Thaddeus Stevens Movie Summary
By Ross Hetrick
The movie takes place between December 4, 1865, when the southerners are kicked out of Congress, and August 11, 1868 when Stevens dies. The important
events are the Congressional approval of the 14th Amendment, the passage of the Reconstruction Acts and the impeachment and acquittal of Andrew Johnson.
The plot includes the relationship between Stevens and Vinnie Ream, a young, beautiful sculptress who is befriended by Stevens who then gets her a commission
to do the statue of Lincoln for the Capitol building. But during the Johnson impeachment, she betrays him, yet he comes to her rescue when other Radical
Republicans want to punish her.
The movie begins on December 4, 1865, the day Stevens engineers the parliamentary maneuver that keeps southerners from taking seats in Congress. If they
had taken their seats, they could have joined with their northern Democratic allies and forced the federal government to pay Confederate war debts, reject the
federal debts and continue slavery through the newly enacted Black Codes in southern states. But even though Stevens foiled their plans, Stevens wants to
revamp the Constitution to make the United States truly a country of equality.
Shortly after his victory on December 4, he meets Vinnie Ream, a beautiful 18-year-old sculptress who wants to sculpt a statue of Lincoln for the Capitol building.
Stevens feeling a kinship with her bold nature, becomes her mentor and introduces a measure to give her a commission to do the statue. In the meantime,
Stevens starts sitting for a plaster bust by Ream, which gives him time to talk to her about politics.
But Ream also has another friend, Albert Pike, who is a former Confederate general and journalist. He spends a great deal of time with her, talking about how the
Radical Republicans are intent on punishing the South. Lydia Hamilton Smith, Stevens’s housekeeper and confidante, gets wind of these meetings and warns
Stevens about Ream, saying she may be a southern sympathizer. But Stevens dismisses them as frivolous attacks against the ambitious Ream.
On one occasion, Stevens goes to Ream's house for a sitting and encounters Pike sitting in the parlor with Ream. Vinnie excuses herself to get ready for the
session, leaving Pike and Stevens alone. There is an awkward silence and then Pike blurts out, "How is your nigger elevation efforts going?"
Stevens stares at him with disdain and says, "Quite well, thank you. So well that we may try to rehabilitate those traitorous rebels."
"Perhaps they don't want to be rehabilitated to be like you money grubbing yankees," Pike replies
"Perhaps," Stevens says, "But at least they'll have to learn to get along without slaves."
"That will take some doing," Pike says. "Particularly for the niggers who depended on their white masters."
"Ah yes, what a charitable institution slavery was," Stevens says. "I was looking forward to the slave owners opening it up to all people -- white and black. They
could entice prospective slaves with woodcuts of those implements of happiness -- iron yokes, handcuffs, and cat-o-nine-tails."
At this point, Ream comes in and says, "I hope you gentlemen are getting along."
"Splendidly," Stevens says. "we were just discussing voluntary slavery.
"More like voluntary idiocy," Pike says as he gets up to leave.
Back in Congress, Stevens is weighing various options to amend the Constitution to make equal treatment the law of the land and to thwart possible Southern
actions once they are retuned to Congress. He is visited by Robert Dale Owen, a former Congressman and reformer. Owen has come up with a multi-part
amendment that would satisfy many of Steven’s goals and Stevens introduces it in Congress.
As the 14th Amendment is being debated and changed, things are heating up in the South, where states have enacted Black Codes, which virtually reinstate
slavery. Under these laws, a black person who leaves a plantation can be arrested for vagrancy and put back on the plantation as a convict laborer. In Memphis in
May 1866, white police and residents go on a rampage against freed blacks, killing 46 and injuring 75. Then in July 1866, former Confederate soldiers attack
blacks and whites who are tying to hold a convention to rewrite the state constitution, killing 38 and wounding 46.
President Andrew Johnson sees these incidents as being caused by the Radicals and launches a speaking tour, call The Swing Around The Circle, to elect
Democratic congressmen who agree with him. But he alienates crowds wherever he goes and the country elects a Congress that is 77 percent Republicans,
giving them a veto-proof Congress.
