‘Lincoln,’ Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals

‘Lincoln,’ Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals

‘Lincoln,’ Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals

Both Lincoln and The Nation’s 1860s editors underestimated radicals’ contributions to abolitionism.


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.

* * *

Curious about Spielberg and Kushner’s portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, I delved into The Nation’s archives, assuming that a magazine famously founded by abolitionists in 1865 (the same year as the events depicted in Lincoln) would have a less ambiguously sympathetic account of the man.

“Many people will be ready to believe that a person who uses such language in a debate is hardly in a fit state of mind to legislate,” reads an editorial from late December 1865, which also calls Stevens’s rhetoric “strong meat for babes.” Of Stevens’s proposal for readmission of the rebellious states into the Union, a June 1866 article says, “The measure is really more moderate and fair than could have been expected from its author.” But these are effusive compliments when compared to the pitiless denunciations in the issue dated August 20, 1868, which contains an early example of that persistent Nation tradition—the wholly unsentimental remembrance for the recently dead.

The writers call Stevens a “master” who “urged Mr. Lincoln into the issue of the emancipation proclamation,” but call this “essentially a destructive agitation,” as it entailed “the breaking down of old prejudices, of well-established social and political theories.” When it came time for reconstruction, Stevens “failed utterly.” The Nation’s writers chastise him for failing to consider “the nature of the motives by which the mass of men are guided in the ordinary transactions of life,” and criticize his policy proposals—such as “mild confiscation,” which proposed to use rebel land seizures to provide farms for freed slaves and to pay down the national debt—as displaying “mental defects,” including “a total want of imagination” and an “inability to digest history.”

That these comments are couched within several paragraphs of unparalleled praise makes them even more interesting. While the obituary criticizes Stevens’s aggressiveness and overblown rhetoric, it also praises “the extraordinary kindliness of his nature” and his “almost unequalled ardor and enthusiasm.” It says “a manlier man never sat in the House,” and calls him that body’s “readiest and shrewdest tactician.”

He had what Congressmen so often want—a conscience of his own, opinions of his own, and a will of his own, and he never flinched from the duty of asserting them. When one sees the eagerness of hosts of his colleagues to repudiate their own individuality, their readiness to take up the last popular cry, the neutral tint of all that they say and do, and the utter want of basis either in their mind or temperament for much of their political course, one’s admiration for Stevens, who never was cowed, and never retreated, and never considered what was “safe,” can hardly help being hearty.

This, remember, for a man with “mental defects.”

It would be ridiculous to suggest that Stevens’s momentary elision of his support for full racial equality—as opposed to merely abolition of slavery—during the Thirteenth Amendment debate was unjustified, or that his proposals for Reconstruction did not go a step beyond the practicable. It would be absurd to demand self-defeating absolutism of someone whose whole life had been directed towards, as his character in the film says, ensuring that “the Constitution’s first and only mention of slavery is its abolition.” But it is also unfair to reject radical means, as The Nation did, while applauding radical ends—indeed, adopting them as one’s own—only once they have been made safe by the advance of years and progress. And it is fundamentally reactionary to celebrate, as Lincoln does, a man of such strong progressive principles only in the moment when he was forced to compromise with political reality.

The Nation’s editorials criticize Stevens’s aggressiveness and impracticality—a charge Spielberg and Kushner essentially mimic, and one that liberals have continued to direct at radicals to this day. (It is precisely that kind of equivocation that led Wendell Phillips, a radical reconstructionist like Stevens, to say of The Nation: “Look at this new journal…. How uncertain its sound! How timid, vacillating, noncommittal its policy!”) And yet, in their effusive praise of his character and the admission that Stevens “did good service in pushing Congress to the position which it finally took up” on Reconstruction, they reveal the contradiction: while radicals are essentially the authors of American progress, credit always goes to the compromising moderates. Such tension is inherent in Lincoln and in contemporary America’s general lack of appreciation for radicals, past and present, who have pushed the country towards those positions it finally, despite immense opposition, takes up.

* * *

There are memorials to both Lincoln and his conservative-leaning Secretary of State, William Seward, within a few blocks of The Nation office, while one must venture to the grounds of a technical college named after Thaddeus Stevens, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to find the only statue of him in this world. (And to find a memorial for the efforts of all those ordinary Americans—especially women and escaped slaves—who brought abolitionism to the country’s attention, as Nation editorial board member Eric Foner has written, one would have to build it oneself.)

If we must have heroes, Thaddeus Stevens is one precisely because he furthered the cause of justice while refusing to submit himself, his principles or his proposals to the “modifications” (The Nation’s term) that would have been required for history to regard him as such. Lincoln, by contrast, in the film and in life, always had one eye on posterity. “We are stepped out upon the world stage now,” Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln thunders at a cabinet meeting, “with the fate of human dignity in our hands.”

(And then there is the chutzpah of Mary Todd Lincoln, who castigates Stevens at a state dinner: “How the people love my husband. They flock to see him by the thousands. They will never love you as they love my husband. How hard for you to know that. But how important to remember it.” Hooray again!—for… what?)

Most viewers see in Lincoln a lesson for the contemporary Washington crowd to set aside their differences and just get along. Doris Kearns Goodwin called the parallels between the Thirteenth Amendment fight and the negotiations over the upcoming fiscal cliff downright “eerie,” while Spielberg modestly suggested that releasing the movie after a contentious election season might have a “soothing or even healing effect.” Ross Douthat, responding to Bady’s Jacobin essay, argues that the film shows how “a moderate and a radical can work together— if the moderate is willing to be more intransigent than usual, and the radical is willing to not say everything that’s on his mind.” That this supposed “harmony” makes Lincoln “a crowdpleasing film,” as Douthat writes, I do not dispute.

David Brooks, to whose sniffling centrism Lincoln might as well be dedicated, believes the film to be a reminder of “why we love politics,” and urges young people to get involved. “You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty,” Brooks writes. “But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others—if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.” Ah, yes, that’s what ails Washington: too few slippery bamboozlers.

If Barack Obama is to be Abraham Lincoln, someone must be Thaddeus Stevens. After all, it was people like him who made the Thirteenth Amendment possible. The real lesson of the events depicted in Lincoln was described by the editors of The Nation nearly a century and a half ago:

Any young politician who proposes to get on in the world by being a cowardly sneak, as thousands of young politicians do, cannot help profiting by the study of [Stevens’s] life. He will see by it that, even under the shadow of an irresistible popular will, the road to the highest success lies through courage and self-assertion, and not through base compliance.

“The highest success”—not easily captured in the op-ed pages, or on the big screen.

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