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Was Thaddeus Stevens as angry and abrasive as he’s portrayed in Spielberg’s Lincoln?

In December 1863, when Maryland Representative Henry Winter Davis arrived in Washington for the new session of Congress, he promptly headed to Capitol Hill to pay his respects to the all-powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Thaddeus Stevens. But if the newly reelected Davis expected to be welcomed with open arms by the cantankerous Pennsylvanian, he was in for a surprise. Emancipation had been ordered, and the Union had won the Battle of Gettysburg—news that would have warmed the heart of most abolitionists. But Davis found “old Stevens” as “[g]rim, savage sarcastic, [and] mordant as ever, living on brandy & opium to subdue the perpetual pain & mocking at the powers that be in the most spicy way.”

At age 71, Stevens was then at the height of his political influence, but also at the threshold of a physical decline that would cost him his life less than five years later. His bloodless cheeks appeared more sunken than ever, his elbow-shaped cheekbones more prominent, and yet he still sported a ridiculous brown wig that crowned his sagging face with the flowing locks of a far younger man. His hooded gray eyes perpetually squinted in a defiantly angry glare, and his mouth was so often pursed in a scowl that it permanently puckered his square chin. Long crippled by a clubfoot, he walked with a thumping limp, wincing with every step. No one doubted his integrity or influence. But to foe and friend alike Stevens was a frightening apparition capable of fearsome public attacks. Defiant in the face of criticism, he did nothing to improve his reputation for impolitic oratory and political extremism—even immorality.

For generations, the unstintingly negative reputation of the so-called “Great Commoner” remained locked in this oversimplified time warp, as crafted by the early, Southern-tinged historiography of the Rebellion and Reconstruction. In war, according to their accounts, Lincoln was the reasonable leader, Stevens the extremist thorn in the great man’s side. In peace, Lincoln was the forgiver, Stevens the avenger bent on premature equal rights for blacks and perpetual subjugation for the white South.

Never concerned about popularity— or lack of it—Stevens himself would undoubtedly be astonished to hear that 150 years later he has suddenly been transformed, via Steven Spielberg’s enormously popular film Lincoln, into a magnificently virtuous progressive hero. In a bravura reincarnation by actor Tommy Lee Jones, Stevens has re-emerged as an acerbic but admirable tiger—occasionally snarling, perhaps, but in the end as cuddly as a pussycat.

Who was the real Thaddeus Stevens? The answer is: far less an ogre than biased historians long portrayed him, but undoubtedly more difficult than Spielberg has re-imagined. Stevens began life in Danville, Vt., in 1792, growing up in poverty after his drunken father abandoned the family. Overcoming formidable obstacles, the young man studied at both the University of Vermont and Dartmouth, then began his career in York, Pa., teaching school while studying law. In 1816 he opened his first legal office in Gettysburg, where he practiced until relocating to nearby Lancaster in 1842. From his earliest days, he was an impatient foe of the privileged class, especially those in the slaveholding South. He often defended fugitive slaves without charging a fee and bravely maintained a secret Underground Railroad stop in his office in Lancaster.

Stevens was not only a public proponent of full racial equality; he long and defiantly lived his own personal life accordingly. Beginning in 1845, he embarked on a 23-year-long intimate relationship with an African-American woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith. A light-skinned Roman Catholic convert, Mrs. Smith masqueraded as Stevens’ housekeeper. But she fooled few people and was ultimately regarded as his common-law wife—though never accepted, of course, in Washington society.

Meanwhile, Stevens became increasingly prominent in local Whig politics, first as a state legislator committed to universal public education. Elected to Congress in 1848 and again in 1850, Stevens emerged on the national scene as an early opponent of the “Slave Power.” But he was never averse to making deals with, and on behalf of, wealthy supporters, and like nearly all Pennsylvania politicians-supported a high protective tariff to advantage the state economy. Though committed to equality, he was not above forging an unholy alliance with an anti-immigration third party informally dubbed the Know-Nothings to build his power base.

Out of office from 1853 to 1859, Stevens returned to the House as a Republican at age 66, serving five terms as the chamber’s most outspoken, impatient abolitionist, and from 1859 as chairman of its all-important Ways and Means Committee. Two years later, he opposed any compromise with the seceding Southern states that would expand slavery. When Congress passed a resolution calling for the restoration of the Union with bondage intact, Stevens led a defiant and successful campaign to repeal it.

