So You Say You’ll Change the Constitution: Seven Historians Respond to “Lincoln”

On this most American of holidays, we convened a roundtable of éminence grises (French for “nitpicking academics”) to discuss the new film about the man many consider to be America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.  Here are their responses:

Keith Orejel (Columbia University)

First and foremost, I would like to say that I fully concur with Kate Masur’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, which draws attention to the film’s portrayal of “passive black characters” who are not only insufficiently examined, but also poorly captured when given rare screen time. That said I do think the movie offers a number of improvements on the more standard cinematic representations of the Civil War. Unlike major theatrical portrayals, such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Lincoln moves the conflict from the battlefield to the White House and the Capitol Building. I greatly appreciated this since the Ted Turner take on the Civil War  (Turner bankrolledGettysburg and Gods) far too often emphasizes the themes of the soldiers’ glory, sacrifice, and heroism—for both the Yankees and Johnny Reb. As the scholar David Blight has aptly pointed out, this narrative was rooted in the late nineteenth century project of national reconciliation that helped to obscure the political contests over slavery, democratic rights, and citizenship that actually motivated the conflict. By setting the film in the central theaters of power, Lincoln reframes the Civil War as primarily a political affair.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the film as a historian was its profoundly presentist and didactic depiction of the struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The film focuses entirely on a moment in history when the Democrats, many of which were recently voted out of office in the elections of 1864, still held the power to block Republican efforts to abolish slavery through a constitutional amendment. In choosing to depict a moment when bipartisan support was necessary in order to pass a major piece of legislation, the film seemingly alludes to our present political circumstances. Oddly, the true heroes of the film are not Lincoln “the Great Emancipator,” the African American slaves who claimed their freedom by fighting for the Union, or even the victorious armies of Ulysses S. Grant. Rather, the audience’s true emotional enthusiasm is meant for the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, glorified not for his stalwart dedication to the principals of racial equality, but rather for his willingness to betray those same ideals in the name of political compromise, and the turncoat Democrats who decide to buck pressure from party loyalists, whether for the promise of patronage jobs or mere principle, to vote for the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. In this ragtag Bad News Bearsesque squad of unlikely political champions one finds a clear contemporary political message. In a modern political arena defined by increasing partisan polarization and political gridlock, the film calls for leaders who will seemingly rise above both personal principal and party loyalty to do what is right for the country at large. At times the 1860’s Democrats seem thinly veiled representations of their 2010’s Republican congressional counterparts. The depiction of an obstructionist House of Representatives failing to back a grand political proposal by a popular and historically important American president cannot be lost on a contemporary audience.

Ryan Reft (University of California San Diego)

In deference to the insights of my more estimable colleagues I will refrain from any sweeping take on the film.  I will however ask the following: What was the deal with the gloves? If one didn’t notice it during the movie, critic Zach Baron brightlined this motif in his review: “There is an unexplained aversion to gloves — in movie after movie, you see him leaving them behind, on side tables and nightstands and in his own pockets, unused.” Apparently, social graces of the day led many a politician to don gloves when greeting constituents.  One might be forgiven if some viewers might see this as sort of literal electoral prophylactic, a physical separation of elected official and voter. Lincoln, allegedly, eschewed such formalities.  In a movie that references Ahab’s “great white whale”, this audience member wondered about Spielberg’s modern day “rosebud” (see Citizen Kane): just what do the gloves mean.

Surprisingly often, an American President can act only by appealing to the self-interest of others.   Sharing power with a Congress whose members he does not recruit or dismiss, and perched atop a political party that he does not control, America’s president is as much bargainer-in-chief as chief executive.

– Lexington, Economist, “Taking the Fight Outside,” November 17, 2012

As the Economist indicated this past week and as the movie demonstrates, the phrase “power of the Presidency” is and has always been a misnomer. In this regard, reviewers like the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted the film serves as much a civics lesson as biopic — a display of a messy process into which Lincoln must wade. Of course, this requires a demonstration of democracy’s dark arts. “Spielberg and Kushner exult in showing Lincoln getting the job done, by whatever means necessary,” notes Travers.  A trio of lobbyists skulk across the capital picking off wayward Democrats to support the passage of the 13th amendment and in moments, the President browbeats while in others he cajoles.  Clearly, Lincoln did not place himself above the trickery of backwoods lawyers.

