Congress’ approval ratings may be low, but those of us in the ivory tower may have them beat. At least, the comments sections on websites posting scholarly takes on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln would suggest as much. Spielberg fans take umbrage with smug academic critics; moviegoers once again see historians incapable of simply enjoying a popular film about American history.
Personally, I enjoyed Lincoln. Between its impeccable performances, convincing dialogue, and smoky period detail, the film represents Spielberg at that top of his game. At the same time, I share many of my colleagues’ frustrations.
Yet rather than pile on, I would consider the movie an opportunity to think about the ways popular history works, at least in feature film. Of course, movies such as Lincoln, or any of a dozen others set in the American past, do not first purport to offer academic lessons in history. It is well they should not, lest Americans find their past even more stultifying than history professors can make it.
But historical feature films, like other aspects of popular culture, are not without their messages. They have critical points of view on the past, which audiences often rely on to understand American history. As savvy cultural consumers, don’t we owe it to ourselves to think about how these films work to shape our understandings of the past?
When I think of a move such as Lincoln, I am concerned not so much with how it departs from the past so much as why. For, I would suggest, as a general rule, where historical feature films most get the history wrong, they are most likely to expose their central messages. Their cultural politics tend to appear most vividly in their most glaring historical “errors.”
I’m not talking about such trivialities as zippers on Roman togas, or confusing Springfield rifles for Enfields, but the moral universes these films create around their protagonists. Consider matters such as The Patriot‘s utterly implausible portrayal of its hero as a South Carolina planter who has freed his slaves and pays them wages, or Gangs of New York’s complete neglect of the fact that its Irish heroes actually instigated the Draft Riots depicted in the film’s climax. Such howlers do not result from a lack of scholarly knowledge (often, these films shamelessly tout their academic consultants), nor are they random (auteurs of Spielberg’s accomplishments don’t make mistakes). Rather, they offer telling clues as to the core politics behind their depictions. In The Patriot’s case, Benjamin Martin can hardly fight for American liberty if he’s also seen to countenance black slavery; in Gangs, Amsterdam can hardly champion a new multicultural New York if he hates blacks.
Lincoln also reveals its cultural politics through error, though it does so cleverly. As I’ve agued elsewhere, its central motifs are its reverence for its high-stakes subject (it gets no more sanctified than Lincoln and slavery), offset by its remarkably narrow focus on a very brief slice of emancipation’s history (a month’s worth of vote-wrangling around the House of Representative’s passage of the Thirteenth Amendment). By taking on such a narrow slice of story, the film evades many criticisms about its omissions. Consider Kate Masur's charge that Lincoln underplays the agency of African-American characters, who were vociferous proponents of the measure, and quite active in 1865 Washington, D.C. The film’s defenders quickly responded that Spielberg never purported to tell such a story — that because the film concerned itself solely with the passage of a measure through halls of power dominated by white men, its concentration on white characters faithfully articulates the past.
It may justly be claimed that what a film chooses to elide is as significant as what it chooses to include. The point is all the more salient when a film occupies a tradition characterized by its unwillingess to explore aspects of the Civil War era that most historians have long embraced, such as the post-war failure to deliver on promises of a meaningful freedom for former slaves.
Let’s concede this for the present. Sure, Lincoln may neglect to give black people their due in the emancipation process, or consider the fate of the nominal freedom its title character worked so hard to secure. But what of the stories the film does choose to tell? Does the film get its history right? If not, what are the consequences of these disjunctures?
The most salient feature of Lincoln, I would suggest, is its surprising degree of suspense. For a film about vote-scrounging, this is no mean feat, and, if only for its commercial success, it surely is an important one.
First, the film suggests the enormous stakes involved in Lincoln’s desire to achieve passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This is nothing less than the permanent liberation of four million formerly enslaved African Americans, and the complete abolishment of the scourge of slavery from American soil. The earliest dialogue of the film cautions Lincoln against spending his precious political capital on such idealistic goals — in movie terms, a sure sign of how pressing, yet difficult, will be his task.
Spielberg and the screenwriters then set clocks ticking against this imperative. For one, we of course know that Lincoln is soon to die; will his bill pass before he does? Additionally, the war cannot end too soon, lest the amendment’s rationale — that it is a war measure necessary to defeat the Confederacy — fall away. Perversely, the prospect of a rapid peace poses Lincoln his greatest challenge.
His next is to create the fragile political alliance necessary for passage. The conservative Republican faction of his coalition offers its votes only in exchange for permission to secretly treat with high Confederate officials. But because the Radicals support the vigorous conquest of the Confederacy, leaked word of these dealings threatens to sink the entire enterprise. Even the few critical Democrats induced to break ranks in support of the resolution would lose their cover.
Not even Lincoln’s personal life is spared from contributing to these pressures. When Lincoln’s son Robert defies his mother’s grief-stricken dictate that he not risk his life in war, Lincoln must conclude the conflict quickly lest he suffer the wrath of his unstable wife.
These plotlines do well to invest the audience in the outcome and its agent, but generally fail as history. In truth, the countdown was neither so loud nor so pressing as the film makes it appear. Lincoln himself told legislators that "the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not."
Even the amendment itself was but one of many momentous steps toward complete abolition. By 1865, the Confiscation Acts and Emancipation Proclamation had convinced many that slavery could not survive the war. Amending the Constitution to abolish slavery would indeed forestall court challenges to the Emancipation Proclamation and secure for sure the loyalty of the slaveholding border states still in the Union. But Maryland had made slavery illegal in November of 1864, while Missouri’s abolishment on January 11 of 1865 — in the midst of the action Lincoln covers, but unmentioned — was fresh in the minds of all.
The film's depiction of the peace process also veers from what is known. While word of Confederate officials heading to Washington did inject late-moment tension into the vote, the film argues that Lincoln appeased Preston Blair with a peace process in exchange for the votes of his conservative Republicans. As Philip Zelikow has noted, this interpretation appears in no prominent Lincoln historiography, much less Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which inspired the film. According to historian Michael Vorenberg, though, Blair eagerly anticipated passage of the amendment, if only because it would help his faction gain ground against the Radicals.
Finally, the personal. Having lost her beloved Willie to typhoid in 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln did indeed resist risking another son in war (“I cannot bear to have Robert exposed to danger”). But on her insistence in the film that Lincoln pass the bill to end the war before Robert is killed, the historical record is silent.
The film, then, tends to depart most from history in building this sense of suspense. Of course, suspense has its own value, particularly for a two and a half hour-long movie about the abstruse machinations of the legislative process, a subject few movie-goers outside the beltway would consider interesting in its own right. More importantly, though, the suspense is critical to setting forth the film’s central theme, which is that Abraham Lincoln was a political genius who alone could have achieved emancipation.
The drama in Lincoln derives from whether or not Lincoln will be able to pull off the nearly impossible task of political juggling that lay before him. The process, if left to its own, would surely fail, and emancipation perhaps never happen. Only Lincoln possesses the skills to pull it off. He must keep his factions in line, mollify his wife and son, endure the brickbats of political enemies, and even sacrifice some of his integrity to obtain the necessary votes.
Somehow, by refracting his ideals through his instincts, his humility, and his wit, he succeeds in achieving his goal. In this, his moderation in all things is critical. Lincoln must never slide too far to one political extreme or the other; neither may he move too rashly nor too languidly. Perfection is required for a vote this important, and this close. The contrivance of great suspense thus places a premium on Lincoln's unique ability to navigate these troubled waters.
In focusing on this, the film argues that Lincoln was the prime mover in the story of emancipation. No other contender comes close. The conservatives want peace over emancipation, while the Radicals, in their zeal, would alienate all potential allies.
This is a portrayal that sacrifices historical accuracy for plot momentum. To view the film, one might easily conclude that Lincoln proposed the Thirteenth Amendment himself. Yet because the film begins in media res, and fails to offer a flashback, we never learn that the measure's life began in Congress in December of 1863, at the behest of the Women’s National Loyal League, a group spearheaded by abolitionists and pioneering feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Only in January of 1865 did Lincoln's indifference become support.
