History Versus Hollywood.
S Epatha Merkerson who
played Lydia Hamilton Smith.
Portrait of the real Lydia
By Beverly Wilson Palmer
Thanks to the movie Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones's
brilliant acting, Thaddeus Stevens is now practically a
household name. When I compiled the microfilm and book
editions of him back in the 1990s, I found that I usually had to
explain that he was a noted legislator, an anti-slavery leader,
and architect of Reconstruction measures after the Civil War.
Of course when I visited Peacham in 1994, I met with fans of
Thaddeus Stevens, but to most people, even students of
American history, he remained an obscure 19th century
Then in 2011 when I was giving a talk at the US Capital
Historical Society on Stevens and Charles Sumner, a friend
from Lancaster, Pa., came up to me with the exciting news:
Tommy Lee Jones is going to play Stevens in the new Lincoln
movie! Knowing little about the content of the movie, I wondered why an actor of the stature of Jones would accept such a part.
Then when the movie came out last November, I understood. I can't say the press came rushing to seek out my opinions of the
film, but the alumni magazine for Dartmouth (Stevens was class of 1814) interviewed me for an article on him. Colleagues along
with family and friends asked me, "what did you think?" In this talk I'd like to elaborate on that answer, to examine the parts of
Lincoln which are historically accurate and those that, as I said to the curious, are "pure Hollywood."
Stevens has been discovered! You probably know that Sen. Bernie Sanders arranged for a special showing of Lincoln on May 4 in
St. Johnsbury, followed by a discussion with local historians. In a commentary in the Times Argus (April 27, 2013), Sanders wrote
that Stevens's work for equality for all was shaped by the adversities -- his clubfoot, the family's poverty -- that he experienced in
childhood. Sanders stated that Stevens overcame these obstacles and one of the key factors in his doing so was his education at the
Caledonia County Academy, later the Peacham Academy. I agree with Sen. Sanders that Stevens's later campaign for free public
education (he's known as the father of Pennyslvania's public education system) is a result of the schooling he received in his youth.
Sen. Sanders termed Stevens a "true Vermont hero." And now, thanks to the senator, the Senate has passed legislation naming the
Danville post office after its native son, Thaddeus Stevens.
In essence Stevens and his 3 brothers were raised by their mother Sarah, for their father had left home when Thaddeus was 12.
In 1807 Sarah and her sons moved from Danville to Peacham where the boys attended the Caledonia County Academy where as
Paul Chouinard tells us, tuition was 12.5 cents a month (article in Danville North Star Monthly , March 2013). Stevens graduated in
1811, moving on to Dartmouth with a year at Burlington College, now UVM. After a short stint as a preceptor at Caledonia, he left,
at the encouragement of a Peacham friend, for York, Pa. But Stevens returned to Vermont frequently to visit his mother at a farm
he'd purchased for her in 1821, a purchase made possible thanks to his successful law practice in Gettysburg.
As most of you know, Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery; its 1777 constitution forbade its existence. And the
Underground RR flourished in the years preceding the Civil War. The newly opened Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh documents the
fugitive slaves who stayed, some even permanently, at the Rowland Robinson farm.
Senator Sanders raises the question: "would slavery have been abolished without Thaddeus Stevens?" In the film, Stevens states
several times that he's worked all his life to end slavery. Indeed one of the first entries in volume one of Stevens's letters and
speeches was his toast given on July 4, 1823: "The next President. -- May he be a freeman, who never riveted fetters on a human
slave" (Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, p. 5) And the scene between Stevens and Lincoln, apparently in some secluded spot in
the White House after the January 16 reception, vividly illustrates Stevens's vision of equality for all -- and his differences with
Up until Lincoln's re-election, Stevens was no great fan of the president. Throughout the Civil War, Stevens considered him
weak and indecisive, writing a constituent in April 1862 that his hopes for the administration were poor as “Lincoln is nobody”
(Selected Papers, 293). From the start, Stevens publicly lamented Lincoln’s delay in emancipating the slaves. In a September 1862
Lancaster speech Stevens insisted that the Lincoln administration must change its policy toward the slave: “I have protested against
the present policy, not only to the people, but to the face of the President and his Cabinet, and on the floor of Congress… told them
that they were exercising too much lenity” (Selected Papers, p. 322). Stevens had little personal connection to Lincoln; what is
documented are requests for appointments or promotions of colleagues. But occasionally he wrote to push for a stronger stance
from the President, like this typically blunt one to Lincoln of 20 November 1864, shortly after he'd been re-elected (Selected Papers,
pp. 505-6). And it ties in with the film's depiction of the Copperheads who want peace without ending slavery.
Stevens came around to supporting Lincoln's re-election, fearing how his defeat would subvert if not destroy prospects for
emancipation. And when the newly re-elected Lincoln recommended that the House follow the Senate and pass the 13th
amendment, Stevens praised the president: "Never had a man to decide so important a question under such difficulties" (Selected
We have no knowledge that Lincoln sought out Stevens during the crucial debate over the passage of the 13th amendment. That
scene that I referred to earlier, with the 2 arguing over drinks, is probably invented. It's a great scene: Stevens as the
uncompromising idealist versus Lincoln, the practical negotiator. Lincoln says that Stevens's radical agenda scares the country; we
must work together. Stevens is realistic about white's tolerance of blacks but says, in effect, so what? We need to pass this
amendment. As you'd expect in a film called Lincoln, the president has the last word in this encounter.
Many have commented on Spielberg's brilliance in choosing to focus on just one event, albeit a key one, of Lincoln's life. I
applaud the way the film gives life and drama to what could be simply a confusing -- and perhaps boring -- rendition of the struggle to
pass the 13th Amendment. We are taken to the heat of this struggle as the House considers the amendment to the Constitution that
will free the slaves. The film makes clear that in the spring of 1864 the House failed to muster the necessary 2/3 vote to pass the
amendment. In September 1864, Stevens had caustically addressed this failure in a campaign speech in Lancaster. He warned
against the possible victory of the peace Democrats, a slate headed by presidential candidate George McClellan, and vice-presidential
candidate George Pendleton. Stevens sought to rally his fellow Republicans: “Every Republican voted in favor of the measure; every
vote against it came from the peace McClellan Copperheads. They are responsible for the continued, misery and bloodshed which
this nation shall endure ... I regret that Mr. Pendleton was one of that number” (Selected Papers, p. 503).
We see the force of the "McClellan Copperheads, " especially Pendleton, in the early scenes of the movie. The Copperheads'
strategy to bait Stevens by getting him to support complete racial equality is a great moment in the film. And indeed Stevens did
state publicly that he would draw the line at complete social equality for African-Americans. But he did so on Jan. 5, early in the
debate on the 13th amendment not on Jan. 27, as in the film. When asked by Ohio congressman Samuel Cox -- not Fernando
Wood as in the film -- whether he would give up his "doctrine of negro equality" Stevens answered, "not equality in all things –
simply before the laws, nothing else" (Selected Papers, 516). This language from the Congressional Record is very close to Jones's
in that scene. Equally vivid is the sparring between George Pendleton and Stevens. Stevens knew Pendleton well, for they had
served together on the Ways and Means Committee which Stevens chaired. During the debate, Stevens called Pendleton "the most
pertinacious defender of slavery and opponent of liberty " (Selected Papers, p. 524) Fairly mild language compared to that in the film
where Stevens calls the losing vice-presidential candidate "a stinking moral carcass.... more than a reptile, George." Yet, Stevens
maintains that, despite the "cold blood in his veins," even the despicable Pendleton is entitled to equality before the law.
The movie has touches that history buffs can enjoy. For example, in the dramatic vote on the amendment, the speaker asks Mr.
McPherson to call the roll. Who is this McPherson? He was Stevens's protege, and later the executor of his papers. Edward
McPherson had been a congressman from Pa. until he was defeated in 1862 and Stevens got him the job as Clerk of the House. And
who defeated McPherson? None other than Alexander Coffroth, the same one who cowers before the intimidating Stevens who calls
him "an idiot" and tells Coffroth he will switch parties and vote for the amendment "when I tell you to do so."
