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History War at the Movies

By December 7, 2012 3 Comments


History writing used to be about kings and battles. Now a fair number of the battles are about history writing. Just since Thanksgiving two quarrels have exploded in the American field alone: one about Jefferson and slavery (again), the other about Lincoln. More precisely, about Lincoln as presented by Steven Spielberg. Since the Lincoln dust-up is the more public of the two, being about a movie and all, I’ll speak to that here and maybe return to the Jefferson affair later.

       Controversies over history writing typically make conflicting claims about accuracy, relevance, or political agenda, but often come down in fact to the questions of who’s doing the writing and for whom. So you see guild professionals tangling with journalists (Jon Meacham) or independent scholars (Henry Wiencek) or oracular Authority (David McCullough). Alternately, some guild professionals, who claim to be cutting edge, tilt with others who, by reason of topic, writing style, and sales figures, might in a gimlet eye look to be panderers and popularizers (think the late Stephen Ambrose. Or Joseph Ellis. Or any other plough-boy in the field of Founders Chic.) The “for whom” question usually entails “for what purpose” the history is being written as well. To turn up genuinely new knowledge? To make one’s name by yet another daring (or faddish) methodology or interpretation? Or to edify? Make the reader proud of his country? Reaffirmed in what she already believed, only now with new anecdotes as sweeteners?

             Lincoln doesn’t suffer from such predictable quarrels. Much, anyway. There’s the usual Spielberg sap from time to time (black soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address from memory as they walk away from an encounter with Honest Abe? To open the movie? Honest?), and the applause at the end of the screening I attended made me sure that Pride and Edification had occurred. But the much more interesting questions about Lincoln have to do with framing questions and their consequences for narrative and theme.  

             As is well known, Lincoln rests on the book Team of Rivals, by independent scholar, superb stylist, and Great Leader aficionado Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book celebrates—per its subtitle—“the political genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and the film does right by the original. It’s refreshing to see the quasi-deified Lincoln of American lore brought back to life as the canny, yet conflicted, politician that he was, by turns opportunistic, unyielding, confident, self-questioning but persisting in his course anyway. All played to a T by (the Brit!) Daniel Day-Lewis. (“Call me Oscar.”) The movie builds to an anxious, rousing climax by tracing the process by which the 13th Amendment was pushed through Congress under conditions of uncertainty and an urgent deadline.

       Turns out that choosing Team of Rivals as resource (actually, selecting out of its 750-page narrative the bare thirty that cover the Amendment process) was a major interpretive choice that will likely seal the public’s understanding of Lincoln and the abolition of slavery for a long time to come. And will seal it on a false note. For as Lincoln’s critics point out, slavery was already a dead horse by the time (January 1865) the film starts rolling, and was so by virtue of actions undertaken by the slaves themselves. For three years they had been leaving their plantations, flocking to the advancing Union armies, enlisting in those armies to the tune of 200,000 men, sometimes dividing up Ol’ Massa’s lands for themselves, and in general creating a huge threatening cloud on the horizon of the moderates, like Lincoln, who were in charge of the Northern war effort. This was the urgency, not some (false) deadline for getting the text of the Amendment through Congress by the end of the month. The next Congress could have convened in March with a two-thirds majority of Republicans and no lame-duck Democrats to buy off—the horse-trading that the movie entertainingly follows.

       The freed-people weren’t just flocking to the Union armies, either. They were flocking to Washington D.C. too. With a little imagination, his critics aptly say, Spielberg could have pulled away from all the white guys in Congress—the majority of timorous reformers looking bold only by contrast to the egregious racists who opposed them—and filmed some street scenes of black crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue, and on the Capitol steps. Even keeping its White House focus, it could have followed the staff-of-color to the meetings they were helping to lead to organize all the new arrivals in town.

       That would have entailed leaning on a different book—something like Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011) or the classic (2315) Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. DuBois. Spielberg’s defenders say that the resulting film would not have made as gripping a drama as Lincoln. Depends what you think makes a good story, I guess. Or whose story you wish to tell. How is important in the history wars. But who and what trump.  

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Theresa Latini says:

    Precisely what I needed before heading to the movie theater this weekend! Thanks, as always, for beautiful, compelling writing and analysis, Jim.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    So glad to have an informed consideration of the film and something to watch for when I see it in the next couple weeks. Thanks for using your expertise to give us a clear assessment and some alternative views. While I admire Goodwin very much, if I'm going to read a 750-page book, I'm more likely to reach for one of Jennifer's recommended Victorian novels. Or more likely Harry Potter. Or maybe the Hobbit.

  • James Brink says:

    Thanks to Jim Bratt for a wise perspective on Kushner/Spielberg's Lincoln. For an even more pointed commentary, I recommend Louis Nayman's review in the December issue of "In These Times", entitled "Lincoln: Better Off Undead". He compares Spielbergs Lincoln with Bekmambetov's "Abraham Lincoln" Vampire Hunter". This film uses vampirism as a metaphor for slavery, and in Nayman's view is the more politically courageous treatment of Lincoln and the slave culture. He summarizes: "When it comes to these two films and their respective attitudes toward sucking the life out of that which is holy and true, go with the one that's against it, not the one that embodies it."

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