It was my pleasure to connect with the Thaddeus Stevens Society and its president, Ross Hetrick. As a freelance writer and illustrator, I end up meeting a number of interesting people and learning a lot about so many subjects. In a visual thinker role, I can facilitate in clearing away the clutter, help organize thoughts, and make sure goals connect with results. That brings us to today’s infographic, a concise look at one of America’s lesser known heroes. Thaddeus Stevens was arguably the most important member of Congress during the American Civil War. His passionate and unrelenting work in support of civil rights helped lead the way to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments to the American Constitution, all working to ensure the rights of Black Americans after the war.
Confederate statues are being removed, including that infamous Robert E. Lee statue, the one at the center of the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017. What is essential to know is that these Confederate leader statues were not erected immediately after the Civil War in 1865 but were installed years later, during the era of Jim Crow. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, the biggest spike was between 1900 and the 1920s. Lost in the shuffle is the question of what happens to these statues once they’re “removed.” One Lee statue in Dallas was removed in 2019 only to be sold to an unknown party. In 2017, New Orleans removed a total of four Confederate statues including one of Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the monuments represent a “sanitized” view of the Confederacy. Landrieu added that they were erected years after the Civil War ended by people who wanted to show that white supremacy still held sway in the city. The cost of removal was over 2.1 millions dollars. Some of the factors in that huge price tag involved public safety and security but that still seems to be a steep price to pay. And, again, what exactly should be the end result to all of these statues? That’s a very good question.
Artist rebel Banksy offers an option byway of a recent removal of a statue across the pond, that of Edward Colston in Bristol. Colston was a 17th-century slave trader that was responsible for having transported over 80,000 enslaved individuals between 1672 and 1689. This past Sunday, protestors took down the statue of Colston from its pedestal, located in the center of Bristol, and sank it to the bottom of the Avon River. Banksy proposes to keep the infamous statue but repurpose it. As Banksy states on Instagram:
“What should we do with the empty plinth in the middle of Bristol?
Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t.
We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”
Sounds like a very good answer. Of course, taking a sledgehammer to these statues is another option. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu led the way with the removal of his city’s four statues. Other cities followed, including Baltimore, Austin, and Durham, North Carolina. But where did these statues end up? The New Orleans statues are kept, to this very day, in some old shed in an undisclosed location.
“Mounthaven” is the story of a man on a journey of self-discovery stymied by his own personal set of blinders. Those blinders prove to be a costly problem for him. He seems to be aware of them. He wants them off. He is certain he can see the blinders others wear. That alone is the stuff of novels. This is also the stuff of life which makes this biography, thinly veiled as fiction, all the more remarkable. Throughout the book, there is a narrator leading you through a family history intertwined with the family estate, Mounthaven. By the last third of the novel, it is revealed that the narrator is the main character. And the main character happens to be my father. If that’s not remarkable, at least in my world of reading, I don’t know what is. In fact, out in the world at large, this book should find many interested readers.
“The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation” makes for compelling reading, whatever your prior knowledge of American history. It is a a wildly inspiring presentation in all its power to convey detailed facts, insights, and nuanced concepts. Is the 4th of July a good day to read this book? Of course! You could, for instance, read it on your Kindle with plenty of time to spare before the fireworks display. Are you one of those persons who just enjoys the fireworks and doesn’t know, or believe they care, about why today is a good day for fireworks? Well, even you would likely enjoy this book. Rachel Maddow calls it, “the coolest thing since Schoolhouse Rock.” And who doesn’t love Schoolhouse Rock? We love to learn and sometimes we want it to come at us from a more accessible venue. This would be the book to do just that.
Sure, the 4th of July and the Battle of Gettysburg appear to be strange bedfellows. However, in a ghoulish twist of fate,it was on a 4th of July, 150 years ago today, that the carnage from the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War rested on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It had been a three-day fight and the results so ghastly that it sent shockwaves through both camps and led the President of the United States to create and deliver a masterwork of argument in defense of a unified nation. It was a way of communicating to his fellow Americans, then and in the future, on what was at stake. What this book does is run with that desire to communicate. It does a most remarkable thing. It breaks down Lincoln’s famous speech, a relatively brief and easy to follow piece of work, and examines in depth what was really being said. In doing so, we explore the inner workings of that great ongoing experiment in democracy known as the United States of America.