I wish the film had included Stevens in full action on the floor of the House. His speech on Jan. 13 supporting the abolition of
slavery would have been a superb addition to the movie. For here Stevens shrewdly resorted to legal argument to convince his
colleagues that the 13th Amendment was constitutional. Asking the clerk to read the section on Congress's power to amend the
Constitution, he stated, "we are not now inquiring whether we have jurisdiction over slavery. We are inquiring whether the States
have granted to us the power of amendment." It was a clever Stevens maneuver. On Jan. 31 the movie convincingly depicts the roll
call as a true cliff hanger. Ultimately we see that the House by a vote of 119 to 56, 8 abstaining (a margin of 2 in favor it's noted) ,
sends the constitutional amendment to the states for ratification (524). "Slavery is done," says Lincoln bluntly when, soon after, he
meets with the Confederate delegation.
Jones quite effectively captures Stevens's eloquence, his command of the language both nasty and concise. Stevens's speeches
were often masterpieces. In his prime Stevens spoke like a professional performer. How carefully did Jones research Stevens's
performances in Congress? In 1866 a contemporary watched and recorded Stevens in the House of Representatives: He starts out
fumbling with his papers, “looking about his immediate place, as if hunting mislaid notes or a dropped handkerchief . . . The House,
meantime, are cracking furtive jokes at his expense.” But at the heart of his speech, continued this writer, Stevens “lifts his long right
arm with a wide sweep … contracts his beetling brows, throws up and back his towering head, and with a sudden straight thrust of
his long, yellow finger, followed by the whole outstretch of his arm, he sends forth, in a thundering tone, the iron bolt of his
argument” (Galaxy, July 1866).
Stevens’s colleagues could regularly count on him to make his point quickly and effectively. Agreeing to yield to Stevens, a fellow
congressman once stated, “The gentleman from Pa. is a brief and pertinent man.” Indeed, the gentleman from Pennsylvania gave
speeches that were straightforward, logical (at times his own brand of logic) and concise. Supporting a Union general's order to free
slaves within that general’s military jurisdiction in 1862, Stevens said, “I am no sycophant, no parasite. What I think I say.” That
quality of Stevens comes through clearly in Lincoln.
In the movie Stevens does not share in the jubilation on the House floor. He stomps out of the Capitol and goes home. Naturally
the scene that engaged many moviegoers (and one about which I was asked about most often) is the scene in bed where the bald-
headed Stevens asks his mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith, to read the 13th amendment aloud to him. "Pure Hollywood," I scoffed to
those who inquired. Still, many commentators accepted this scene as an accurate portrayal of the relationship between Stevens and
Smith. But I maintain it is simply Hollywood's attempt to add a bit of sex to a movie that up to this moment, lacked it. Certainly the
scenes between Mary and Abraham Lincoln are anything but erotic. The facts are that Lydia Hamilton Smith, a beautiful mulatto
widow with 2 sons, came to work for Stevens in 1848 when she was 35 and remained his faithful housekeeper until his death in
1868. That Stevens respected her, treated her as an equal is clear from the one surviving -- and brief -- letter from him to her (no
letters from her to him have been uncovered). Shortly after the Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, he wrote her from DC telling
her he should be home in Lancaster in a couple of weeks (Selected Papers, p. 219). Significantly he addressed her as "Madam" --
not "Lydia" as one would a servant or a lover. Other evidence of her status in the Stevens household comes from TS's relatives in
Indiana, because their letters to him contain warm and cordial references to "Mrs. Smith" as they called her. Although rumors
abounded at the time, and still do today, we've uncovered no evidence that Smith was Stevens's common-law wife.
How idealistic, how uncompromising was Stevens really?
Significantly in the film, after the dramatic baiting scene in the House, a colleague asks Stevens why he moderated his language in
the exchange with Wood and Pendleton: "Have you lost your very soul?" And Stevens answers, I want the amendment to pass; I've
worked all my life for this moment. There's nothing I won't say." That statement accurately reflects Stevens's realism . There's a
wonderful Stevens speech just after the passing of the 14th amendment, an amendment that granted citizenship and equal rights to all
residents of the US, an amendment which Stevens helped write and shepherd through the House. In June 1866 he addressed the
compromises that were necessary for approval: "You ask why I would accept so imperfect a proposition .... [It's] because I live
among men and not among angels. Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities" (Selected Papers, vol. 2, p.
Such a statement captures the pragmatic TS, who knew he had to make deals and negotiate, knew that as well as Lincoln. Lincoln
is undoubtedly the hero of this movie, but that film has also brought deserved attention to a consummate legislator and inspiring
Beverly Wilson Palmer is the editor of the Papers of Thaddeus Stevens.