Sorry for the terrible pun. Today’s post started out as a comment on a review of the movie Lincoln on Sean Carroll’s blog, but it quickly become too long, so I made it into a post on my own blog. Apparently I lack Abe’s gift for concision.
I just saw Lincoln — largely inspired by Sean’s review — and loved it. It struck me as the movie that Lincoln might have wanted to be made about himself: it doesn’t show any of his evolution, but at least it shows the final result of that evolution, and conveys the stories, parables, and insight into human nature that he had accumulated by the end of his life in a highly efficient manner.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia page says that Spielberg commissioned, but then ultimately rejected, two earlier scripts that would have covered the whole Civil War period, and (one can assume) Lincoln’s process of evolution. I think that also could have been a great movie, but I can sort-of understand why Spielberg and Tony Kushner made the unusual choice they did: at the level of detail they wanted, it seems like it would be impossible to do justice to Lincoln’s whole life, or even the last five years of it, in anything less than a miniseries.
I agree with the many people who pointed out that the movie could have given more credit to those who were committed antislavery crusaders from the beginning—rather than those like Lincoln, who eventually came around to the positions we now associate with him after a lot of toying with ideas like blacks self-deporting to Liberia. But in a way, the movie didn’t need to dole out such credit: today, we know (for example) that Thaddeus Stevens had history and justice 3000% on his side, so the movie is free to show him as the nutty radical that he seemed to most others at the time. And there’s even a larger point: never the most diligent student of history, I (to take one embarrassing example) had only the vaguest idea who Thaddeus Stevens even was before seeing the movie. Now I’ve spent hours reading about him, as well as about Charles Sumner, and being moved by their stories.
(At least I knew about the great Frederick Douglass, having studied his Narrative in freshman English class. Douglass and I have something in common: just as a single sentence he wrote, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong,” will reverberate through the ages, so too, I predict, will a single sentence I wrote: “Australian actresses are plagiarizing my quantum mechanics lecture to sell printers.”)
More broadly, I think it’s easy for history buffs to overestimate how much people already know about this stuff. Indeed, I can easily imagine that millions of Americans who know Lincoln mostly as “the dude on the $5 bill (who freed some slaves, wore a top hat, used the word ‘fourscore,’ and got shot)” will walk out of the cineplex with a new and ~85% accurate appreciation for what Lincoln did to merit all that fuss, and why his choices weren’t obvious to everyone else at the time.
Truthfully, though, nothing made me appreciate the movie more than coming home and reading countless comments on movie review sites denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a bloodthirsty war criminal, and the movie as yet more propaganda by the victors rewriting history. Even on Sean’s blog we find this, by a commenter named Tony:
I’m not one who believes we have to go to war to solve every problem we come across, I can’t believe that Lincoln couldn’t have found a solution to states rights and slavery in a more peaceful course of action. It seems from the American Revolutionary war to the present it has been one war after another … The loss of life of all wars is simply staggering, what a waste of humanity.
Well look, successive presidential administrations did spend decades trying to find a peaceful solution to the “states rights and slavery” issue; the massive failure of their efforts might make one suspect that a peaceful solution didn’t exist. Indeed, even if Lincoln had simply let the South secede, my reading of history is that issues like the return of fugitive slaves, or competition over Western territories, would have eventually led to a war anyway. I’m skeptical that, in the limit t→∞, free and slave civilizations could coexist on the same continent, no matter how you juggled their political organization.
I’ll go further: it even seems possible to me that the Civil War ended too early, with the South not decimated enough. After World War II, Japan and Germany were successfully dissuaded even from “lite” versions of their previous plans, and rebuilt themselves on very different principles. By contrast, as we all know, the American South basically refused for the next century to admit it had lost: it didn’t try to secede again, but it did use every means available to it to reinstate de facto slavery or something as close to that as possible. All the civil-rights ideals of the 1960s had already been clearly articulated in the 1860s, but it took another hundred years for them to get implemented. Even today, with a black President, the intellectual heirs of the Confederacy remain a force to be reckoned with in the US, trying (for example) to depress minority voter turnout through ID laws, gerrymandering, and anything else they think they can possibly get away with. The irony, of course, is that the neo-Confederates now constitute a nontrivial fraction of what they proudly call “the party of Lincoln.” (Look at the map of blue vs. red states, and compare it to the Mason-Dixon line. Even the purple states correspond reasonably well to the vacillating border states of 1861.)
So that’s why it seems important to have a movie every once in a while that shows the moral courage of people like Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, and that names and shames the enthusiastic defenders of slavery—because while the abolitionists won the battle, on some fronts we’re still fighting the war.