We never find out if Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens employs gloves.  When it comes to interacting with common men and women, Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens expresses a blatant disregard for “the people” seeing in himself the wisdom they lack.  The Pennsylvania Congressman displays no reluctance in engaging in backroom politics (aptly pointed out by Keith Orejel above), fixing Congressional elections for the greater good.  The rhetoric of the time proved coarse; Stevens calls a rival Ohio Senator “a stinking carcass” and Secretary of State William Seward describes Congress as a “rat’s nest” capable of dragging down Lincoln into the mire.  Wouldn’t all these things justify metaphorical gloves?

Could the gloves allude to the movie’s simpler aspects? Darkish hues, oily long hair, and dim lighting exemplify the earthiness of the period. Critic Josh Larsen argued you could “feel the soot.” “The smaller, plainer America of the mid-19th century is evoked by the brownish chiaroscuro of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, by the mud, brick and wood of Rick Carter’s production design,” notes Scott. The amount of facial hair in the movie, he also points out, might “make the young beard farmers of 21st-century Brooklyn weep tears of envy.”

Finally, could the gloves be a reference to access, protection against constant contact. When an older man approaches Lincoln’s son Robert about getting a message to the president about his personal economic solvency, he does so while waiting for a glimpse of the President inside the White House.  At least, politics in this era did appear more human or at least required more personal interaction. Lincoln’s refusal to wear gloves in this context can be interpreted as his authenticity as a person and leader.

Maybe Lincoln refused to wear gloves because having grown up dirt poor they seemed like an affectation.  Perhaps he saw them as aristocratic puffery or an ignoble way of separating himself from common men. Then again, he might have just hated gloves. Who knows?

Despite remaining central to American identity, we continue to project our own beliefs onto the figure of Lincoln, making it harder with every epoch to determine who he was.  The Times‘ Scott captures it best:  “We carry him around in our pockets every day, and yet we still argue and wonder about who he was.” The movie undoubtedly graphs current politics onto its nineteenth century counterpart (as have I by employing the Economist quote), but in fairness, so do many histories.  Writers often frame historical studies in ways that reflect the present; expecting a movie not to do this might be unrealistic. In the end I just wonder, Lincoln?: Paragon of America? Enigma? Both? I don’t know, but if only we knew why he hated gloves.

Jude Webre (Columbia University)

“Freedom is first.” So says Mrs. Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s black chambermaid (who remains ambiguously slave or free), to the President in the beautifully lit portico of the White House as he contemplates how persistent to be in pursuing a vote on the 13th Amendment. In a movie full of lively political dealings and choreographed legislative debates, this is one of the quieter moments that really locates the emotional and moral center of the Spielberg/Kushner collaboration – moments when Daniel Day-Lewis is at his best, making you forget that it is either his perennial Oscar-worthy self or Abraham freakin’ Lincoln that you are watching.

Mrs. Keckley’s comment lays out the stakes of the movie’s focus on January 1865 and the razor-thin victory of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. In Tony Kushner’s clear, smartly structured screenplay, he manages to depict the pragmatic limits of Lincoln’s political vision, with Thaddeus Stevens as his radical foil and the challenges of Reconstruction hinted at in a way I did not expect.  However, without freedom at the very least, the movie suggests, nothing else would have been possible. Lincoln’s “political genius” lay in this appreciation of the art of the possible combined with a tentative but ultimately firm commitment to the “self-evident truth” of fundamental equality – if only that.

There is a great deal to like about this movie. At the most basic level, it gets the political narrative right, bringing to life such central but forgotten players in the popular imagination as the Blairs, William Seward (ably portrayed by look-alike David Strathairn), Thaddeus Stevens, Fernando Wood, and Alexander Stephens (original Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley!).  The cozy, shabby ambience of the White House and the intimate republican hubbub of the House chamber seem to come straight out of John Hay, bypassing Gore Vidal altogether. There are crowds everywhere, milling in hallways and monitoring telegraph machines, and so many of these are, poignantly, anonymous young men, suggesting that Kushner had carefully read Whitman’s Specimen Days in evoking indirectly the price of war.

Even the Lincoln family story at the core of the film, which should have been ripe for maximal Spielberg schlockdom, is anchored by the performances of Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Mary Todd, both understated when bombast would have been so easy. Day-Lewis again proves his considerable worth, letting the role carry him, coming to a boil only occasionally, but masterfully capturing the nuances of Lincoln’s awkward charisma – even down to his high Western drawl and inveterate storytelling that has not a little of Bill Clinton’s charm to it.

I was most impressed, however, by the clarity of Kushner’s handling of the legal and political complexities of a historical moment that is not often portrayed. As Keith said, we are following the politics of emancipation not military battles, which in itself challenges a contemporary audience to engage history critically, and even ambivalently – a level that the best historians reach in my view. It is my hope that audiences will take the challenge, even as intricate, and at times cumbersome, as the legal distinctions become.

If I have reservations about the movie, it is what has been said by others. Where are the African-Americans of stature to equal the Sewards and Stevenses? Why are their voices only that of servants and noble outspoken noncommissioned officers? It is bad enough that we still don’t have a Frederick Douglass biopic, but his absence here, or that of leading ministers and abolitionists, robs Kushner of a chance to depict the motive force of radical politics. The movie doesn’t shy away from these questions, and is unflinching in making the everyday racism of the period explicit. Likewise, Lincoln hagiography is at a surprising minimum. Yet in some sense the Lincoln of emancipation memorials, lifting up the freed slave, is still the archetype here.

The heart of this political story in my view is the workings of American democracy, imperfect yet, compared to our own time, remarkably personal. Whether the cajoling of votes by the roguish Bilbo (James Spader is God) or the roll call of names and rural faces during the Amendment’s passage, the film focuses, for better and worse, on the white agrarian democracy that was Lincoln’s abiding passion. In a perfect world, I would hope for the sequels (MIB II & III) that could bring to life the wrenching and often inspiring struggles over land, labor, and suffrage during Reconstruction. But unfortunately, as history on the big screen goes, we seem to be stuck with the Olympian gods. Without the familiar heroic presence of Abe, the valuable historical lesson that this collaborative effort provides would likely not have gotten made in all this rich, eloquent detail.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson (Georgia State University)

Steven Spielberg’s take on the sixteenth president and the machinations surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is a richly layered, nuanced, and even brilliant film. Moreover, it doesn’t contain a single reference to vampires. No loss here, since Spielberg’s film doesn’t need any magical hooks beyond its brilliant acting and excellent historical accuracy. But any project that takes on the representation and context of such a giant figure – literally and figuratively – is bound to run into some historically problematic portrayals. As ToM contributor Keith Orejel notes in his post,  Northwestern University historian Kate Masur’s recent New York Times op-ed piece argues the film is relatively dismissive of the role that African-Americans played in their own emancipation, instead portraying them as a passive people awaiting the “gift” of legal freedom from enlightened whites. A different point of contention comes from J. Bryan Lowder’s post for Slate, “How Gay is Lincoln?”  Lowder revives the debates about whether or not we can legitimately label Abraham “my old Kentucky homo” since he maintains that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance  – with the strategic pats and wry glances toward his young adjutants –  gives viewers a subtle hint of Lincoln’s possible homosexuality.  I’ll leave it to my fellow historians to debate the finer points of emancipation historiography and queer theory within the movie. I’m going to talk about something I think the film nailed perfectly – Sally Field’s spot-on performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. There’s been Oscar buzz about Day-Lewis’ impeccable interpretation of the title character, but I’d argue Field is equally deserving of the award.

Field’s Mary Lincoln comes across as alternatively maternal, loving, rude, a spendthrift, selfish, caring, politically savvy, pathological, shrewish, grief-stricken, and hilarious. In other words, Field makes her totally human. This has not always been the case in the ways historians and the general public alike have viewed Mary. For decades, the general media, public opinion and scholarly work on Lincoln all seemed to take their cues from the original, misogynistic descriptions of Mary by William Herndon, who was Lincoln’s Illinois law partner and Mary’s lifelong nemesis. Beginning in the 1860s, in letters, lectures and a later book, he accused Mary of being coldhearted, avaricious, the “she-wolf of this section,” the “female wild cat of the age,” and with her tendency to harp –  “like the tooth-ake – kept one awake night and day.” Herndon’s vituperative accusations resonated with a public inclined to make Abraham Lincoln a saint and Mary his cross to bear.  Historian Jean Baker recalls in the introduction to her biography on Mary that a car mechanic in Illinois told her that Lincoln would never had been shot had Mary not forced him to Washington so she could fulfill her own outsize political dreams. Even recent works on Lincoln by historians Michael Burlingame and C.A. Tripp accuse Mary of being a bad mother, an even worse wife, and spiritedly revive the “she was crazy” argument.

Fortunately for those of you just being introduced to Mary Lincoln through the film, Field takes a page out of some of the newer scholarly interpretations presented by historians like Baker, as well as Catherine Clinton, both of whom have published recent biographies on the former First Lady. We see multiple facets of Mary’s personality in Field’s portrayal. The deep grief for her son, Willie (who died in the White House in 1862); her intense, overwhelming love for her husband and surviving sons, Robert and Tad; as well as her innate political shrewdness and sharp-tongued wit complete her character for the audience.

The film also does well in showcasing a nuanced interpretation of the Lincoln marriage, which has also been a subject of much debate and gossip fodder since the late nineteenth century. Countless scholars and Lincoln aficionados have tried to “prove” that Lincoln had affairs with other women (and men!), never loved Mary, and may have only married her because she became pregnant. But Field and Day-Lewis give us a balanced sense of the Lincolns’ married intimacy. The scenes in their bedroom, where they discuss Abraham’s disturbing dreams, walk around in their underclothes, banter, and fight bitterly with each other are some of the best of the film.

Certainly Field doesn’t downplay Mary’s tendency to slide toward hysteria and madness – throughout her scenes, we get the sense that trouble is percolating beneath a fragile exterior. We watch as her moments of lucid wit are punctuated by flashes of grief and fear that threaten to overtake her. In one scene, Mary cries hysterically at Lincoln to go ahead and put her in the asylum, as he tells her he is afraid for her mental health in the aftermath of Willie’s death. Indeed, Mary was committed to a mental institution in 1875 – via an insanity trial orchestrated by her own son, Robert. Was Mary Lincoln crazy? Perhaps. But if one considers the tragedies she endured – the untimely deaths of all her children, save one (who then turned out to be, in her eyes at least, the worst kind of Judas), the violent and very public murder of her husband, her humiliation at being committed, and her endurance of the constant carping and criticisms in the national papers – a more sympathetic portrait emerges than the one-dimensional “bitch” presented by Herndon and his ilk.

The movie’s strength lies in portraying Mary as a whole person – the good, the bad, and the hint of the crazy. Even as other aspects of the film warrant certain criticisms, I think we can all agree on two points –  that Field does Mary some long-warranted justice, and that Thaddeus Stevens’ wig (Tommy Lee Jones) needs its own publicity tour.

Nick Juravich (Columbia University)

My favorite moment in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a scene toward the beginning of the film in which the president, gathered in one of the movie’s many smoke-filled rooms with his cabinet, outlines the twists, turns, and leaps of legal reasoning that made it possible, if not altogether constitutional, for him to abolish slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. The president felt that it “had to be done” and that the proclamation “was not IL-legal,” but he is clear that it was only the contingencies and exigencies of war that made such a dramatic manoeuvre possible. With peace on the horizon, Lincoln tells his audience, there is no telling what will become of it. This is why the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in full and formal fashion, must be passed through the House of Representatives. The assembled take his words to heart, and their efforts to achieve this victory through the work of Congressional politics – sometimes dirty, sometimes mundane, sometimes noble – comprise the central story of this film.

Strictly speaking, Lincoln’s semi-soliloquy in this scene is fiction, a creation of Tony Kushner’s script. Why, then, does it resonate historically? The effort to pass the 13th Amendment through the House was a three week affair that took place in January of 1865, and while Spielberg gives us a detailed and nuanced portrait of this particular moment, it is often hard to remember, amidst all of the Beltway banter, just how radically the nation and its politics had shifted in the four years leading up to it. As Lincoln’s relfection the Emancipation Proclamation makes clear, events had outrun any settled notions of what was either legal or possible, and in the breach, a new world was taking shape. Keeping the narrative and the action focused on the particulars of the House debate is a filmmaker’s prerogative, but so detailed a portrait leaves much outside the frame, and, in certain ways, distorts our sense of how the various historical actors and relationships depicted within the movie developed over the longer sweep of the Civil War.

To start with Lincoln: Eric Foner, in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), writes that “the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth,” but in this film, Lincoln is already full-grown, his legacy as the Great Emancipator secure, moving through the the White House late at night as a half-ghost, already more legend than man. We have very little sense of just how far Spielberg’s Lincoln has come from the Commander-in-Chief who rescinded his generals’ order freeing slaves who ran away to Union lines at the war’s outset, or who advocated compensated emancipation for the border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) coupled with the expatriation of African-Americans, free and slave, to an island off the coast of Haiti.

As a result, our understanding of Lincoln’s relationship with the “Radical Republicans” is greatly limited. In the film, Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens share essentially the same views, and it is Lincoln the pragmatist who must coax Stevens the dreaming radical to temper his extremes to achieve victory. In truth, it was only the radical activism of Stevens and others, both in Congress and in the shaping of public opinion, that had put the abolition of slavery on the American agenda in the first place, and Lincoln himself acknowledged as much as he came to accept this solution to the problem of slavery. Stevens, as Keith noted in his comment, is depicted here as a conflicted compromiser, surrendering some of his principles for the sake of concrete progress (a lesson, as Keith notes, that the filmmakers hope to impart to today’s Beltway insiders). In 1865 as today, however, a chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a consummate politician, and Stevens needed no coaxing from Lincoln to move, as he often did, between the moral absolutes he propounded and the delicate parliamentary procedures that were required for political advances. The story of the abolition of slavery is not best understood as one one of radicals compromising, but rather one in which radicals reshaped American politics and public opinion through concerted effort in a time of great upheaval.

This leads me to the already-well-noted absence and passivity of black characters in the film. Reports suggest that Spielberg had originally envisioned a film about the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and one hopes that such a film will still, one day, be made. While it is true that this particular three-week visit saw no visits to the White House from black leaders or abolitionists (and it should be remembered that Douglass and Martin Delaney, as well as Stevens and William Seward, were instrumental in promoting abolition), there is an unfortunate lack of reflection on the role of African-Americans in destroying slavery, despite the brief appearance of a few black soldiers and an oblique conversation between Lincoln and his maid. By January of 1865, hundreds of thousands of former slaves were dressed in Union blue, and hundreds of thousands more had left plantations. While this was no guarantee of permanent freedom (re-enslavement had occurred, after all, in the Atlantic South after the chaos of the American Revolution, and also on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe after the end of the French Revolution), these changing “facts of the ground” had a significant impact on public opinion and Congressional politics, including the passage of the 13th Amendment. Surveying this radically changed landscape, Congressman James S. Rollins, a Missouri slaveholder who had initially voted against the Amendment, argued that “we can never have an entire peace in this country as long as the institution of slavery remains.”

On January 31, 1865, Rollins voted to abolish slavery, due in part to a personal appeal from Lincoln and in part to a realization that the war, and the initiative of former slaves, had already reduced the slaveholding world from which he came to a memory. “Lincoln” gives us half of this story, in great detail and with great success. It remains for another film to tell the other half, a story no less heroic but too often much less remembered.

“Mad Men” or mad men?

Clement Lime (Independent scholar)

Okay, was I the only person who kept confusing Lincoln with some sort of HBO special?  Am I the sole human in this nation perplexed when Lincoln attempts to convince Kentucky Congressman George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg) to vote for the 13th amendment? I kept seeing Boardwalk Empire’s Arnold Rothstein negotiating with Steve Buscemi’s unimpressively gaunt Atlantic City gangster Nucky Thompson.  Later, the President is explaining Greek axioms to Adam (Adam Driver) from Girls. I half expect Adam to strip down to his skivvies and do push ups like he did throughout the show’s entire season; it certainly would have added to the whole Lincoln was gay angle that Lauren Thompson pointed out.  The eternally present John Hawkes shows up also, giving the overrated series Eastbound and Down some street cred, I guess (okay, Deadwood too but now you’re dating yourself).  Don’t even get me started on David Costabile’s ever put-upon James Ashley: crystal meth making eventually murdered accomplice Gail Boetticher (Breaking Bad) or pseudo-cuckhold Doug from Flight of the Conchords? Better to give AMC the nod on this one.  Meth remains infinitely more exciting than two down-and-out New Zealand semi-folky musicians.  Speaking of AMC, Lane Price (Jared Harris) as Ulysses S. Grant works; after all, only the cast of Mad Men puts back more whiskey than the Union general.

Whatever, despite this post-modern first world problem, the movie at least drags us away from the kind of pop culture interpolations that can only distort out understandings of the past.  The only blood sucking that occurs in Lincoln involves that of politicians doing what politicians do: protecting their self-interest in the name of the “greater good.” Bribery and coercion seem more effective in changing minds regarding slavery than moral issues.

Finally, we get, again as noted by Ms. Thompson, a more nuanced Mary Todd; one not destined to remind us of the protagonist in Carrie.  We may never really know what kind of relationship the Lincolns enjoyed/endured, but I guarantee you this at least offers us something different than the usual shrieking, mad depiction accorded to Mary Todd.  Still, knowing the state of mental health care in 21st century America, one can imagine how badly those suffering from such afflictions in the nineteenth century suffered.  Maybe Mary Todd really was ill, or maybe she was just sad.  I’d be sad too if my hair sucked as much as literally everyone’s in this movie.

Alex Sayf Cummings (Georgia State University)

It’s hard to watch the film Lincoln and not think of the late Lee Atwater: there was once a time when people could be honest and straightforward enough to explain their politics with the simple exclamation, “N—–s!”  Nowadays we talk about deficits and dependency.  Atwater, of course, was the ruthless operative who played down-and-dirty politics for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, most notably in the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that promised wary voters that the Democratic candidate would have their wives and daughters raped and murdered.  To be fair, wheeling and dealing in Washington, DC is not quite the same as racist rhetoric and fearmongering, but they are all part of the unseemly side of politics. Steven Spielberg’s new film curiously celebrates legislative log-rolling even as it practices great-man-history at its most shamelessly extravagant.

On the positive side of the ledger, there is much to recommend Lincoln. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner avoid a Ray-style biopic of rail-splitting and Douglas-debating, which would no doubt have been terrible.  The film instead focuses almost entirely on several weeks of debate over the 13th Amendment that banned slavery.  (In the film, the President is anxious to seal his legacy by amending the Constitution before the war ends and the slave states re-enter the Union.)

The performances turned in by Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), and especially David Strathairn (a high-handed but sympathetically drawn William Seward) are all tremendous. The relationship between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln is the most dynamic and compelling relationship in the film.  And there is a hilarious monologue in which Mrs. Lincoln schools Thaddeus Stevens about her expenses at the White House, riffing on mushrooms growing from the ceiling and scoring the snobbery directed at “prairie primitives” like her and her husband.

Above all, Lincoln is a moving portrayal of the democratic process in all its messiness and grubbiness, where great achievements can only be ground out by working through competing interests and the foibles of weak, conceited men.  (More on this in a moment.)

On the other hand, critics have cited the marginal and even patronizing treatment of black people in the story of slavery’s demise.  As Eric Foner has pointed out, making it seem like the 13th Amendment was solely response for ending slavery is misleading and ignores the bigger story of how the slave system collapsed. The film suffers from an awkward intro sequence in which black Union soldiers chat with the President, and an insistent serviceman from Massachusetts pushes Lincoln on the unequal treatment of black soldiers, as well as the slow progress on racial equality in general.  (How long will we wait for a black colonel?  For the vote?  100 years?)  Lincoln brushes these queries off in his characteristically witty, evasive style, but the takeaway from the scene resonates with the film’s message as a whole: progress requires patience.  The scene may be Spielberg absolving himself of the need to have assertive black voices in the film by getting one out of the way at the beginning, and the black characters do seem to be used as props (quite literally in a climactic scene). That being said, Spielberg can turn to the Mad Men defense: a drama about corporate America in the early 1960s is about Don Draper and Roger Sterling, just as a film about Congressional debate in 1865 is about Thad Stevens and Fernando Wood.

In fact, by far the biggest shortcoming is the unabashedly hagiographic treatment of Lincoln.  When he first appears he is surrounded by a beatific glow.  When pronounced dead, he lies crumpled on the bed in a shape strikingly similar to that of Christ in the Pietà.  Throughout he is wise, judicious, full of equanimity, a kind of a sage.  Daniel Day-Lewis nails the part, from the weird, reedy tone and rustic, Midwestern accent he gives to Lincoln’s voice to the President’s notoriously shabby, ungainly appearance.  Day-Lewis does good work with the ornate nineteenth century poetry that Kushner (and history) put in his mouth.  But the filmmakers set up Lincoln as a saint, through and through – not the waffling moderate who came around gradually to a revolutionary policy, “controlled [by] events” as he himself put it, but a far-seeing and pragmatic man of principle.

