Hollywood's Love Affair with Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens/tiles/non-collection/3/3-3-text-stevens_portrait_hc_2002_006_004-2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
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Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens fiercely championed the abolition of slavery and equal rights for African Americans as leader of the Radical Republicans, and as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens, gaunt, grim, and badly bewigged, would appear to be a poor candidate for the silver screen. Yet, he has appeared as a major character in three movies, each of which portrayed him in a different light.

Representative Stevens was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee. In debate, his adversaries feared the sting of Stevens’s tongue. As leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, Stevens wielded great influence in Congress until his death in 1868. A strong opponent of slavery, he championed the equality of African Americans before the law and in society.

Stevens’s first cinematic appearance was in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent-movie classic, “The Birth of a Nation.” The character of Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is modeled on Stevens. Club-footed and a passionate champion of African Americans, Stoneman is the House leader who favors treating the South as “conquered provinces.” Griffith's storyline closely followed Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905) and his subsequent play (c. 1910). Reflecting Dixon’s distorted view of Reconstruction, Stoneman approves as Southern whites are turned away from the polls while freed slaves stuff the ballot boxes. Stoneman only turns against his mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch, who governs South Carolina when Lynch tries to marry Stoneman’s daughter against her will. The arrival of the Ku Klux Klan saves her and Stoneman from the villain. The film’s explicit racism sparked protests in the North while its portrayal of the Lost Cause made it popular in the South. As the first feature-length movie, the impact of “The Birth of a Nation” on popular culture was profound.

Thaddeus Stevens Visitor Card/tiles/non-collection/3/3-3-text-stevens_card_hc_2007_315_000.xml Collection of the House of Representatives 
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Thaddeus Stevens became famous for his fiery rhetoric opposing slavery, inspiring multiple portrayals in film.
In 1942 William Dieterle’s “Tennessee Johnson” portrays Stevens as a fanatic. The German expatriate Dieterle, who directed “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1935), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), depicted Andrew Johnson as a champion of President Abraham Lincoln’s benevolent policies and of the Constitution. Lincoln’s assassination brings Johnson, played by Van Heflin, to the presidency where he confronts Stevens (Lionel Barrymore), who seeks a vindictive policy against the rebels. When Johnson determines to block Stevens, who is confined to a wheelchair, the Radical leader mobilizes the House into impeaching the president. The movie’s climax is Johnson’s fanciful triumphant speech before the Senate that leads to his acquittal. The studio writers followed the existing historical view of Johnson and Reconstruction championed by the pro-Southern Dunning School. These historians portrayed Johnson as a defender of the Constitution and Stevens as “perhaps the most despicable, malevolent, and morally deformed character who has ever risen to high power in America.”

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) follows the 1865 House passage of the 13th Amendment that prohibited slavery. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles to juggle contending forces that want to ban slavery, to end the Civil War, and to ensure the Union’s existence. Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the single-minded champion of both African-American emancipation and equality, moderates his calls for racial equality in order to achieve emancipation at the personal request of the president. Unlike the previous portrayals of Stevens, he is cast among the ranks of rough-hewn heroes and, unlike the other films, we see him debating on the House Floor. The Stevens of “Lincoln” reflects the portrayal of recent Reconstruction history, research and writing that emerged during and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Here, “Lincoln” the movie introduces a memorable and noble Stevens to a new generation.

From misguided leader to fanatic avenger to outspoken statesman, the cinematic faces of Thaddeus Stevens varied widely, depending on the time the movie was made. Yet, Hollywood has found the sarcastic, club-footed, and single-minded Stevens irresistible.

Sources: Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (New York: Norton, 1959); David Culbert, “Film History, Reconstruction, and Southern Legendary History in The Birth of a Nation” in Hollywood and the American Historical Film, edited by J.E. Smyth, 11–25 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); David Mayer, Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W. Griffith and the American Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009); Donald R. McClarey, “Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals” in The American Catholic: Politics and Culture from a Catholic Perspective [http://the-american-catholic.com/2012/12/10/43555/], accessed 16 December 2013; Iwan W. Morgan, “The President Impeached: Tennessee Johnson and Nixon” in Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on Screen, edited by Iwan W. Morgan, 151–176 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Michael Perman, Emancipation and Reconstruction, 2d ed. (Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 2003); Hans L. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Categories: People, War