[Marxism] 'Lincoln, ' Thaddeus Stevens, and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 13 07:30:41 MST 2012


'Lincoln,' Thaddeus Stevens, and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals

Ricky Kreitner | December 10, 2012

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 13th Amendment who comes close to advocating the modern 
consensus opinion on civil rights. And by depicting Stevens’ 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 13th 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’ 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 [1] 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 [2] 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 13th 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 

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 13th 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 [3] the parallels between the 13th Amendment fight and 
the negotiations over the upcoming fiscal cliff downright “eerie,” while 
Spielberg modestly suggested [4] 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 [5] 
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 [6] 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 13th 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.

[2] http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/lincoln-against-the-radicals-2/

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