|Thaddeus Stevens Returns
To The Movies
Seventy years after his last appearance on film, the Thaddeus Stevens
character returns in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Below are pictures, clips and an
article about Stevens's past and future appearance. If you have further questions
or comments, contact the Thaddeus Stevens Society at:
Academy award winning actor, Tommy Lee Jones,
plays Thaddeus Stevens, the most powerful
member of Congress during the Civil War, who
helped Lincoln pass the 13th Amendment, which
S. Epatha Merkerson, who played a
tough police captain in the television
series, Law And Order, will play
Stevens's housekeeper and confidant,
Lydia Hamilton Smith.
|Thaddeus Stevens Returns to the Movies
By Ross Hetrick and Steve Vitoff
Ninety-seven years after first appearing in the movies, the character of abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) of
Pennsylvania is once again in a major motion picture. But this time his treatment is dramatically different.
Stevens, viewed by historians as the most powerful congressman during and after the Civil War, is played by Tommy Lee Jones in
the movie, Lincoln, released in November. It is the third time that the Stevens character has been on the silver screen, but it is first
time he is treated well. The other two movies were D. W. Griffith's landmark silent film, Birth of a Nation (1915) and the far more
obscure Tennessee Johnson (1942), directed by William Dieterle.
Despite taking liberties with historic facts and a gratuitous bedroom scene, the new depiction of Stevens is very favorable. "It shows
him as a bold, fearless and even funny champion for the downtrodden," said Ross Hetrick, president of the Thaddeus Stevens
Called the Old Commoner, Thaddeus Stevens was an unrelenting foe of slavery and a parliamentary master. He helped pressure
President Abraham Lincoln into issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and was instrumental in the passage of the 13th Amendment,
which prohibits slavery. He is the father of the 14th Amendment, the single most important amendment, requiring equal treatment
under the law and protecting civil rights. He was also the chief architect of Reconstruction, a failed effort to build an equal society in
the post-war South.
When he died in 1868, Stevens’s fame rivaled that of Lincoln’s and he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, an honor
only given to Henry Clay and Lincoln up to that time. Some 20,000 people attended his funeral in Lancaster, PA. Indeed, he
ensured that his commitment to racial equality would resonate even after his death by insisting on being buried in the city's only
cemetery open to all races and creeds.
His reputation, however, took a nosedive after the 1870s as the North grew tired of protecting and assisting the freed slaves and the
South was successful in painting Reconstruction as an era of northern vengeance.
The success of this effort was evident in the great epic film, Birth of a Nation. This ground-breaking motion picture included a
character named Austin Stoneman, a powerful northern congressman patterned after Stevens. Played by Ralph Lewis, the
congressman is portrayed as a power-hungry politician intent on forcing black-rule upon a defeated South. But he is thwarted by the
Klu Klux Klan, the heroes of the film.
Stevens fared little better in Tennessee Johnson, a movie about the life of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln successor. Played by Lionel
Barrymore, the Stevens character is a fanatic bent on crushing a well-meaning President Johnson, played by Van Heflin.
In the new Lincoln movie, the Thaddeus Stevens character aims his rhetorical wit at pro-slavery congressmen. In one scene, he says
George Pendleton, a Democrat from Ohio, is "more reptile than man." In his actual confrontation with Pendleton on January 13,
1865, Stevens had this to say:
"So far as the appeals of the learned gentleman [Pendleton] are concerned, in his pathetic winding up, I will be willing to take my
chance, when we are molder in the dust. He may have his epitaph written, if it be truly written, 'Here rests the ablest and most
pertinacious defender of slavery and opponent of liberty;' and I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: 'Here lies one
who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the
condition of the poor,the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.'"