And there’s more to that 4th of July connection. In this book we explore the origins of the Civl War in a variety of ways not the least of which is the tension between the two founding documents, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. In law, if there’s any chance to take an inch, a mile will be taken every time. That’s what happened with what we commonly celebrate as the founding document on the 4th of July. The Declaration of Independence, of 1776, is a rallying cry for freedom and, left open enough to interpretation, a murky blueprint for states to do as they please, even secede from the nation. Once such a notion takes root, well, not even ratification of The Constitution, in 1788, can put a stop to it.
If you want answers to all your questions about how America found itself at war with itself and where we’ve come since then, you’ll want to get this book. It is by writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell, the team that created 2008’s “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.” Apparently, these guys really love explaining American history and they’re very good at it too. Both of them relish completing a thought in an intelligent extended manner while also keeping pace with a dramatic narrative. In a steady conversational tone, we come to appreciate the deep-seated conflict between a desire for limited government, as supported by Thomas Jefferson, and a robust government, as supported by Alexander Hamilton. We see how Americans allowed slavery to take hold in the first place and then, once it did, found it nearly impossible to abandon it.
We come to better appreciate the task at hand for the founding fathers and the inevitability of passing on one generation’s burden onto the next. Would the founding fathers have put an end to slavery if they had all the time in the world, if they could have seen into the future? Would Lincoln have acted any faster in his own actions? In his case, he certainly appears to have acted as quickly as anyone for his time could have. What is clear is that, once he was gone, America took a number of steps back for each step forward. That would not have been lost on Lincoln one bit. If anyone came close to having a crystal ball to foresee the future, it was Lincoln. All you have to do is read The Gettysburg Address.
“The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation” is published by Harper Collins. It is a 222-page trade paperback, priced at $15.99 U.S. and you can find it in print or digital here.
It was on a bright day in January in 1865 that the United States, despite feverish opposition, passed the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery in the land. The fight to outlaw slavery, once and for all, is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Even if the final outcome is already known to the audience, the full story will likely be new. Remarkably, this film, with its familiar director and familiar subject, feels new too. This is a 21st Century Lincoln led by Daniel Day-Lewis’s brilliant interpretation of a man of his time with a keen sense for the timeless.
Mr. Spielberg uses his Lincoln capital wisely as we begin this film. After some scenes of bloody fighting, we cut to a close-up of two African American infantrymen. They are being interviewed about the Civil War. One man seems content. The other lists the injustices suffered by his people. The interviewer is Pres. Lincoln. We then float up to a dreamworld and there’s the tall and lonely figure in a stovepipe hat standing on the bow of a vast ship. Restraint. Elegant restraint. “Lincoln” proves to have the elegant restraint to make such a movie.
After all the hype, and there’s more to come, “Lincoln,” proves to be a very engaging film. It is not a Frank Capra treatment of our 16th president and that is an understandable concern. As we now know, Daniel Day-Lewis turned down more than one screenplay for this film. The one that finally won him over is based on the book, “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and adapted for the screen by Tony Kushner. It provided a way to maintain that elegant restraint that Mr. Day-Lewis knew was essential.
With the sense of urgency clearly stated, we see a president determined to use all his political capital to steer the country in the right direction. In short order, he means to legitimize his Emancipation Proclamation. The only way to end slavery in the United States is to pass a Constitutional Amendment and the only way to do that is to act immediately. For political junkies, the ensuing dramatization is nirvana. You can almost hear Doris Kearns Goodwin reciting from her popular book in the background. However, this film does offer much more. There is a special urgency you feel in the filmmaking. When Lincoln speaks, everyone listens. We see a jaw drop a bit when the president exercises his distinctive skill to make a point. We feel history being made in a refreshing way as all the players are allowed to live and breathe.
