Elsie Singmaster, one of Gettysburg’s most famous novelists, stood up for Thaddeus Stevens in 1943 when he was vilified in a Hollywood movie, then wrote a book about the great commoner.
In 1942, MGM made a biographical picture of President Andrew Johnson with an all-star cast of Van Heflin as Johnson, Ruth Hussey as his wife, and Lionel Barrymore as his nemesis, Thaddeus Stevens. In keeping with the distorted image of Stevens at this time, the film portrays him as a vindictive fanatic intent on punishing the South and having Johnson removed from office. Singmaster would have none of that.
In a recent interview with a Gettysburg women’s group, Singmaster expert Susan Colestock Hill shared a letter written by the novelist to the Office of War Information in February 1943. “As a resident of Gettysburg, which has the proud distinction of having been the home of Thaddeus Stevens for 26 years, as a citizen of Pennsylvania who owes him its great system of common schools, and as a student of American history, I wish to protest against the distortion of his character now appearing in a movie,” Singmaster wrote.
“Presenting him to hundreds and thousands of Americans merely as a vindictive old man is as wrong and cruel as portraying him as a vicious old man in the (1915 film) ‘Birth of a Nation.’ We are now fighting for the rights of the oppressed; how can we misrepresent our great commoner, who above all Americans has raised his voice for the humble and the oppressed?” the letter concluded.
When Singmaster wrote this protest, she was already a well-established storyteller and novelist, recounting the lives of Pennsylvania Germans and telling stories about the Civil War. She then wrote a novel about Stevens, titled “I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens”, which was published in 1947.
He was very sympathetic towards Stevens and faithfully followed the outlines of his life as found in various biographies. However, it was written as a novel without footnotes and some details may have been included under poetic license.
A particular example refers to Stevens’ involvement in the anti-Masonic party of the 1820s and 30s which arose in reaction to abuses by Freemasons. In the Singmaster novel, Stevens is riding a horse near the Mount Alto Furnace when “workers asked him to stop, ‘Impossible!’ he shouted back. “I hunt the masons! »
He’s so similar to Stevens’ acerbic wit that it’s sad he can’t be found anywhere else.
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens’ important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found on the company’s website: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/