As I reported before, last weekend, I went to see Lincoln. It was a surprisingly good film. My only real problem with it is that the ending doesn’t particularly work. Or perhaps more accurately, the film goes on too long. It is, after all, about the passage of the 13th Amendment. (In fact, I thought that the title 13th would have been better than Lincoln.) The truth is that although Lincoln is very important in the film, the story is not specifically about him.
The character who most stands out is then Speaker of the House, Thaddeus Stevens. He is one of these men who pepper American history by being so far ahead of their times that they would be considered radical today. My favorite example is Thomas Paine—the atheistic socialist who is probably more important to the founding of this country than any other single man. Stevens was equally radical. Many of their beliefs would today be dismissed as non-starters—just as they were in his own time.
I’m inclined not to tell you too much about the man, because I think everyone should go out and see the movie. I don’t want to ruin any of the film’s twists and turns. But to give you some idea of the main, here is a bit from Wikipedia:
All that stuff about equality and justice would certainly put him well to the left of President Obama, just as it did so 150 years ago under President Lincoln.
Since his death, most portrayals of Stevens have not been kind. This is not just in things like D. W. Griffith’s racist visual screed The Birth of a Nation. Historians have generally portrayed him as kind of an arrogant asshole who wanted to stick it to the south. To a large extent, I can’t blame the man. When you are on the right side of one the greatest wrongs of your nation, I think a bit of arrogance is forgivable. And if I had been around at the time, I’m not sure I would ever have been able to forgive the south.
But I don’t know that much about him. I just got Hans L. Trefousse’s Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. I’m very much looking forward to the book. Lincoln has always been kind of a disappointment as a hero. Although enlightened by the mores of his time, he was still a racist. His proposal to create a South American colony for former slaves still strikes me as vile. Just the same, I expect to find Stevens more of a mixed bag than Paine. While Paine never had the curse of power to soil his character, I’m afraid that Stevens did. But I’ve never expected perfection from my heroes.
Again: go see Lincoln; it will be good for your soul. The film has four intertwined stories that would all be worthy of their own books. The story of Thaddeus Stevens is but one.
Here is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens: