Thaddeus Stevens among history’s greatest unknown characters

Last weekend I saw Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” for possibly the hundredth time. It has become one of my all-time favorites and part of my greatest fascination with the movie is Thaddeus Stevens – the fiery tongued Republican played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie.

Stevens is portrayed in the film as a remorseless, radical, congressman whose determination for the nation to achieve racial equality is topped only by his talent for eviscerating those who oppose him in unmatched style.
My favorite scene is when Stevens takes the podium to attest his support for the proposed 13th amendment. Democrats aim to “whip him into a froth” and force him to reveal his true desires of not just abolishing slavery but giving African Americans full citizenship.

Joel McNeece

While that was Stevens’ true desire, most believed pronouncing such a desire would have scared away a lot of votes and doomed the amendment.
In order to get the amendment passed, Stevens, not known as a great compromiser before, must yield his ultimate wishes and declare his intentions are only to end slavery, nothing more.

When provoked by Sen. George Pendleton of Ohio, Stevens replies, “How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands the stinking carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men truly are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”

The scene makes the movie for me and after seeing it once again last weekend I had to investigate Stevens further.
I wanted to discover what makes a man in 1865, given the pervasive attitudes on race and slavery of that day, be so adamantly opposed and in fact insistent, on most instances, that not only should slavery be abolished but slaves should be immediately franchised as full citizens.

I began researching available biographies and found few options. The best reviewed and apparently most complete look at his life is a book by Hans Trefousse.
I downloaded the first few chapters on my iPad detailing his challenging upbringing in rural Vermont and then Pennsylvania and suddenly found myself enthralled.
A club foot limited his physical abilities as a child so he delved into books and built an incredible vocabulary and thirst for knowledge at a very young age.

He started as a successful lawyer in Gettysburg and worked his way up through the Pennsylvania legislature and then to Congress.
It says something about politics when Stevens, who later became known as the “Great Emancipator,” had to compromise his deepest principles in order to get something as abhorrent as slavery abolished.

It also speaks to Stevens’ remarkable life story that hasn’t often been told. I’m anxious to keep reading.

Email Joel McNeece at & follow him on Twitter @joelmcneece