This sort of patriotic historical porn is discomfiting for any historian.  Can we imagine the same worshipful treatment and Christ-like portrayal of other figures?  Such a treatment of Ronald Reagan would make most scholars squirm; even portraying Martin Luther King Jr. as if he had no flaws would be unsatisfying.  It seems easier to stomach with Lincoln, since he is such a unique and yet ambiguous figure, shouldering the burden of death and freedom on a massive scale while dispensing his homespun wisdom and humor.  Spielberg and Kushner appear to have bought in enthusiastically to the myth that Lincoln constructed about himself, and that Richard Hofstadter pulled apart in The American Political Tradition: the martyr with a tragic sense of the weight of his responsibility.  It’s an appealing image that makes the hagiography go down easier.

Ultimately, the other off note in Lincoln is the way it clobbers viewers over the head about contemporary politics.  It looks like it was written to be released the week after Obama’s reelection.  In the film, progressives gnash their teeth and clamor for more change from a pragmatic, cautious, compromising president who tries to push his agenda through despite deep conservative intransigence.  The tall, lanky, introspective president has to work both his right and left flank, but ultimately his willingness to negotiate and even buy support (Cornhusker kickback anybody?) allows real change to get through.  It is imperfect change—healthcare reform without a public option, a ban on slavery without a mandate for full racial equality—but the film suggests it’s the best change that could be achieved through the democratic process.  It is a warm reminder of the great things Americans have been able to accomplish despite the cussedness of the people who make up an all too human system, but it also feels like a civics lesson, as Ryan Reft has suggested, slathered with syrupy strings and Spielbergian schmaltz.  Like the historical figure it depicts, the film is a compromise too—in this case, between movie and message movie.

Comments

  1. Alex Sayf Cummings says:

    File under WTF/SMDH. Kushner says he read 20 books on Lincoln to write the screenplay, but then he goes and says this ignorant nonsense: “I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered, the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote/unquote ‘noble cause’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self protection societies and so on. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led – helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”

    • keithorejel says:

      Ohhh….sooo that’s what went wrong with Reconstruction. I’ve never heard that interpretation. The South should have just been given a free hand to perpetuate planter rule over the former slaver population forever and ever amen. Ridiculous.

  2. I just saw Lincoln and I loved watching Daniel Day Lewis. I’m glad they caught his earthy humor, and seemed to get the accent right–which was described by contemporarys as high pitched with a Kentucky twang. I also like how they showed his relationship with his indulgent son, Tad. However, from my limited understanding of the machinations behind the 13th amendment, I thought it was overdramatized and given more primacy than how it actually played out. But given Hollywood–with its need for a dramatic flourish, political correctness, and to attract the attention of a wide audience—I can understand why it became the focus of the movie. I found myself getting bored with much of it. It was a major missed opportunity not to have focused more on the man himself, so brilliantly played by Lewis.
    I had some quibbles with historical accuracy–the black servant would have never talked to Lincoln like that in the night scene at the porch of the White House, nor would there have been blacks standing behind Lincoln at his Second Innaugural (again, these are fantasies that are more reflective or our contemporary political correctness—150 years of hindsight that jaundice our view of the people who lived then), Grant never wore a general’s uniform in the field, he always wore a private’s coat, and at Appomatox his boots and clothes were caked in mud, Gen. Lee was not fat, and when riding a horse, Lincoln’s long legs nearly touched the ground–which caused great amusement to the soldiers.
    I wished they had ended the movie with Lincoln riding with Mary in the carriage. He had commented to her during that ride, when they were going through a particular beautiful grove of trees, that he wished to be buried in such a peaceful place. That would have been great to end the movie on.

  3. Interesting post that addresses concerns about the way blacks are portrayed in the movie:

    http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/images-of-emancipation/?smid=fb-share

  4. NOW, this could really be just another misinterpretation about the ‘dislike to Gloves’ at the end of the movie, But I do like to think that Lincoln gives his valet(kind of a slave) a symbolic gesture that he is free now…..If you recall from the Harry Potter series wherein Tobi gets freed from slavery when he gets his master’s pair of socks(any clothing I guess)..

Trackbacks

  1. [...] So You Say You’ll Change the Constitution: Seven Historians Respond to “Lincoln” (tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com) [...]

  2. [...] some very sagacious comments.  Allen C. Guelzo has a nice review at The Daily Beast.  Here and here are some small surveys of academic [...]

  3. [...] realize some of you may think Argo or Lincoln deserves this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. You’d be [...]

  4. [...] Rida medleys, I sometimes try to be professionally legit. Obviously, this involves watching more movies or trying to figure out how to not snicker like a thirteen-year old boy while explaining the [...]

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