Okay, I’m writing this before the Oscars, even though it’s going to post the day after, and while I don’t expect Lincoln to win, it’s one of the Best Picture nominated films that I’ve actually seen. (Incidentally, why do they nominate so many films for Best Picture these days? I miss the days when there were just 5 nominees) Anyhow, if you’re like me, a hopeless romantic and history buff, of course the question you were left with at the end of the movie was “Was Thaddeus Stevens really in a relationship with his African American housekeeper?”
And also if you’re like me, you went out and did the research. Here’s what I learned….
Yes. Yes he was.
Thaddeus Stevens was an interesting guy. He was born in Vermont in 1792 and was one of four boys. His father was a shoemaker … when he wasn’t drunk and running out on the family. His father died when Thaddeus was young, so essentially he was raised by a single mother in the very early 1800s. All indications are that he worked hard, had a lot of responsibility from an early age, and grew up in poverty. He did attend Dartmouth College and later the University of Vermont, graduating in 1814 and moving to York, Pennsylvania. Yay Pennsylvania! He taught school there until he passed the bar. He then set up a law practice, first in Gettysburg and later in Lancaster. He never married. Probably because….
Lydia Hamilton Smith was born in 1815 to a free African American mother and Irish father. She married Jacob Smith, a free African American, and had two sons with him. When he passed away in 1852 she and her sons moved to Gettysburg, where she took a job as Thaddeus’s housekeeper.
Now, of course with any sort of personal relationship like this there are a lot of questions and controversies. Some people argue that there was nothing more to the relationship than employer and employee. But there is a lot more evidence that it was far, far more than that. Lydia stayed with Thaddeus for the rest of his life, until his death in 1868. She was by his bedside when he died. Neighbors referred to her as Mrs. Stevens, and they were considered to be common-law married in their local area.
Thaddeus and Lydia didn’t have any children together, but they raised Lydia’s two sons as well as Thaddeus’s two nephews together. Thaddeus later legally adopted his nephews. After his death, Lydia inherited a portion of Thaddeus’s estate and continued to live in his house, purchasing it and the adjoining lot.
Given Thaddeus Stevens’s liberal – radical for the time, really – political view and views on racial equality, it’s not a great leap to assume that his relationship with Lydia was marital in every way except legally. Seems pretty obvious to me. I loved that scene towards the end of Lincoln where they climb into bed together like any other old married couple. To me that really underlined the point of the whole 13th Amendment debate and the point of the movie. Look at everything we had to go through for an old man and his wife just to be together. Sometimes history is stupid. It’s a relief when we get it right.
Of course, Thaddeus Stevens wasn’t the only man of his era and earlier who had an interracial relationship. I know it’s a HUGE subject of debate, but I happen to be in the school of thought that says that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings enjoyed a long-term loving relationship. That one’s a little trickier though because she was his slave. And his wife’s half-sister. … I should write a blog post about that relationship someday. It’s fascinating!