Tommy Lee Jones stars as Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s drama “Lincoln” from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
The most politically radical character in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is also, not accidentally, the most entertaining. A reliable source of comic relief in a film weighed down with false notes of levity, Thaddeus Stevens (played expertly and judiciously by Tommy Lee Jones) is an unrepentantly radical congressman from Pennsylvania whose fierce commitment to racial equality is surpassed only by his commitment to rhetorically eviscerating those with a different opinion. “You fatuous nincompoop,” he roars at one pro-slavery Democrat. “You insult God!”
In some ways, Lincoln portrays Stevens as a man of great personal integrity and admirable core principles. He is, of course, the only character—the titular hero included—in a film about the political battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment who comes close to advocating the modern consensus opinion on civil rights. And by depicting Stevens’s open-secret relationship with Lydia Hamilton Smith, his black housekeeper—friends referred to her, without derision, as “Mrs. Stevens”—the film accurately presents the congressman’s views on slavery and civil rights as the product of a lifelong crusade, one less political than personal.
But there’s more to the story, as it is this aspect of Stevens that supposedly prevents the Great Emancipator from ending slavery. It’s only when the radical finally compromises his deepest principles that he wins the full applause of Spielberg and John Williams, composer of the film’s predictably saccharine score—and, therefore, that of the audience. Before his highly anticipated speech supporting the Thirteenth Amendment, fellow Republicans implore Stevens to drop all references to “equality of the races” in favor of the more conservative and popular formulation “equality before the law.” Whereas the former scandalously implied broader social consequences, the more narrow formulation would have only codified egalitarianism, allowing racists to preserve de facto segregation, as they ably did for another century and more. Had Stevens, in his speech during the amendment fight, declared his belief in racial equality, he would have scared away conservative votes and destroyed Spielberg’s plans for an implausibly climactic roll call. We sense Stevens’s anger while forcing himself to explicitly deny his belief in racial equality under questioning from the absurd (not to mention bizarrely British-sounding) Representative Fernando Wood of New York. But Spielberg and screenwriter (and Nation editorial board member) Tony Kushner compensate for that anger in every way cinematically possible, indicating to the audience that this is a great moment for Stevens, for black Americans and—hooray!—for the country.
“Opinion leaders” seem to have received the message well. To his credit, the iniquitous Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson calls this “a disturbing cinematic moment,” though not without suggesting that a congressional screening of Lincoln might produce “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.”
But as Aaron Bady writes in an excellent Jacobin essay, Lincoln’s portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens is “the clearest demonstration of how the movie disdains and diminishes the importance of principled radicalism.” Despite the inarguable fact that the Thirteenth Amendment was made possible by principled Americans like Stevens, it is only when those principles are temporarily abandoned, or at least modified, that the film allows Stevens even a fraction of the hero-worship ritually granted to compulsive grand bargainers like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and our own contemporary compromiser-in-chief.