Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens                 Tommie Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens

 Lincoln Resurrects “The Great Commoner”

I’m rooting for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Oscar for his riveting performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. Full disclosure: as an historian my hope is this might focus important attention on Stevens. This flamboyant Congressman (and his lashing tongue) had gained enormous name recognition in his time, but it was not the kind a mother wants for her famous son.

Until the modern civil rights movement those who wrote US history took a stick to Stevens.  He didn’t care. By the time he 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.” 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.” Never has the media so venomously portrayed a US elected official. The film has Stevens ruining the South by elevating ignorant former slaves to high office.

A Poster Valorizing the Ku Klux Klan
A Birth of Nation imagesCARPE2T6 The Precursor to Nazi film “Triumph of the Will”

This in turn, the script continues, encourages African American officials [played by white actors in black face], to rape white women. In the final scenes the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save white womanhood and Christian civilization. Half a century after his death, this movie was still kicking the man for a good deal of its three hours and ten minutes. Its scenes also 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.

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 lightening.” Wilson was quoted in the film prasing “a great Ku Klux Klan, a venerable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

For decades as the movie made a staggering $50,000,000, millions of men, women and children learned to hate Black people and cheer the KKK. Its debut in Atlanta Georgia jump-started the huge KKK of the 1920s which grew to 4,000,000 members. It took an NAACP national protest to remove a scene showing Klansmen castrating a Black man.

Stevens fared marginally better in Tennessee Johnson where the famous Lionel Barrymore portrayed a malicious politician plotting to destroy the South and white supremacy. Then a heroic President Andrew Johnson [Van Heflin] restores “home rule.” [Note: this was during the war against Nazi racism.]

As the 1915 silent epic and the 1942 feature film captivated audiences, our 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 the new President was not “The Great Emancipator.” His First Inaugural announced he would sign an Amendment [the original “13th”] that would make slavery permanent.

In office he steadfastly refused to propose emancipation for his first 17 months. When he first announced his Proclamation, it was a statement he planned to issue a formal declaration on January 1, 1863, and only as a war measure. Given the President’s sorry record and fondness for compromise, Stevens, other abolitionists and people of color had every reason to worry there might be a slip from the cup to the lip.

Thaddeus Stevens: Radical Republican


The Great Commoner

 Stevens fast walked a different path: “There can be no fanatics in defense of genuine liberty.” 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 in nearby Christiana opened fire on a slaveholder posse led by a US Marshall, Pennsylvania’s most famous attorney volunteered for their defense and won acquittal for the arrested.

Even Stevens’s fiery attacks on slaveholders came with some risk. Twice on the House floor he had to fend off Bowie knife wielding southern colleagues. As abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner sat at his Senate desk South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat him senseless with his heavy cane. Sumner never completely recovered and slaveholders praised Brooks.

From his birth in 1792 in Vermont Thaddeus Stevens lived with adversity. His father Joshua was an alcoholic shoemaker unable to hold a job so the family struggled. Then when Joshua disappeared never to return his mother Sally had to pick up the pieces. Resourceful, energetic and determined to see her four boys educated, she paid family bills through long, grueling work as a maid and housekeeper.

Thaddeus 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 learned how to battle people who derided him, think for himself and stick to his guns. His own fight with irrational hate may have opened his heart to others society classified as lesser humans.

Stevens graduated with a law degree from Dartmouth College, and opened a law office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His fortunes changed when he bought a Pennsylvania iron works and a Forge, and invested in farmland. He was elected to the state senate just as the legislature voted down an education bill because it raised taxes to aid poor families.

Stevens stormed into the fight with this argument: “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 Thaddeus 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 as a Republican Congressman. When it was far from popular he denounced bigotry, spoke in defense of Native Americans, Jews, Mormons, Chinese, and women’s rights.  And he intensified his crusade against the slaveholder aristocracy.

Lydia Hamilton Smith

Lydia Hamliton Smith -

Thaddeus Steven’s Common Law Wife

Stevens had never married and since 1848 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 considered their relationship 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. Birth of A Nation has Mrs. Smith, played by a pudgy white actor who 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 the President, Stevens forged a respectful alliance with the politician he came to call “the purest man in America.” As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee his 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. In the 2012 movie Lincoln Stevens is cast as the radical whom Lincoln must tame to insure passage of the 13thAmendment. This is Hollywood drama. The ardent abolitionist was as shrewd a politician as Lincoln, and needed no persuasion to support his life’s goal.

Fawn Brodie, Stevens admiring biographer, calls him “the scourge of the South.” But Stevens’ harsh, lacerating tongue speared Congressional incompetents as well as pro-slavery southerners and northerners. He could reduce political foes to gibbering self-doubt.

During the pivotal Gettysburg campaign in 1863, a Confederate Army rode out to kill him. Confederate Major General Jubal Early detoured his Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg to Stevens’ iron works at today’s Caledonia State Park. Unable to find him, “hang him on the spot and divide his bones,” Early ordered his men to burn everything, and steal his horses, mules, grain and iron bars. Stevens had to borrow money to rebuild.

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 always, at a quicker pace.

As the war’s casualties passed half a million and its cost soared to four billion dollars, Stevens’ concern turned to those who bore the greatest burdens — “the poor widow, the suffering soldier, the wounded martyr to his country’s good.” He denounced the new draft law that allowed a rich man to hire a substitute for $300 – and which led to four days of rioting among the poor in New York City. As real wages fell and business profits rose, he denounced bankers [whom he never liked] and “war profiteers.”

Tommy Lee Jones Gave a Riveting Performance



In vain Stevens and his Committee tried to prevent northern manufacturers from selling the government useless rifles and damaged goods at inflated prices. He wished “no injury to any, but if any must lose, let it not be the soldier, the mechanic, the laborer and the farmer.”

Stevens explored new directions. He welcomed the liberation of Russia’s serfs as a step toward world freedom. He encouraged a women’s delegation to hasten their drive for the suffrage. When Napoleon III of France made Emperor Maximilian his puppet ruler of Mexico, Stevens urged Congress to aid and provide loans to Mexico’s Indian President Benito Juarez.

As he grew older 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.

For Stevens and the United States everything changed when the assassination of President Lincoln brought Andrew Johnson to the White House. A poor white scornful of African Americans, he 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 northern business interests who valued trade relations with former slaveholders not the new Constitutional Amendments.

Stevens failed to bring justice, equality and a fair distribution of land and power to the South. But Stevens knew his and other abolitionist prodding led to Lincoln voicing his support for voting rights for Black soldiers and educated Black males.

Yes, Stevens can be faulted for his truculent manner, for believing he could defeat his foes’ economic and political influence, and for seriously underestimating racism’s grip nationwide. He fought to have the black and white poor own land, attend school, vote and enjoy equal rights. Though this proved to be an unfulfilled dream, he could not be faulted for his effort. It would require another century, other, younger dreamers both African American and white.

In death 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

New York City

February 24, 2013

**William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. His website is: www.williamlkatz.com


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