Thursday, June 16, 2022

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles No. 18

 Elsie Singmaster -- Defender of Thaddeus Stevens

June 2022

By Ross Hetrick

Elsie Singmaster, one of the most famous novelists to come from Gettysburg, came to the defense of Thaddeus Stevens in 1943 when he was being vilified in a Hollywood film and then went on to write a book about the Great Commoner.

In 1942, MGM made a bio picture about President Andrew Johnson with an all star cast of Van Heflin as Johnson, Ruth Hussey as his wife and Lionel Barrymore as his nemesis, Thaddeus Stevens. In keeping with the distorted picture of Stevens in those days, the movie portrayed him as a vindictive fanatic intent on punishing the South and getting Johnson removed from office. Singmaster would have none of it.

In a recent talk to a Gettysburg women's group, Susan Colestock Hill, a Singmaster expert, shared a letter written by the novelist to the Office of War Information in February 1943. "As a resident of Gettysburg, which has the proud distinction of having been the home of Thaddeus Stevens for twenty-six years, as a citizen of Pennsylvania which owes him her great system of common schools, and as a student of American history, I wish to protest against the distortion of his character now appearing in a motion picture," Singmaster wrote.

"To present him to hundreds and thousands of Americans merely as a vindictive old man is as false and cruel as it was to present him as a vicious old man in the [1915 movie] "Birth of a Nation." We are fighting now for the rights of the oppressed -- how can we misrepresent our Great Commoner, who, above all Americans, lifted up his voice for the lowly and downtrodden," the letter concluded.

When Singmaster wrote this protest she was already a well established storyteller and novelist, chronicling the lives of  Pennsylvania Germans as well as telling Civil War stories. She went on to write a novel about Stevens, entitled I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens, that was published in 1947.

It was very sympathetic towards Stevens and faithfully followed the contours of his life as found in various biographies. However, it was written as a novel without footnotes and some of the details may have been included under poetic license.

One particular example referred to Stevens's involvement in the Anti-Masonic party of the 1820s and 30s that sprang up in reaction to abuses by the Freemasons. Singmaster's novel has Stevens horseback riding near the Mount Alto Furnace when "workmen called at him to stop, 'Can't!' he shouted back. 'I'm hunting Masons!' 

It is so much like Stevens's acerbic wit that it is sad that it can't be found anywhere else.

Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website: