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Robert McNamara

Thaddeus Stevens

By November 12, 2012

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One of the most influential Americans of the Civil War period, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, is about to become very famous all over again, thanks to the great actor Tommy Lee Jones.

In Steven Spielberg's new film "Lincoln," Jones plays Stevens as a sarcastic and fiery character, hurling brutal insults at his opponents in the House of Representatives while engaged in an epic legislative battle to bring a permanent end to slavery.

In real life, Stevens was respected on Capitol Hill for his intellect. And he was widely feared for his sharp tongue. Known by his colleagues as "The Great Commoner," he had spent a lifetime battling for underdogs including a number of fugitive slaves. And he was famed for a collection of eccentricities, the least of which may have been the ill-fitting wig he wore to hide his baldness.

In speeches given in Congress following his death in 1868, one congressman noted: "While he was at times terribly severe, and more rarely discourteous, and sometimes in the intensity of political excitement wounded the feelings of his friends, yet at heart he was eminently kind, generous, and forgiving."

In the South, he was viewed quite differently, and he was often savaged in print. Southern newspapers delighted in alluding to how his African American housekeeper may have been his wife. When he died, a South Carolina newspaper gleefully mocked his funeral, which included black federal troops, with racially charged invective.

Thaddeus Stevens always seemed to exist, resolute and comfortable, in a storm of controversy.


Photograph: Thaddeus Stevens/Library of Congress

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