Spielberg’s “Lincoln”: Basically True

Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is really a phenomenally good film. Usually historians go to gripe at historical epics like this. There is no shortage of dreadful films about US history that perpetuate horrible historical inaccuracies. This is not one of them. While I have plenty of quibbles with the detail, the big historical picture feels right. In particular Daniel Day Lewis has channeled Lincoln to an extraordinary degree. He captured the Lincoln of my imagination — the man who comes through to me in the years I’ve been reading his private letters and public speeches. An enigmatic character, with watchful eyes, a self-confidence but an unassuming manner, an unexpected sharp wit and a profound generosity of spirit. Hanging over the film– as over Lincoln at this time — was the death of his young son Willy two years earlier, the difficult relationship with his wife Mary, the affection he had for his other young son Tad, and the distance he felt from his oldest boy Robert.

The film deals with just a few weeks in the life of Lincoln in early 1865. The situation is that the war is coming to an end — the southern attempt to break away from the Union and form a separate slave-holding Confederacy looks to be on its last legs. Lincoln has been re-elected for a second term in an acrimonious election on a platform which commits him to push for a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery for all time in America. Lincoln has already issued the Emancipation Proclamation — and, more to the point, slaves themselves have been destroying slavery by running away and disrupting the Confederate war effort. Almost 200,000 African Americans — three-quarters of them former slaves are now serving in the Union army. Surely the writing is on the wall for slavery. Yet doubts remain. There are still places where slavery is legal — including Kentucky, a slave state that never seceded. And even within the conquered South, would the Emancipation Proclamation still apply once the war was won? The only way to settle the question for all time was a Constitutional Amendment, for which a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives was needed. So on a basic level this film is about Lincoln’s decision to push for an amendment as soon as he was re-elected and about the various efforts to scare up the necessary votes — some high-minded, most low-down chicanery, some downright corrupt, all darkly comic.

But in a larger sense (that’s a Lincolnian phrase) this is not just a nineteenth-century version of The West Wing though — but a film about fundamental choices. There were always, in a sense, two American Civil Wars: the war to save the Union and the war to free the slaves. Sometimes historians simplify by saying that a war to restore the Union BECAME a war to end slavery. But actually a war to restore the Union against the separatism of slaveholders put slavery into play from the outset. Lincoln, I think, always understood that the only way to really deal with the problem of secession or rebellion (the “essence of anarchy” as he called it) was to deal with the problem of slavery. Yet he had always argued to the Northern public that emancipation was merely a tool of war. It was necessary in order to defeat the South. So what if, as seemed at least possible in January 1865, a deal could be struck with the Confederacy that would bring peace and reunion but with slavery not yet finally, formally abolished? Lincoln wanted the Amendment passed so that in any peace discussions with the rebels, emancipation would be a fait acompli.

There were three factions that mattered in this debate. First the radical republicans for whom the amendment was the triumph of years of fighting and dreaming, a day many thought they’d never see. The second group — their polar opposites — were the majority of Northern Democrats who had generally favoured the idea of reunion with the South but passionately hated Lincoln’s war measures — conscription, suspension of habeas corpus and — above all — emancipation. Theirs was a deep racism mixed with fears of anarchy and disorder and wrapped up a bundle of republican ideas about liberty (for white men) and a tyrannical over-mighty government. The third group were the majority of Northerners, who had come to favour emancipation in principle, but worried about the after-effects, and were opposed to pushing such a radical idea any further if there was any danger that it would prolong the war even by a day. Lincoln – aided as always by legions of editors, ministers, opinion formers of all kinds — steered this larger group towards the acceptance that now was the historical time to take a stand.

Other historians have criticised the film for its failure to give the full picture of emancipation, in particular for making black characters seem passive. It is true that someone watching this film who knew nothing about the war would get only a partial view. It is true that many of the African Americans surrounding Lincoln, including those working as servants in the White House, were politically active abolitionists and this is barely hinted at in the film. But ultimately this is an argument that this should have been a different film. This is a moment in time, focusing on one enormously important white man. It is not, necessarily the full story. But I still think it captures something fundamentally historically true.

The film takes Lincoln’s line — it portrays him as he would want, I think, to have been portrayed, and certainly how most recent historians would want him to be portrayed — as a skilled politicians (albeit one who sometimes hid behind the image of a bumbling hick) who had clear principles and who remained firmly of the belief that slavery was always wrong. I think Lincoln did think slavery was wrong, and he was certainly committed to the principle that former slaves who had fought for the Union should never be returned to bondage. He had not always been so forthright on the subject, though, and even at the time in which the film is set Lincoln was still toying with schemes to ‘colonise’ feed slaves in central America or the Carribbean. This is NOT dealt with in the film. Some would argue that this undermines Lincoln’s claim to be seen as a committed emancipator but I think that’s going too far — Lincoln was a pragmatist who saw the moral as well as the political benefits of getting rid of slavery, and who had come to respect those black people he knew. But that didn’t make him a racial egalitarian — far from it. He was always concerned about what a post-emancipation bi-racial America would look like and wanted to have as many options as possible on the table — perhaps enfranchisement for the ‘brightest’ and those who had fought in the army, but colonisation too, for those who could be persuaded, and by way of easing racial tensions.

I’ve talked about the Lincoln film on a UCL podcast and video, on a BBC History Magazine podcast, and on Night Waves on BBC Radio 3.

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