Every good story needs an antihero. Lincoln also follows the motives and machinations of Thaddeus Stevens, the stern, steely eyed chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a position that in the 19th century doubled as House Majority Leader. He was "the dictator of the house"—a zealot in the cause of freedom and racial equality. Brilliant, sharp-tongued, and tremendously intimidating to friend and foe alike. In life, Stevens had little patience for Lincoln, whom he viewed as a temporizing moderate. In Spielberg's movie, he is the president's sworn enemy, cautiously willing to drop his armor and work with the president to abolish slavery.
Tommy Lee Jones captures Stevens's spirit well. Unfortunately, Kushner's writing leaves the part flat. In the film, Stevens deploys clever ad hominem attacks to smack down his opponents; in life, he never needed to resort to cheap shots, for he was deft at using cold, hard logic to leave his adversaries the laughing stock of the chamber. In the film, Kushner ascribes Stevens's hatred of slavery to his secret private life. (Spoiler alert: if you don't know much about Thaddeus Stevens and haven't seen Lincoln yet, skip the rest of this paragraph). Indeed, Stevens's life partner of 20 years was Lydia Hamilton Smith, whom the world knew as his black housekeeper. It was the worst-kept secret in Washington.
But Stevens's relationship with Smith was an outgrowth of his conviction, not the cause of it. He grew up in Vermont, where he likely never met an African American. After college at Dartmouth, he moved to Adams County, Pennsylvania, on the border between slavery and freedom. There, as a young and starving attorney, he took on the case of one Norman Bruce, a Maryland farmer whose slave, Charity Butler, had fled across the state line with her two young children—one of them still a baby. Bruce tracked down his property and sued for their return; Charity sued for her freedom, claiming that she had ceased to be a slave the moment she stepped foot on free soil. Stevens was a clever attorney, and he won the trial for Bruce. Charity Butler and her children were remanded to slavery. Within three years, Stevens became an almost fanatical abolitionist. He put skin in the game, too, conducting fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad, through his home and office, even while serving as a member of Congress. The realization of what he had done, and the memory of it, made him sick. He was unforgiving of other people's shortcomings, because he was unforgiving of his own. The film captures none of this complexity, a fact attributable to the one-dimensional way in which Stevens is written.
Spielberg's film makes Stevens an unnatural compromiser. He wasn't. He was a politician's politician and had no problem crawling in the mud to achieve an objective. A year and a half after the events portrayed in the movie, Stevens gave a rousing campaign speech in which he excoriated the Democratic party. "We shall hear it repeated ten thousand times," he intoned, "the cry of 'Negro Equality!' The radicals would thrust the negro into your parlors, your bedrooms, and the bosoms of your wives and daughters....And then they [Democrats] will send up the grand chorus from every foul throat, 'nigger,' 'nigger,' 'nigger,' 'nigger!' 'Down with the nigger party, we're for the white man's party.' These unanswerable arguments will ring in every low bar room and be printed in every Blackguard sheet throughout the land whose fundamental maxim is 'all men are created equal.'" In one paragraph, he managed to take down the crude racial incitements of his opponents, while simultaneously assuring listeners that those incitements were false. That was a politician.* * *
One can find matters small and large with which to quibble. With the exception of Secretary of State William Seward (played convincingly by David Strathairn), Lincoln presents almost every public figure as either comical, quirky, weak-kneed or pathetically self-interested. Only the president is able to rise above the moment and see the end game. This treatment does injustice to men like Rep. James Ashley, Sen. Charles Sumner, and Sen. Ben Wade (misidentified in the credits as "Bluff" Wade, his nickname, for when challenged to a duel by a pro-slavery congressman he accepted and chose broadswords. His foe assumed that he was bluffing but didn't care to find out.). These men were serious, committed legislators who fought a lonely fight for black freedom before the war, and a difficult struggle for black equality after it. They deserve better.