Spielberg’s “Lincoln” tells complex tale
by Ed Steers
My wife Pat is not especially interested in going to the theater with me to see movies that portray historical events. The reason is simple. I tend to spend the next several days grumbling about the gross misrepresentations Hollywood calls “history.”
Why folks in Hollywood seem compelled to rewrite history with little care for the facts is beyond me and most of my fellow historians.
Having suffered through my fits after watching movies like “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd,” and, most recently, “The Conspirator” (the trial of Mary Surratt), she was prepared to run for cover after we saw Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field.
I am happy to write that Hollywood has broken the mold and stuck to the true script. There is a touch of Hollywood at various moments throughout the 2 1/2 hour epic, but not enough to label the movie as historical hogwash.
To the contrary, the movie is an accurate depiction of the events surrounding passage of the 13th Amendment calling for the abolition of slavery. The problem I have with the movie is not with its accuracy, but rather with its complexity for general audiences.
Several people have told me they would probably have to see the film a second time to fully understand it. Unlike Spielberg’s other great film, “Schindler’s List,” which needed no crib notes to understand, “Lincoln” should come with a set of instructions defining the characters and explaining what is happening and why.
Simply put, the story takes place in the closing four months of the war during which Lincoln devotes much of his political energy to seeing that the 13th Amendment passes the House of Representatives during a lame duck session.
Enough Republican representatives were elected in the 1864 election to insure its passage in the new House of Representatives. But that would not take place until March 4, 1865, another four months. so Lincoln insisted the amendment pass before the new House convened.
The amendment failed on its first try in the spring of 1864. The vote fell along party lines with the Democrats uniformly opposing the bill.
The first point not made clear to everyone in the audience is why Lincoln felt so strongly about making a second try in the lame duck House.
Two years earlier, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect. While most people believe this executive order by the president ended slavery once and for all, it did not. The president had no authority to abolish slavery, which was protected by the Constitution. Only by amending that great document could slavery be abolished.
The Emancipation Procla-mation was a clever attempt by Lincoln to change the basis for fighting the war, and to hurt the Confederacy in a new way. His objective was the confiscation of the enemy’s “property,” thus injuring its war effort. The proclamation was issued by Lincoln as a war measure under the authority of the war powers granted by the Constitution. Only as a war measure was it legal.
As Union armies advanced, more slaves would become free. The problem Lincoln feared had to do with the legal aspects of his action. While the war powers clause allowed him to free those slaves within the seceded areas, it did not allow him to declare them free forever. After all, slaves were considered property.
Could the government (president) confiscate private property permanently under the war powers, or was the property (slaves) to be returned to their owners after the war ended?
It was a question that plagued Lincoln, and others in his administration. The solution was to amend the Constitution abolishing slavery thereby solving the dilemma. Lincoln called it, “A King’s cure for all evils.”
But why the rush? All Lincoln had to do was wait a few months until the new House convened and let the new majority pass the amendment.
But what if hostilities ended before the new Congress convened? Would those who supported freeing the slaves as a war measure feel the same after the war had ended? Lincoln had his doubts. The Emancipation Proclamation would no longer be in effect and amending the Constitution could take decades. The solution was immediate passage.
To gain the two-thirds required, Lincoln needed to convince five Democrats to switch sides. To do this, he set about cajoling and arm-twisting among a dozen House members he believed were vulnerable to compromise.
When the roll was called, the resolution achieved its two-thirds by just two votes, 119 to 56.
As was usually the case, Lincoln won out, but not without a fight, and not without the help of his old nemesis, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.
As superbly played by Tommy Lee Jones, Stevens is one of the more interesting characters in this story. A Radical Republican and uncompromising ideologue, Stevens had a secret, personal stake in the outcome, and this becomes clear at the end of the movie.
As Abraham Lincoln said to his law partner William Herndon, “History is not history unless it is the truth.”
Hollywood finally got it right.
Ed Steers of Berkeley Springs is a Lincoln scholar and the author of many books on the 16th president, his assassination and those who conspired to murder him.