Lincoln, the Movie

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.

7 responses to “Lincoln, the Movie

  1. I think Lincoln strikes a very Hegelian chord. The Almighty is Time, not God. Progress replaces sanctification. Morality is not at issue. The uncompromising moralist in the film is Thaddeus Stevens and he does as much to derail the amendment as its opponents. This does indeed endear itself to Hollywood liberals. Progress toward the good is substituted for “social change.” The only righteousness is how silly and outdated the racist senators seem when they legitimately struggle with racism. Time–not God–is on our side. Watch the film again ans substitute the 13th amendment for a bill legalizing gay marriage (then google Tony Kushner) and you’ll see the film’s undertones quite clearly.

  2. I loved the movie, and I am glad to hear that there was a lot of accuracy in it. I personally thought that Tommy Lee Jones stole the show, but I didn’t really see any weak performances. I also loved Lincoln’s discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wish history classes would discuss what that really meant and why it wasn’t enough to free the slaves permanently.

  3. I was disturbed by the passivity of the African Americans in the movie, and that they are mostly depicted as servants. Where was Frederick Douglass? The thematic arc of the movie is that these brave, noble white men gave the slaves their freedom, as highlighted in the scene where Stevens brings a gift–symbolic and material– home to his housekeeper/lover, the actual parchment of the passed 13th Amendment. Even Grant seemed passive in this movie, standing there waiting for the telegraph message about the vote. I would rather have had the scenes of Congress juxtaposed with some scenes of the 20,000 slaves following Sherman around as he burned down South Carolina, and the 200,000 free blacks fighting in the Union army.
    But such scenes would have lent a sense of the inevitability of slavery’s eradication and would have undercut Spielberg’s message that the 13th amendment barely passed. Let the viewers hear that battle cry for freedom.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Reading « AC 2nd

  5. The movie seemed to be saying something about politics and the art of negotiation. It left me a bit depressed because it seemed that, as you say, the only way to get folks to agree to abolishing slavery was to assure them that their racial superiority was not being threatened. Geez, that’s depressing! But a realistic commentary, I think, on what it sometimes takes for us to do the right thing. First we need to feel safe and secure and maybe then we will take a bold step. Is that what leadership is all about?

    • I agree that the movie seems to be making a statement about the potential of the political process to effect meaningful change. In a lengthy review in The Chronicle Review (the magazine section of the Chronicle of Higher Education), historian Louis Masur concludes that “the film serves to restore our faith in what political leaders, under the most trying of circumstances, can sometimes accomplish.” The idea seems to be that partisanship and pragmatism did not ultimately block substantive change.

  6. My grandmother was a big admirer of Lincoln. She has many articles about him pasted in her scrapbooks from the 50’s and 60’s.

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