Worst of all is the film's portrayal of the Radicals through Thaddeus Stevens, the cantankerous Representative from Pennsylvania. Lincoln's zealous Stevens is preternaturally incapable of moderating himself. When confronted with resistance to his plan for achieving racial equality, he cannot help but ejaculate, “shit on people and what they want and what they're ready for." And when we are surprised by a tender moment with his African-descended mistress, we wonder if his high ideals might merely serve his personal interest. The film thus contrasts Stevens the irrational Jacobin with Baby-bear Lincoln, who is always just right.
In truth, far earlier than Lincoln did Thaddeus Stevens assess the lengths to which the Union would have to go to achieve victory, accurately predicting that only the elimination of planters' labor sources would cause the Confederacy to crumble. "Those who now furnish the means of war, but who are the natural enemies of slaveholders, must be made our allies," he said early in 1862. And it was Stevens's steadfast commitment and savvy leadership that helped Congress pass key pieces of emancipation legislation, including the Thirteenth Amendment.
Abolitionists of Stevens's ilk were instrumental in pressing for the emancipation policy Lincoln would later champion, yet not a single credible example of one appears in the film. Antislavery agitators inside and outside of government proved critical to generating the public support required to introduce and pass the amendment. And long before the Women's National Loyal League began collecting the over 400,000 signatures it would send to Congress in favor of an emancipation amendment, African American leaders were loudly calling for black enlistment, emancipation, and enfranchisement. Indeed, without the flight of enslaved African Americans to Union lines in the early stages of the war, policymakers might never have concluded that the slaves constituted a vital, and vulnerable, war resource whose power must be transferred from the Confederate to the Union cause. Eventually, 189,000 African-American soldiers and sailors provided the manpower necessary for victory, in the process making the most potent case of all for extending civil rights to blacks. As one black regiment's motto went, "Let soldiers in war, be citizens in peace."
In Lincoln, though, it is all about Lincoln.
In the film's "great man" vision of history, good leaders may play fast and loose with the rules in the service of something higher. This pragmatic, if not cynical, approach to politics does not even work for the real Lincoln. His 1862 public statement on slavery — "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it" — is well known. Less so is his temerity in suggesting to black leaders that "but for your race among us there could not be war," a bizarre displacement of responsibility for slavery onto the institution's victims. Well into the war Lincoln advocated colonization rather than civil rights for freed blacks. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, he supported efforts to settle freed blacks on an island off of Haiti. As historian Ira Berlin has written, "where others led on emancipation, Lincoln followed."
Lincoln disappoints in others ways, as well. The reconciliationist bent that historian Nina Silber has found in the film merits particular note. Rather than end on the discordant note of the great president's assassination, the film flashes back to Lincoln's second inaugural address, stressing "malice toward none" and "charity for all" over its stern denunciation of the slavery that caused the war in the first place.
Together, these factors help us further locate the film in some of the oldest, most out-dated strands of scholarship. The notion of Lincoln’s exceptionality is not new, of course, but an artifact of the late nineteenth century. Its common corollary, which the film seems to echo, is that Lincoln's premature departure from the political scene unloosed the intemperate forces that only the force of his character had held in check.
This does not bode well for a sequel. Without Lincoln, would Stevens and his Radicals wreak havoc on the prostrate South, as they do in D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915)? Screen writer Tony Kushner suggested as much in an interview, labeling "the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South" to be "one of the great tragedies of American history." (It's hard to feel convinced by Mr. Kushner's retraction, which claims that he referred only to the government's failure to re-inter Confederate dead. Resentment over this, and not a desire to impose white supremacy and Democratic rule, generated the Klan??)
By this point, those unsympathetic with the historians are surely feeling as if they've been suckered into reading another academic slam piece. But it is true that there is much in Lincoln that is ahistorical and flatly reactionary. Why should not those with this context offer it? No one questions Spielberg’s right to make a film on Lincoln, after all. I readily concede that historical films are not all about the historians. But neither, I assert, was emancipation all about Lincoln.