Even if Tommy Lee Jones fails to win an Oscar on Sunday night for his indelible portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, the fiery Lancaster abolitionist congressman is already a winner for being rescued from the dustbin of history.
"He has been in the shadows for 150 years," said historian and movie script consultant Harold Holzer. "It will never happen again."
For a state with few legends among our elected politicians, Stevens is a giant, albeit a largely forgotten or falsely maligned one. He was a champion of civil rights so far ahead of the curve as to be reviled by many during his day. Stevens wrote: "It is easy to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. But it is a great labor to protect the interests of the poor and downtrodden."
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln has sparked interest in "the Great Commoner." Ross Hetrick, founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, said: "More than any other politician, he epitomized what our country stands for, that all men are created equal."
Born in Vermont, Stevens spent two decades in Gettysburg and 26 years in Lancaster. Stevens served in the state legislature before being elected to Congress. He helped steward passage of the state's 1834 Free School Act, which offered schooling for Pennsylvania children for the first time, by arguing "it is the duty of government to see that the means of information be diffused to every citizen."
In Lancaster, Stevens lived and practiced law on Queen Street, across the way from his contemporary and political foe James Buchanan, arguably Pennsylvania's worst elected official and, alas, only president. Said the Lancaster County Historical Society's Thomas Ryan, "Stevens' story has largely been untold. What screenwriter Tony Kushner and Spielberg and Jones have done is to take him out of the shadows and resuscitate him from the grave."
In Washington, Stevens became the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and leader of the Radical Republicans, staunch abolitionists and defenders of Reconstruction and the rights of freed slaves.
Stevens had a clubfoot and a disastrous, ill-fitting wig, his boot and hairpiece both in the society's collection. A bachelor, Stevens had "a very close, special relationship" with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, said Lancaster historian Randy Harris. Their home, which Harris helped rescue from the wrecking ball, is now known as the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Site.
Whether they were more than confidants is greatly debated. In a forthcoming article in Civil War Times magazine, Holzer deems the relationship "intimate" and writes that Smith was "regarded as his common-law wife." Stevens' ardent Pennsylvania supporters love Lincoln but shudder over the bedroom scene featuring Stevens and Smith. What is not in doubt is that Stevens, in a more public setting, uttered the words Jones says to her of Lincoln's passage of the 13th Amendment, that it had been "passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."
Stevens' admirers hoped that he would be elevated in Lincoln. They were thrilled when Jones was cast (though his accent remains a tad Texan). But they are ecstatic with the end result and now hope for a Stevens revival.
After Lincoln's assassination, Stevens championed the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves and expanded the protection of civil rights. During Reconstruction, he marshaled his political skills to make sure the South would not rise again in Congress and fought for Andrew Johnson's impeachment. In his will, Stevens left $50,000 to establish a Lancaster school for the orphaned and indigent, regardless of race and background, today known as the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
Upon his death in 1868, the Pennsylvania firebrand lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda and was mourned by 20,000 in Lancaster. He insisted that he be buried in the town's integrated cemetery so that, as his tombstone reads, "I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator."