While the Thanksgiving season was upon us I took the opportunity to share three posts pertaining to the history of the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.” I want to turn now to Abraham Lincoln, and that may seem like a pretty abrupt shift. If you need a smoother segue, I could note that Lincoln issued numerous thanksgiving proclamations during the Civil War and that his proclamation in the fall of 1863 is remembered as initiating the unbroken tradition of annual national Thanksgiving holidays that continues to the present. I could note that, but I won’t, because the real reason that I am bringing him up is because of the current popular movie bearing his name. On the whole, academic historians have praised the movie (for a sampling of academic reactions, see here), and I generally concur. Lincoln can be criticized for numerous factual inaccuracies (most of them minor), but by Hollywood standards, the film makes room for an unusual degree of historical complexity.
To cite but two examples, the entire structure of the film drives home the complicated interrelationship between the issues of slavery and race in mid-nineteenth century America. As I regularly tell my students when we reach the era of the Civil War, the single most important thing they have to understand about the sectional crisis is that southern whites tended to believe that the defense of slavery and white supremacy were inseparable, while northern whites thought otherwise. As the sectional crisis intensified, southern whites tended to see any criticism of slavery as an assault on racial hierarchy. Northern whites, in contrast, were divided on the matter. While northern Democrats regularly condemned abolitionism as part of a fanatical crusade for racial equality, northern Republicans went out of their way to separate the issues of slavery and race. Indeed, they had no choice if they wanted any kind of political future. Northern voters were not ready to embrace racial equality, even as a hypothetical goal, but the majority, at least, might be convinced to support the end of slavery if emancipation did not seem to threaten the privileged position of whites in American society. Lincoln makes this point wonderfully in the scene in which Pennsylvania Republican congressmen Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) disavows support of political or social equality for former slaves, even though he had long been a supporter of both. The clear message of the scene—a historically accurate one—is that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment required that the party of Lincoln frame the racial implications of emancipation as conservatively as possible.
Second, the movie nicely illustrates the considerable diversity within the Republican Party itself with regard to emancipation and racial equality. Whereas scenes situated in the House of Representatives commonly pit Republicans against Democrats, many of the movie’s more intimate conversations—in the president’s cabinet room, the executive office, even the White House kitchen—were designed to highlight differences of opinion among Republicans themselves. So, for example, we see Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens chiding Lincoln for his timidity and telling the president that the only acceptable course is to free the slaves, expropriate the land of their masters, and totally remake the southern social and racial structure. But we also listen in as Maryland Republican Francis P. Blair (played by Hal Holbrooke) lectures Lincoln that conservative Republicans will never support emancipation at all unless they can convince their constituents that the measure is absolutely necessary to win the war. The movie does an outstanding job in helping us to imagine just how difficult a task it was for Lincoln to satisfy the disparate factions of his own party and still fashion a reasonably coherent public policy.
Yes, Lincoln gets a lot of its history right, and in a medium in which that rarely occurs. Hearing this opinion, my students have asked me where it is factually incorrect, but for the purposes of helping us to think Christianly about American history, I would rather concentrate on what the movie leaves out. I am doubtful that Lincoln was a Christian by any orthodox definition, but he made at least two important claims in his public statements about slavery that we would do well to meditate on. I’ll share those soon.