The Edmond Sun

December 17, 2012

Lincoln film repairs reputation of Thaddeus Stevens

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — “Law are like sausages in that you should not watch them being made,” the German leader Otto von Bismarck observed in the 19th Century. And the truth of that observation is evident in the Steven Spielberg film “ Lincoln” in which the measures that Lincoln had to use to get the U.S. House of Representatives to approve what became the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln previously had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union, but did not address the status of the slaves that were held in border states that had not joined the Confederacy. In addition, Lincoln worried that his proclamation could be subject to legal challenge on the grounds that he lacked the legal authority to issue it.

The film details how Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward assembled a team of political operatives to ensure that a majority of the House voted for the amendment. Those operatives used means that included cash payments to undecided members of Congress as well as the promise of federal jobs for some of them who were leaving Congress at the end of the legislative session. Pressure also was put on congressmen who showed signs of wavering in their support for the measure.

And the president’s main ally in Congress, Republican Thaddeus Stevens, was an abolitionist from Pennsylvania whose passionate commitment to racial equality is made clear in scenes that showed the emotional debates that occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives regarding the amendment. Bitter personal attacks were made by representatives against their opponents that make some of today’s political exchanges seem tame in comparison. When a Democratic Congressman asked Stevens if the thought that all men were created equal, Stevens replied that the person who had put that question to him was such a worthless individual that he was living proof that not all men are equal.

Opponents of the measure said its adoption eventually would result in freed male slaves having the right to vote, and warned that that possible precedent would result in women having the right to vote as well.  

Stevens had a clubfoot, and limped as a result. When the 13th Amendment is passed by the House of Representatives, Stevens in shown walking to the home that he shared with his African American housekeeper and presenting her with the tally of the vote that showed that the Amendment had been approved. In his list of greatest American movies critic Roger Ebert included the film “Birth of a Nation” that was released in 1915 and purported to be a historical account of the Civil War and its immediate  aftermath in the South. While Ebert deplored the  racism and historical inaccuracies that were contained in that movie, he pointed out that it contained lifelike battle scenes and included the first use of the close up and cutaway scenes in film.

The latter half of that movie told a tale of how whites in South Carolina were mistreated during the Reconstruction era until the Klu Klux Klan was formed to protect their rights. A character based on Stevens named Austin Stoneman appeared in that film, and is shown to be a naïve and vindictive man who uses his power in Congress to unfairly punish the South.  

The nation may a debt of gratitude to Steven Spielberg for providing a portrait of Thaddeus Stevens that shows him to be a man of vision who courageously fought for the rights of African Americans.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.