Saturday, July 16, 2022

Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles No. 19

 Thaddeus Stevens -- movie star

July 2022

By Ross Hetrick

Thaddeus Stevens has been the subject of three Hollywood portrayals. Twice as a villain and once as a hero.

Stevens initial movie appearance was more than an hundred years ago in the first epic movie, Birth of a Nation, by legendary filmmaker, D.W. Griffith. The 1915 silent film pioneered such revolutionary film techniques as close ups, rapid cutting montage and tracking shots. But it also championed rank racial bigotry and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

A central character is Austin Stoneman, a thinly veiled caricature  of Stevens. He was played as a vengeful congressman intent on punishing white southerners. The movie specifically blamed Stoneman's mixed race housekeeper for influencing him. "A great leader's weakness that is to blight a nation," read one of the movie's title panels.

Despite protests and even riots against the movie, Birth of a Nation proved to be an enormous blockbuster film and is credited with reviving the Ku Klu Klan in the 1920s.

The next film Stevens appeared in was in 1942.  Tennessee Johnson is an obscure bio picture about the 17th president Andrew Johnson. Van Heflin, a matinee idol of the time, played Johnson and  Stevens was played by Lionel Barrymore of the famous acting family.

Once again, Stevens was cast as the villain of the drama. But in this case, word got out before the film was released and Stevens admirers were able to get the Office of War Information -- which was set up during World War II -- to get MGM to make $100,000 worth of changes to soften Stevens's image.

Yet, Stevens still comes across as a fanatic intent on punishing southern whites and the Johnson character accused Stevens of trying to make slaves of whites. "You are a very sincere man, and that's what makes you so dangerous," Johnson said. "You have the sincerity and will and force. You have the drive of a great fanatic." he said 

Stevens's most recent film appearance was 10 years ago in Steven Spielberg's movie, Lincoln. Famed playwright and Stevens admirer, Tony Kushner, wrote the film and gave the congressman a prominent role in the story about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. Stevens was played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Even though the film was riddled with historic errors and repeated various smears against Stevens, it did capture his absolute dedication to destroying slavery. This was particularly shown in one scene where a fellow congressman rebuked Stevens for shading his position on equality for the sake of passing the amendment. "Is there nothing you won't say," the fictional representative said to Stevens.

"I want the amendment to pass so that the Constitution's first and only mention of slavery is it's absolute prohibition." Stevens said to the fellow legislator. "For this amendment, which I have worked all of my life, for which countless colored men and women have fought and died in the hundreds of thousands of soldiers -- No sir, no there is nearly nothing I won't say."

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: