Exploring The Stevens Movie
Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens.
By Ross Hetrick
The movie Lincoln is the best thing to have happened for the reputation of
Thaddeus Stevens in more than 100 years. It spurred dozens of articles and
radio shows about Stevens. It inspired Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to push
through legislation renaming the Danville, VT, post office after Stevens and,
closer to home, it more than doubled the Stevens Society membership, pushing
it up to 130. And while the initial excitement over Stevens has faded in the two
years since the movie’s release, it continues to have a favorable influence.
Yet, the inclusion of Stevens in the movie was not preordained. Stephen
Spielberg years ago bought the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about
Lincoln, Team of Rivals, which only mentions Stevens in passing. It was only
because the movie script was written by Tony Kushner, the celebrated writer of
the play, Angels In America, that Thad got his day in the Sun. And while the
portrayal is very favorable to Stevens, it still contains elements that show that
Kushner was influenced by longstanding myths about the Great
When we first meet Stevens in the movie, we don’t see him immediately.
Instead we have four men talking into the camera about how they should not work with Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment. But we
can tell its Stevens’s office by the large “Re-elect Thaddeus Stevens” banner on the wall behind them. Next to the banner is a picture
of Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer of the American Revolution. In my extensive reading about Stevens, I’ve never come
across any mention of Paine by him , but it is possible that Stevens saw the free thinker as a kindred spirit.
But then the camera moves a little more and we see something rather amazing -- a bust of Robespierre on Stevens’s desk. Why
would Stevens have a bust of the murderous leader of the Terror during the French Revolution?
Stevens was constantly being accused by his enemies of being the American Robespierre. Of course this was a ridiculous charge
since Stevens was a life-long opponent of capital punishment and a champion of free speech and toleration. Stevens was as likely to
have a bust of Robespierre on his desk as President Obama would have one of Osama bin Laden.
Despite the Robespierre bust, what Stevens says is very much in line with his personality. The veteran of decades of political battles,
Stevens says he doesn’t trust Lincoln and has never trusted anyone. But always the pragmatist, he is willing to work with Lincoln to
abolish slavery. Then as he is leaving the room, he gives a short soliloquy about killing slavery next to the scales of justice -- a very
We next see Stevens parlaying with Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House reception. Stevens says little, sporting a sardonic smile,
as Mary Todd prattles on defending her need to spend money to decorate the White House. But at the end, she has a telling remark:
“How the people love my husband. They flock to see him by the thousands on public days. They will never love you the way they
love him. How difficult for you to know that, but how important to remember it.”
I found this one of most poignant statements in the movie. Beyond being a comment on Stevens at the time, it is a comment about
our time. Even though he is as important in the fight against slavery as Lincoln, Stevens is now nearly forgotten while Lincoln is a
The action then moves to a basement kitchen where Lincoln is telling Stevens to cool it on his position on equality so as not to scare
the conservative congressmen. The idea of Lincoln lecturing the greatest parliamentarian in U.S. history is rather absurd. Stevens
would have know what to do and how to do it.
Kushner again accepts some longstanding misconceptions about Stevens by having him say he would confiscate “every foot” of
rebel land and then turn it over to the freed slaves. Actually, Stevens wanted to take the land of the wealthiest 10 percent of the
southern population, who had bankrolled the rebellion, and provide 40 acres to every black family -- a plan that was unfortunately
rejected by Congress in later years.
It is also highly doubtful that Stevens would have meekly acquiesced to Lincoln’s assertion that he was right to delay the
emancipation of the slaves and the use of black soldiers. But Kushner does Stevens proud when he has him saying, “We will build up
a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom.” He also caught the essential Stevens when he told
Lincoln, “the people elected me to represent them, to lead them. And I lead. You ought to try it.”
Then we have the scene in Congress where Stevens does say he is only for equality under the law and nothing more. This included
the most colorful part of the film, where he calls Ohio congressman George Pendleton more reptile than man “so low, in fact, that the
foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”
While this comment was a bit more thuggish than most of Stevens’s putdowns, he was know to compare other politicians to animals.
In a speech in 1850 he compared his adversaries to “fish-ladies” and skunks for attacking him personally. Yet Stevens had a delightful
punch line when later in the speech he said: “It is my purpose no where in these remarks to make personal reproaches; I entertain no
ill-will toward any human being, nor any brute, that I know of, not even the skunk across the way to which I referred.”
We get another taste of Stevens’s persuasive skills when he browbeats a rather timid Pennsylvania Democrat, Alexander Coffroth,
into supporting the amendment on threat of Stevens using his influence to remove him from his seat. But he does not want him to
switch parties. “We want to show the amendment has bipartisan support, you idiot,” Stevens tells the cowering congressman. “Early
in the next Congress, when I tell you to do so, you will switch parties. So congratulations on your victory and get out.”
One of the most impressive scenes is when Stevens comes into the House chamber by himself and settles down to wait for the vote
to start. Nobody is around him and not a word is said. Behind him you can see glints of red, white and blue as sunlight streams
through a tablecloth that is being laid out by a worker. He is obviously thinking about his 40-year struggle against slavery and how it
has come to this climax. The moment is given another delightful twist by Stevens contemplating the dog head on his cane -- a
suggestion made by Tommy Lee Jones..
The final scene with Stevens is when he limps -- on the wrong foot -- to his townhouse and presents the tally of the amendment as a
present to his African-American housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, and then gets into bed with her. This is a stretch, to say the
least. Stevens did have a close relationship with Smith and his enemies often accused them of living in sin. But Stevens denied that the
relationship was intimate and there was no evidence that Stevens and Smith were sexually involved.
Unfortunately, this scene has been used by some reviewers to say Stevens was only in favor of emancipation because of his
relationship with Smith. This is ludicrous since Stevens was publicly opposed to slavery two decades before he hired Smith. And if all
it took was the favors of a black woman to turn someone against slavery, half of the slave owners would have been abolitionists.
But on another level, the scene does wrap up the entire struggle for the 13th Amendment nicely and the film could have ended there.
The rest of the movie was anticlimactic. What we need now is a sequel showing Stevens’s continued fight for freedom and equality
and how he was essential to insure that the country did not lose in peacetime what it had gained during the war. You can find a
summary of such a sequel elsewhere in this issue. Let’s hope someone makes it and gets his clubfoot correct this time.
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society