He never became close to Lincoln— they were far too different in temperament to permit a genuine friendship—but Stevens often offered him advice. On one occasion in the spring of 1861, Stevens complained that Lincoln’s decision to order a blockade of Southern ports had the unintended effect of recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent independent nation—the opposite of administration policy. “Well, that’s a fact,” Lincoln merely drawled in response, seemingly bowing to the chairman’s superior legal sophistication. “I see the point now, but I don’t know anything about the law of nations, and I thought it was all right.” The blockade remained in force, and Lincoln continued to maintain that the Confederacy did not legally exist. Contemporary A.K. McClure believed the two men had more in common than they were willing to admit: the president as the ideal leader of all the people—united in their hatred of slavery—and Stevens as their loud oracle. But unlike Lincoln, the congressman was unable to tolerate criticism or delay, and preferred invective to inspiration.

In the House, Stevens did support Lincoln’s assumption of emergency powers and funding the Union military. Though he never held federal appropriations hostage to emancipation, Stevens increased his advocacy for freedom as chief spokesman for the group of progressives who became known—pejorative implication intended— as the “Radicals.”

On January 22, 1862, Stevens became the first congressman to publicly urge Lincoln to free slaves in the Confederacy, cleverly stressing the economic advantages of emancipation. Admitting that “[p]rejudices may be shocked, weak minds startled, weak nerves must tremble” at the thought of emancipation, he insisted that the white majority “must hear and adopt it.” As he put it: “So long as these states are left the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may expend the blood of thousands and billions of money year by year, without being nearer the end….” Stevens continued to prod Lincoln toward emancipation throughout the year, but then “disingenuously” (by biographer Hans Trefousse’s admission) argued that the proclamation amounted to nothing more than a symbolic gesture.

In 1863 Stevens actively supported black enlistment and equal pay for “colored troops.” His outspoken antipathy for the South exacted a price. That year, Confederate troops under Jubal Early burned down his iron works in New Caledonia, Pa., during their march toward Gettysburg—in retaliation, Early boasted, for Stevens’ frequent calls for hard war against the South.

The following year, Stevens (like Lincoln) endorsed a constitutional amendment ending slavery everywhere in the nation. But then the congressman overplayed his hand, visiting the president to demand that he purge his Cabinet of Conservative ex-Democrats like Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Lincoln exploded: “Has it come to this, that the voters of this country are asked to elect a man to be president—to be the executive, to administer the government—and yet that this man is to have no will or discretion of his own? Am I to be the mere puppet of power…?” For once, Stevens retreated, though Lincoln eventually dismissed Blair anyway—a sign the so-called Radicals were indeed growing in influence. But the congressman also tried to dump Lincoln for a more liberal presidential candidate in 1864, only grudgingly accepting Lincoln’s renomination and supporting his reelection. The chairman was far more disappointed when the House of Representatives failed later that year to pass the resolution for the 13th Amendment.

As Spielberg’s film accurately shows, Stevens took a back seat to floor manager John Ashley when the House took up the resolution for a second time in January 1865. But he remained a looming presence, speaking out during the contentious debate, and celebrating with his fellow Republicans when the measure passed on January 31. Appreciative of Lincoln’s arm-twisting to secure the votes necessary for victory, Stevens later conceded that the 13th Amendment “was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” The fiery congressman made one final visit to the White House in March 1865 to demand that Lincoln show no mercy in prosecuting the war. “Stevens,” the president calmly replied, “this is a pretty big hog we are trying to catch and to hold when we catch him. We must take care that he does not slip away from us.”

Six weeks later, Lincoln himself slipped away at the hands of an assassin and Stevens embraced a new cause—perhaps the most famous of his long political career: ensuring that the martyr’s successor, Andrew Johnson, showed no mercy to the defeated South, and fully deferred to Congress on Reconstruction. When the new president balked, Stevens introduced the resolutions to oust Johnson from office, and led the unsuccessful prosecution during the 1868 impeachment trial. He also fathered the nation’s first civil rights laws and pushed the amendment enfranchising African Americans. These were the last great battles of Stevens’ career, and just a few months after failing to drive Johnson from the White House, he died in Washington at age 76.

In his will, Thaddeus Stevens put his money where he had directed his relentless voice, dividing his considerable fortune between his common-law wife and an assortment of color-blind charities— including a school for orphans that he instructed show “[n]o preferences…on account of race.” After a lavish funeral attended by thousands of African Americans, he was laid to rest in an integrated cemetery in Lancaster. His gravestone was inscribed:

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 have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death
The Principles which I advocated
Through a long life:

The tombstone inscription eerily echoed the remarks that “Old Thad” had delivered in the House of Representatives during the furious debate over the 13th Amendment. Directing his customary vitriol against an anti-amendment Democrat, Stevens had railed, “He may have his epitaph 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…had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.”

Stevens has long been remembered principally as an intemperate political bully, but his reputation has finally earned an appreciative second look. And it took—not a village of historians—but a movie to promote that long-overdue reappraisal.


Harold Holzer’s most recent book, intended for young adults, is How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America, a companion to Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.