I watched the 2012 movie Lincoln last night. I don't go to the theater much these days, so I wait instead for movies to come out on DVD. I remember when Lincoln was in the theaters, and I read this one article that argued that the movie was inaccurate in depicting Abraham Lincoln as an abolitionist, since Lincoln at times denied that his desire and intention were to abolish slavery. Lincoln at one point affirmed that he would accept Southern states back into the union, without requiring them to abolish slavery. The thing is, the movie essentially acknowledged that Lincoln said those sorts of things. But, according to the movie, Lincoln was saying those things for political purposes: so that he wouldn't alienate the northernmost Southern states, which were thinking of staying in the union. The movie appears to depict Lincoln as one who at his base was repulsed by slavery. In trying to persuade a representative to support the Thirteenth Amendment that would abolish slavery, Lincoln said that a desire for justice was one of the few things that he got from his father, who was not a particularly kind man.
I enjoyed the movie
immensely. I had to admire the congressmen who were voting for the
Thirteenth Amendment, against pressure to vote otherwise. These
congressmen would have to come to work the next morning and put up with
their powerful colleagues who voted against the Thirteenth Amendment,
colleagues who had power over what responsibilities people got (or
The figure of the radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) was quite intriguing. A wikipedia article
said that new interest in Stevens has occurred as a result of the
Lincoln movie. I've heard various things about Stevens in the course of
my lifetime. In elementary school, Stevens was portrayed to me as a
villain and an extremist who wanted to punish the South and who unfairly
sought the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. When I watched the
movie Separate but Equal, which was about a companion case to
the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision against
public school segregation, I noticed that one of the lawyers on the
anti-segregation side, in seeking to determine if the Fourteenth
Amendment was against segregation, referred to an anti-segregation
statement by Thaddeus Stevens. And Republicans today, in their attempt
to argue that the Republican Party is not racist, appeal to the radical
Republicans and Thaddeus Stevens.
My impression is that Thaddeus
Stevens was an idealist, one who believed in racial equality and who
wanted to take away some land from Southern landowners so that
African-Americans could have it, as the movie depicts. Perhaps this
sort of policy would have given newly-freed African-Americans a good
start, in contrast with leaving them poor and dependent. But Lincoln
believed that some of Stevens' ideas were extreme, and Stevens himself
felt that he had to moderate some of his public beliefs to get the
Thirteenth Amendment passed.
I was not aware of the view that Stevens had an African-American mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith. According to this wikipedia article about her, "While Smith was private about her personal life, during her time with Stevens, neighbors considered her his common law wife,"
and the article provides a couple of footnotes for that, before going
into the uncertainty about what exactly her relationship with Stevens
was. I did find the scene in which Stevens took off his wig, climbed
into bed with Smith, and told her about the Thirteenth Amendment to be
moving, however. Stevens in the movie was a misanthrope, one who
claimed that he desired the good of the people without really liking the
people themselves. But perhaps one reason that Stevens was a supporter
of racial equality was his love for Lydia Hamilton Smith.
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