At one point in the film, we see Mr. Day-Lewis in an scene where he ponders over Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician. It is during a pivotal moment in the war that Lincoln thinks out loud with a couple of young staffers. One of them says he’s an engineer by profession. This sparks Lincoln to quote some Euclidean geometry, “Any two sides that are equal to the whole are equal to each other. Euclid, three thousand years before, stated that this was self-evident.” It is a delightfully low-key moment, one of many, that Mr. Day-Lewis plays masterfully.
In keeping with the restrained vibe in this film, we follow the journey of radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. At first, we don’t seem to know which side he’s on or whether he can be relied upon to check his ego at the door when he needs to. It’s a great performance. One particularly good scene is when he’s confronted by the First Lady, played by Sally Field. She is greeting visitors at a reception and seizes the opportunity to put Stevens in his place. Coming across as a Hillary Clinton complaining over Whitewater investigations, she chides Stevens for his investigating her overseeing renovation of The White House. We see that Stevens can take a good chiding and take it to heart.
The Spielbergian touch is most evident in what we see from a child’s point of view in this film. There was a little boy who lived in the White House, the President’s son, Tad Lincoln. He’s there so often in the film as to be its anchor, conscience, and sense of innocence. When Lincoln and his men gather for a war meeting, the war map is found to have suffered a burn at one corner. Tad Lincoln was there. When Lincoln is patiently awaiting the final vote of the 13th Amendment, he is entertained by Tad Lincoln building a monument from various books and legal briefs. When Lincoln needs to keep up his sense of purpose, all he needs to do is observe the photographs of slaves that Tad Lincoln has been observing. And, when the President is shot, it is Tad Lincoln’s sorrow we focus upon. This is not Doris Kearns Goodwin’s or Daniel Day-Lewis’s doing. This is Steven Spielberg’s.
Steven Spielberg is a really nice guy who likes to make big movies that make bold statements. That is an oversimplication but, more or less, true. So, now he’s taken on America’s biggest legend, Abraham Lincoln. And why is that? It’s always a good question to ask about a creator regarding his or her work: “Why are you doing this?” Well, back to the idea that Mr. Spielberg enjoys big things that go, “Boom!” It is, after all, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War that has unfolded upon us.
“Lincoln” will feel like the greatest, maybe even the ultimate tribute, that can be bestowed upon the 16th President of the United States of America. It’s based on a wonderful biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin and the final screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, for crying out loud. And, yes, it’s got a stellar cast including, of course, the greatest actor that ever lived, Daniel Day-Lewis. The problem with having a “greatest actor of all time” sort of actor playing the role of such a colossal hisorical figure, known by everyone residing on planet Earth, is that it has nowhere to go but down!
It will be fascinating. It will be great. But it will mostly be a spectacle much in the way that Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in, “The Iron Lady,” was good solid entertainment but not exactly soul enriching. Okay, maybe it was great but you can find other Streep performances that go deeper, that’s what I’m saying.
Or consider Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States of America. In “Frost/Nixon,” the movie version of the highly successful play, both written by Peter Morgan, you get a finely studied, wonderfully acted, interpretation of what it is was like for the beleaguered former leader of the free world as he tried to set the record straight on his involvement in a very stupid political scandal, at the mercy of an entertainer/journalist. This is a fascinating story and, because of its quality, you are able to let go of any distractions about whether or not you’re viewing an event or a movie. I mean, Frank Langella doesn’t really look like Nixon but we don’t care. We accept his interpretation. So, in this case, everything comes out feeling meant to be.
And this bring me to one of the most authentic performances of Abraham Lincoln you’re ever going to find, John Ford’s, “Young Mr. Lincoln.” In this case, we have a director who is deeply in love with, and well versed in, the American landscape, particularly the development of the American frontier. John Ford was around at a time when he could literally reach back to America’s early history. He was able, for instance, to get recollections, or inspiring tall tales, from Wyatt Earp about the famous last gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which was the basis for Ford’s mesmerizing “My Darling Clementine.” Mr. Ford lived and breathed the Wild West and American folklore. He was a tough guy who knew what he wanted to do. In that respect, not to mention a beautiful performance by Henry Fonda, and a magical feel for storytelling, makes “Young Mr. Lincoln” a film that you won’t mistake for anything but an excellent cinematic experience.