Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Anticipating Lincoln

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on October 23, 2012

On Sunday evening 60 Minutes did a story on Steven Spielberg and his upcoming film, Lincoln. Much of the interview focused on the way Spielberg’s childhood and relationship with his parents, particularly his father, has been reflected in his films. That’s pretty interesting in its own right, but I do wish more time had been spent on Lincoln.

As a filmmaker, Spielberg has never been known for complex characterizations or ambiguous moral messages. (Or realism.) This film is decidedly different in tone, something the director himself acknowledges. It’s not aimed at the summer blockbuster crowd:

Lesley Stahl: There’s not a lot of action. There’s no Spielberg special effects.
 
Steven Spielberg: Right.
 
Lesley Stahl: It’s a movie about process and politics. Have you ever done a movie even remotely–
 
Steven Spielberg: Never. Like this?
 
Lesley Stahl: Not even close.
 
Steven Spielberg: Never. No. I knew I could do the action in my sleep at this point in my career. In my life, the action doesn’t hold any– it doesn’t attract me anymore.
 
Narrator: With only one brief battle scene, the movie’s more like a stage play with lots of dialog as Lincoln cajoles and horse trades for votes.

Spielberg and his team made a pretty fascinating decision, to focus the film on the last months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, that abolished slavery throughout the United States. The Union military victory was clearly in sight at that point, and Lincoln was trying to make permanent the de facto emancipation brought about by the Emancipation Proclamation and the advance of Federal armies across the South. As we’ve noted before, Lincoln’s commitment to ending chattel bondage permanently by embedding it in the Constitution is evidenced by the fact that he signed the original text of the amendment as passed by both houses of Congress, even though the president has no formal role in approving or endorsing constitutional amendments. The Emancipation Proclamation gets lots of attention, but is also too often misrepresented as the be-all and end-all of emancipation, when it was (as any serious historian will tell you) a temporary, limited, wartime measure, a single, important milestone on the path to real, permanent emancipation. (A path, by the way, that begins with Spoons Butler’s 1861 “contraband” policy at Fort Monroe.) The Emancipation Proclamation is not Lincoln’s legacy; the 13th Amendment rightly is.

Then there’s this, which is an interesting approach, although not one I’m sure I agree with:

Narrator: Although Spielberg took great pains to be historically accurate, he made what some will see as a curious exception in this scene.
 
Steven Spielberg: Some of the Democrats that were voting against the [13th] Amendment, we changed their actual names. So if you go through the names that we call out on the vote, you’re not going to find a lot of those names that conform to history. And that was in deference to the families.

All of this effort and nuance will likely be wasted on the True Southron™ crowd, who are already carping about the film’s likely omission of black Confederates and predicting its dismal failure at the box office. I suspect most of them will refuse to watch the movie, though that will hardly stop them from complaining about its content, real or imagined. While history buffs will be arguing about details — whether this character actually said that, or whether such-and-such scene really happened or is a composite of several actual events — the Southrons will be more vaguely angered that the film exists at all, and that it depicts Lincoln as genuinely committed to ending slavery, willing to push the boundaries of his office and the political landscape to as much as he dared to accomplish that goal. That notion is an anathema to the Southrons, because it puts Lincoln, whatever else his faults, squarely on the right side of the great moral issue facing Americans in the 19th century. Instead they will rehash Lincoln’s casual bigotry against African Americans (true, although almost universal among white Americans in that day), and his willingness to consider voluntary recolonization of freedmen to Africa — an idea that long predated Lincoln’s public life and long survived him, as well. These are, after all, the people who can say with a straight face that Lincoln was “a bigger racist than I ever knew,” and more deserving of moral condemnation than their own ancestors who actually owned slaves. As I wrote several months back,

Confederate apologists often point to these ugly examples and say, “Lincoln believed so-and-so, ” or “Lincoln said such-and-such.” They do this reflexively, as a means of deflecting criticism of slavery in the the South. Such mentions of Lincoln are often narrowly true, but they miss the larger, and much more important, truth. . , which is that Lincoln himself changed and grew over time. The president who told “darkey” jokes also had Frederick Douglass as a visitor to the White House in 1863, the first African American to enter that building not as a servant or laborer, but as a guest. The president who’d said he would be willing not to free a single slave if it would preserve the Union also asked Douglass, in the summer of 1864, to use his contacts to get as many slaves into Union lines as he could before that fall’s presidential election, which Lincoln fully expected to lose. The chief executive who had toyed with the idea of re-colonizing former slaves back to Africa publicly suggested, just days before his death, that suffrage should be extended to at least some freedmen, specifically those who’d served in the Union army.

Lincoln Derangement Syndrome is very real, and Spielberg’s film is certain to push some folks over the edge. So don’t expect much effort from the Confederate Heritage™ crowd to take the movie on its own terms, or to acknowledge anything positive about the 16th president — just a lot of vague complaining about “PC Hollywood” or the “Lincoln myth,” and so on, without much reference to the specific content of the film itself.

For the rest of us, though, it’s looking like this is going to be a film that delves into a part of Lincoln’s life that’s never been brought to the big screen before. I sure it will give historians and bloggers much both to praise and criticize in the coming weeks. My hope is that, like Glory, Lincoln will be a film that, while containing inevitable small historical inaccuracies, will nonetheless tell a greater true story, will loom large in the general public’s understanding of the conflict and inspire a renewed interest in it.

I can’t hardly wait.

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21 Responses

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  1. Brandon said, on October 23, 2012 at 9:48 am

    I was an extra in the movie. It is going to be amazing

    • Andy Hall said, on October 23, 2012 at 9:56 am

      I’ve often found the process of making movies more interesting than the finished product. Want to share you experiences as an extra?

      I got to be an extra once in what is surely one of the worst films ever made, and the less said about that, the better.

      • Michael Lynch said, on October 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm

        Remember those episodes of Full House that took place at Disney World? I was in one of those, for about a millisecond along with hundreds of other people.

  2. Rob Baker said, on October 23, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Hear hear! I’ve been waiting a while on this movie. I am genuinely excited about it.

  3. Jeff Bell said, on October 23, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    I think the film that true Southrons might find more satisfying is the 2004 mockumentry “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America”, by director Kevin Wilmott. Although Lincoln doesn’t die until 1904 in this film, he is rendered inconsequential because the C.S.A. has won the war and the Nation fulfills it’s true destiny.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      Funny you mention that. There’s been some consternation recently about that film on some FB groups, from folks who are angered by it, apparently having settled in to view it without realizing the “mockumentary” part of the whole premise.

  4. Will Hickox said, on October 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    We can count on one thing: Because watching a movie requires less effort and concentration than reading a scholarly book, we can assume that many neo-Confederates will actually take the time to watch this latest piece of Lincolniana before loudly criticizing it.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm

      Perhaps. But I’d be surprised if the “criticism” in response consisted of anything more original or specific than you can find on a hundred different “heritage” websites, or any random page of a Thomas DiLorenzo book.

  5. Foxessa said, on October 23, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    It seems that Obama Derangement Syndrome is giving Lincoln Derangement Syndrome a run for the money.

    If Obama is re-elected what we’ve already seen won’t come close to what will come after that election.

    (Though I expect the election to be stolen in a myriad of ways that the you know whats have been putting in place for years.)

    Love, C.

  6. M.D. Blough said, on October 23, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I find changing the names of Democrats who voted against the 13th Amendment out of deference to their living descendants to be ridiculous. They’re not the first people who have ancestors who are an embarrassment to them. If anyone cares enough to look up the vote based on the movie, they’re likely to follow up when they don’t match (if they don’t dismiss the whole thing as a fraud based on the discrepancy) and find out who really voted against.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      That’s why I said I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. And the more I think about it, the less I do. It’s not like it’s some subjective opinion about them; how they voted is a mater of record and not really open to dispute.

      • M.D. Blough said, on October 23, 2012 at 10:04 pm

        Changing the names also implies that there was necessarily something shameful about voting no. You may well (probably do) know more about this than I. I’ve never seen an accounting of the reasons given, if any, for the no votes, but I can certainly imagine there being, in terms of 19th century political and philosophical views, principled reasons for voting no that did not involve the Congressman or Senator being Simon Legree in a frock coat and cravat.

        I wouldn’t have a problem with having a composite character representative of the views of a significant block of no voters, provided their views were represented accurately.

      • Jeff Bell said, on October 24, 2012 at 12:18 am

        “So if you go through the names that we call out on the vote, you’re not going to find a lot of those names that conform to history. And that was in deference to the families.” Does Speilberg imply here that those (Democrats) who voted against the thirteenth amendment were likely slaveholders? And that by mentioning the names of these “Families”, there may be some embarrassment for their descendants? Well by god let’s make sure that no one gets their patriotism questioned because of an unsavory ancestor. Speilberg might be a great film maker but you can’t have it both ways Stephen. By glossing these names over he undermines the credibility he’s trying to achieve.

    • Drew said, on October 24, 2012 at 9:44 am

      That’s the first I’ve heard of this. Ridiculous is an understatement. Heck, there are probably legislators still living who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Al Gore’s father voted against it, for Heaven’s sake. It is quite a shame to consciously obscure what happened. But why am I surprised, this is Spielberg, after all.

  7. M.D. Blough said, on October 23, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    “The president who’d said he would be willing not to free a single slave if it would preserve the Union”-To me that is one of the most egregiously misconstrued Lincoln statements. Aside from the fact that, if the Union was not preserved, neither Lincoln nor anyone else in the USA would have ANY say in fate of the millions of the enslaved within Confederate boundaries, Lincoln’s reply to Horace Greeley is dated August 22, 1862. Lincoln presented the draft of the preliminary EP to his cabinet as a fait accompli (the only input he entertained was on timing, taking Seward’s suggestion that waiting for a Union victory to release it would help protect it but being portrayed internationally as a desperation move.) a full month before on July 22, 1862. The victory in the Battle of Antietam (OK, mainly a victory in the Civil War convention of the first side to leave was deemed the loser, but, nonetheless a victory) occurred not quite a month after Lincoln’s letter to Greeley. What I see this letter representing is Lincoln testing the waters on reaction to bringing up freeing slaves as presidential policy in the first place. Up until now, other than in the fevered imaginations of the secessionists, there was no reason to see this as happening at all. He’d slapped Fremont and Hunter down hard for their emancipation decrees (Lincoln’s real objection, in addition to timing, was to stop the idea that army commanders had the authority to take such a radical action,especially without even consulting the civilian authorities in DC). The critical Congressional and gubernatorial elections of 1862 were beginning. He could have waited until those elections were over (it would have taken quite awhile; a single federal election day was decades in the future) to issue the Preliminary EP, but he didn’t and the Republican Party paid a price for it.

