But in 1859 he returned to Congress as a Republican. When it was hardly popular to do so he denounced bigotry, spoke in defense of Native Americans, Jews, Mormons, Chinese, and women's rights, and intensified his crusade against slavery.
He never legally married but from 1848 on Stevens shared his large Lancaster home with Lydia Hamilton Smith, an African American, and her two sons from a previous marriage. While he and Mrs. Smith treated their relationship as a common law marriage, his foes saw coarse degeneracy. He refused to publicly explain what he considered a private matter. His will left Mrs. Smith enough money to purchase the family home and live in comfort. In Birth of A Nation Mrs. Smith, played by a pudgy white actor, greets news of Lincoln’s assassination with a dance and shout, “You are now the most powerful in the United States.”
Despite his differences with Lincoln, Stevens came to call the President "the purest man in America." As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Stevens' control of the war's finances made him the most powerful member of the House. Lincoln held the power to make emancipation permanent. The two needed each other.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation brought the two men together. Stevens called it “a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and of sages.” Now "this Republic . . . [could] become immortal." The two now marched down the same road, Stevens, as expected, at a quicker pace.
Everything changed when the assassination of President Lincoln brought Andrew Johnson to the White House. A poor white scornful of African Americans, Johnson envied and worked to restore the power of the South’s planter class. Stevens' plan for "a radical reorganization in southern institutions, habits and manners" led to repeated clashes. Stevens also faced a Republican party increasingly dominated by business interests—men who valued trade relations with the South’s wealthy planters far more than Constitutional Amendments.
As he grew older his friends called Stevens "The Great Commoner." He asked to be remembered as one who tried “to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.” He said, "I have done what I deemed best for humanity. It is easy to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. But it is a great labor to protect the interests of the poor and downtrodden." His enemies said he betrayed his country and his race, and often his class.
Stevens can be faulted for his arrogant and truculent manner, for believing he could overcome his foes’ economic and political influence, and for seriously underestimating racism's grip nationwide. His dreams of black and white poor people owning land, attending school, voting and enjoying equal rights and justice yes, these were punctured within years of his death. But he could not be faulted for his untiring effort. It would require another century, and other, younger dreamers both African American and white to achieve his dream.
However in death Congressman Stevens affirmed his goals. His coffin was carried to the Capitol by an honor guard of five African American and three white soldiers. He had asked to be buried in the one Lancaster cemetery open to all races. His grave stone bore his own epitaph:
"I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: equality of man before his Creator."
Yes, Tommy Lee Jones deserves an Academy Award—and Thaddeus Stevens deserves a full hearing!
William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. You can find more essays and a list of books by Katz at http://williamlkatz.com.
Thaddeus Stevens at President Johnson's impeachment hearing via Wikimedia Commons
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