Craven: Thaddeus Stevens And Lincoln

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(Host) Commentator, filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven
recently saw the new Steven Spielberg film, "Lincoln." In it, he was
pleased to see some important connections to Vermont.

(Craven) I
enjoyed "Lincoln," thanks to the film’s monumental performance by
Daniel Day-Lewis, consistently the finest actor of his generation. Lewis
enlarges our imagination of this pivotal figure.

Vermont plays
more than a cameo role in Spielberg’s film. We catch a glimpse of Robert
Todd Lincoln, who built the house of his dreams outside Manchester in
1903, after serving as the Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield
and Chester Arthur. He’s shown as having a distant relationship with his
father – who packed out on horseback as an Illinois circuit judge
during the boy’s childhood. We see Robert prevail in his wish to enlist,
against strong resistance from his mother – but only for the war’s
final weeks, alongside General Grant.

Half-way through film,
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln tells a tale of plucky Revolutionary war hero
Ethan Allen. With tensions mounting, Lincoln gathers anyone who will
listen – to describe Allen’s visit to England, following the colonists’
victory. His British hosts tease Allen by hanging a portrait of George
Washington in his privy. But Allen gets the last laugh, with a sharp
quip that skewers the Brits but can’t be repeated in polite company.

the Vermonter who looms largest in "Lincoln" is Northeast Kingdom
native Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens became a powerful Pennsylvania Congressman
and fulfilled a lifelong quest with the hard fought passage of the 13th
Amendment to end slavery. Where I live, Thaddeus Stevens Road intersects
the lane that leads to my house and my younger son attended the
Thaddeus Stevens School, which places civil rights and the First
Amendment at the center of its curriculum.

Stevens was born in
Danville, attended Peacham Academy and UVM, and graduated from Dartmouth. Years ago, I
bought an old Barnet farmhouse and was told that Thaddeus Stevens rented
a room there while teaching at Peacham Academy. I’ve heard several
other similar claims around town – reminding me of all those places that
claim "George Washington slept here."

In Pennsylvania, superb
orator Thaddeus Stevens battled to save public education. And he led the
charge against slavery, poverty, and all forms of racial inequality –
long before Lincoln. Indeed, as we see in the film, scores of Democratic
Congressman wished to end the Civil War with slavery still intact. Not

"The occasion is forced upon us," Stevens said, "and
the invitation presented to strike the chains from four million human
beings; to wipe out, so far as we are concerned, the most hateful and
infernal blot that has ever disgraced the escutcheon of man; (and) to
write a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse
all the records of heroes and of sages."

20,000 people attended Thaddeus Steven’s funeral, reportedly half of them African Americans. His self-styled epitaph reads:

lies one who never rose to any eminence, who only courted the low
ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition
of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and

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