Stevens meets with other Radicals to make plans, including putting the South under military control and passing the 14th Amendment. There is also talk about
how to rein in Johnson, with Stevens talking ominously about impeachment. Stevens then goes to Ream’s house to sit for his bust. They talk about what is
happening in Congress and Stevens explains how there is an incentive in his version of the 14th Amendment that would encourage states to give women the vote
by connecting the number or representatives in Congress to the number of eligible voters. While he is there Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, who rents a room
from the Ream family, walks in. Stevens talks to him about the need to make the U.S. into an equal society while Ross urges caution.
Stevens goes home. The next day a messenger arrives at the Ream house saying Stevens is too ill to come over to sit. Ream decides to go over to Stevens and
she gets someone to carry the bust over. Her arrival is greeted by surprise by housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith. She starts to needle Ream about the
impropriety of a young lady coming over to the house of a bachelor, to which Ream responds about the impropriety of a housekeeper acting like someone’s wife.
Stevens, who is watching this with bemusement, intervenes and tells Smith that there is nothing wrong with Ream coming over to see an old codger and then he
tells Ream not to believe all the rumors about him, otherwise “you’d think I murdered half of Gettysburg and swindled the other half.” He then opens a draw and
pulls out a spare wig and hands it to Ream. “The next time you want to do my bust and I am ill, put this on an ugly stump. It should do just fine.”
The Reconstruction measures, which include the military control of the South, are working their way through Congress and hit a point where they may be
defeated. But Stevens, so weak that he has to be carried into the House of Representatives, comes to the floor and makes a speech. His voice is so faint that
people have to huddle around him to hear him. Yet the speech carries the day and Reconstruction is enacted.
But Johnson is dead set against Reconstruction and he appoints people who are going to sabotage the plans. Congress tries to rein him in by passing the Tenure
of Office Act that requires him to get Senate approval before getting rid of cabinet members. But Johnson says it is unconstitutional and will not be bound by it.
The 14th amendment, which is coming up for a vote, has been significantly changed, including the elimination of the provision to tie representation in Congress to
eligible votes. Stevens considers voting against it, but instead gives a moving speech about how he will support it because it the best that can be achieved at this
Johnson becomes more frustrated at the turn of events and fires Secretary of War Stanton, who is an ally of the Radicals. This begins impeachment proceedings,
spearheaded by Stevens.
In the meantime, Albert Pike continues his visits to Ream and is always talking about how Johnson is the savior of the Union and must be kept in office to bring the
North and South back together. He impresses on Ream that she could play a role in this effort by persuading Sen. Edmund Ross, who lives at her parents
boarding house, to vote to acquit Johnson.
The night before the Senate is to vote on whether to convict Johnson, The Radicals send over Daniel Sickles, a one-legged former Union General, to try to
persuade Ross to vote for conviction. Sickles comes into the Ream boarding house and believes Ross is there because he see a light in his window. But Vinnie
says he is not there and won’t let Sickles go up to the room. Ream uses all her feminine wiles to keep Sickles away from Ross and Sickles finally leaves. The next
day Ross votes for acquittal, saving Johnson by one vote.
Ream goes to see Pike and he is ecstatic about the acquittal. “That will show those nigger lovers and their niggers.” he exclaims. Ream is taken aback and said
she thought it was about saving Johnson for the sake of reconciling the North and the South. Pike says he doesn’t care a fig about Johnson, who stayed with the
Union during he Civil War. “What I care about is the supremacy of the white race.”
Disenchanted with Pike, Ream goes to her Capitol studio to find an guard outside. She is told it is being used to detain a person who is charged with perjury in the
Johnson impeachment and that she will have to remove everything in the next 24 hours. Knowing this means the possible end of her effort to sculpt Lincoln. She
goes in great distress to Stevens and throws herself on his mercy. He is very fatherly and says she didn’t lose the trial for him, rather he was just too tired and ill to
do his best. He writes out a note and sends it off with a messenger. “Don’t worry about your studio, you will be able to return tomorrow and we will find someplace
else to hold that scoundrel,” he tells Ream.
Months pass and we see Stevens on his deathbed with Lydia next to him holding his hand and a group of black nuns hovering by. The scene then changes to his
coffin in the Capitol Rotunda with Ream’s statue of Lincoln behind it. People are passing by it and Ream, dressed in black comes along. She walks over to the
coffin and opens her purse as if to get a handkerchief and instead pulls out a wig and places it on the coffin.