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Craven: Thaddeus Stevens And Lincoln

12/04/12 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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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.

But 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 Stevens.

"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:

"Here 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 color."

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