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 didn’t get).
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.