    He was setting the groundwork for the still-secret Preliminary EP to the nation in terms that even the hardiest anti-abolitionist could understand and many came to accept it for those reasons. In the first place, the use of slave labor enabled the Confederates to divert many white military-aged males who would have been needed for those uses to the military. Offering freedom to the opposition’s slaves dated back to at least the British in the American Revolution, again, a move that had nothing to do with any love for the enslaved. Finally, even among those who were loyal to the US but who started the war wanting no change to slavery, came to accept that, so long as slavery existed in part of the country, that any peace would be an imperfect and uneasy peace.

    The EP and the preliminary EP often get trashed because they don’t soar like the Inaugural Addresses or the Gettysburg Address but like a legal document or as I believe Hofstadter called it, “a bill of lading”. That’s because unlike the others, it WAS a legal document and one based on a totally untested Constitutional theory. It was the reason that Lincoln began the push for the 13th Amendment before the 1864 Presidential election. Lincoln was not going to be president forever. The EP’s justification, the war, was about to end. If the freed slaves did not have the protection of the Constitution, their future was at best uncertain (Given what the 19th century SCOTUS did to the 14th Amendment, his fears were justified. Bad as that was, it would have been worse without the Constitutional amendments) He felt the lame duck session that began in December 1864 was the opportunity to get Democratic votes and make it a national, not just a Republican move. Many lame duck Democrats had been defeated and weren’t coming back the next December for the start of the new Congress so they could vote their consciences.

    There were a lot of factors that came together to end slavery. I don’t see Abraham Lincoln as a god or even a demi-god, but as a tough, shrewd politician and, yes, attorney who recognized the opportunity that existed for a very short period of time for the nation to purge itself of the institution of slavery. His public and private writings made it clear that he regarded human slavery as a profound moral evil but he had the task of getting the country to do what was needed. Douglass said of Lincoln, even from their first meeting, “”I was never in any way reminded of humble origin or my unpopular color”. ” For a white man of that era, that was extraordinary. Look at the US, even the free states, of 1860, compared to the US of 1865 and they were very different places in terms of slavery. Is there anyone who doesn’t view the era through moonshine and magnolias who doesn’t believe that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership played an essential role in making that happen?

  8. BorderRuffian said, on October 24, 2012 at 7:59 am

    “…the movie’s more like a stage play with lots of dialog as Lincoln cajoles and horse trades for votes.”

    This doesn’t sound like the type of movie the typical audience of today would appreciate (teenagers-hanging-out-at-malls). Wonder if it will it make more money than Lincoln-Vampire Hunter…

    • Andy Hall said, on October 24, 2012 at 9:31 am

      There seems to be a deliberate intent among some to frame this movie in such a way that, if it doesn’t smash box office records, it’s somehow a failure. It’s true that serious-minded historical dramas don’t usually do as well special-effects blockbusters, but that’s pretty well understood by everyone. It’s a little like saying that McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is a failure because it didn’t sell as many copies as Fifty Shades of Gray — both are books, but otherwise they’re not really comparable.

      Historical movies often don’t do that well at the box office, but still tackle hard topics successfully. According to IMDB, Glory ranked 43rd at the U.S. box office in 1989. Amistad, another Spielberg film, ranked 48 in 1997. Even Schindler’s List only ranked 9th in 1993.

      All that said, I doubt Lincoln will have too much trouble topping the vampire movie. That only grossed $37.5M in the U.S.; I wouldn’t be surprised if Lincoln topped that in its first week of wide release. We’ll see.

      • M.D. Blough said, on October 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm

        I think there are a lot of directors and/or actors who do the big budget no pretense of redeeming social significance movies because (1) they’re a lot of fun to do and can make huge gobs of money, and (2) it gives them the industry support and the money to make more serious movies that are totally unlikely to make tons of money. I don’t sneer at the big budget mind candy. I was an attorney for a civil rights agency who mostly did agency personnel work until I retired. My life was filled to the brim and over the brim with redeeming social significance so I tended to look for mind candy to relax when I went to the movies.

        I hope this is a serious thoughtful movie, but I agree with Andy. I hope that Spielberg’s association with it doesn’t raise the bar that this movie has to go over in order to be considered a success to be raised so high that the movie couldn’t hope to meet it.

    • Neil Hamilton said, on October 24, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      BorderRuffian,

      Is that a hopeful prayer on your part, or a personal prediction? :)

  9. Woodrowfan said, on October 25, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    wait, this isn’t the one with the Vampires? damnit.


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