How the “Lincoln” Movie Reconstructed Thaddeus Stevens

I wasn’t much of a fan of Lincoln, but thoroughly enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones in it. His portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens stole the (dull) show, but this article suggests Stevens’ influence in the Amendment talks was nowhere near as great as the film would have us believe.

For the sake of simplicity, the film also makes Thaddeus Stevens the central radical figure organizing the amendment’s passage, even more so than the measure’s sponsor, Ashley.  This is not how many historians characterize Stevens’s role.  He was an important figure, but probably not the central one in securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Stevens had only four index entries in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005), a nearly 800-page book from which the screenplay was adapted.  Stevens plays a somewhat larger role in Michael Vorenberg’s more compact Final Freedom (2001) with seven index entries but even there he is clearly superseded by other figures such as Ashley and Senator Lyman Trumbull (R, IL), who is not even mentioned in the film.  The latest and most comprehensive study of wartime abolition policies –James Oakes’s Freedom National (2012)– contains a mere six index entries for Stevens.

By contrast, Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) has about 45 speaking parts in the Spielberg film, apparently second only to Abraham Lincoln(Scene 17).  He looms large as a counter-weight to the president  –Lincoln’s near opposite in both style and policy.  Their confrontation in the White House kitchen is one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes and also arguably one of its most historically implausible.  Besides the unlikely setting, scriptwriter Tony Kushner seems to be investing many older –and quite hostile– ideas about Stevens into this conversation which contrasts Lincoln’s calculated, pragmatic approach to Stevens’s rigid, ideological worldview.  He actually has Stevens / Jones saying at one point, in defense of his sweeping plans for revolutionizing the South,  ”Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they are ready for!  I don’t give a goddamn about the people and what they want!  This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ‘em.”

via Blog Divided » Post Topic » How the “Lincoln” Movie Reconstructed Thaddeus Stevens.

‘The Abolitionists’ Begins Tonight

In the rush to get my podcast finished, I forgot all about The Abolitionists – a new American Experience 3-parter which begins tonight. I doubt this will be as lovable as Ken Burns’ work, or even as accessible as Death and the Civil War – as this review reminds us, the Abolitionists were a prickly lot.  That said, there’s no denying the effect they had on society.  As one of my favourite quotes goes, “a crank is a small instrument that makes great revolutions.”

This is an in-your-face set-up with the Abolitionists themselves coming across as harsh, strident and even anxious to carry their feelings into acts of rioting and violence not formerly hooked to the abolition wagon.

via ‘The Abolitionists’ begins January 8 on PBS: Frederick Douglass to John Brown | Washington Times Communities.

The Birneys

The Birneys are a Civil War family of whom I was only peripherally aware, but as this article points out, they had quite a history. The book, Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War, could be quite an interesting read.

Although unsuccessful in his presidential campaigns of 1840 and 1844 as the Liberty Party candidate, Birney shook the political landscape with his abolitionist determination and influenced a number of politicians, including Abraham Lincoln and the fledgling Republican Party, Rogers noted.

He also imbued five sons with his political savvy and anti-slavery convictions, four of whom fought in the Civil War, as did one grandson, Bay City native James Birney IV. Two of his sons, David Bell Birney and William Birney, although not Bay Cityans, had strong connections to Michigan and both became major generals during the war.

Rogers said three of the four Birney sons who saw combat died during the war. The only one to survive was Gen. William Birney, the distinguished commander of black troops in campaigns in Florida and South Carolina. The grandson, James Birney IV, was a heroic figure at Gettysburg, riding with the 7th Michigan Cavalry in the Wolverine Division under Gen. George A. Custer. He also commanded a company of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry troops, in the 9th U.S. Cavalry after the war.