I approached his Lincoln, therefore, with a mixture of hope and suspicion.
Abraham Lincoln has a place in the great pantheon of Conservative heroes, along with Washington and Churchill that have championed liberty in the hours of her greatest peril. I have railed against the Lincoln-loathing revisionist historians (see earlier posts Lincoln in London, Ron Paul and Revisionist History, 3/17/12) and enjoy the rich complexity of the US Civil War. How would Spielberg attempt to portray Lincoln and re-package him for consumption by modern audiences?
The vast majority of Americans have a shocking disregard for history (see earlier post Western Civilization, 2/1/13). A majority of American fourth grades do not know, for example, why Abraham Lincoln was an important historical figure http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/06/19/dont_know_much_about_history/). I am, therefore, grateful to see Spielberg shine a light on Lincoln in a way that makes him appealing and familiar to a new generation.
It is widely known that Spielberg delayed the release of Lincoln until after the US election of 2012 was over. Why did he do so? After Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes interviewed him she declared, "Spielberg decided to hold off releasing the movie until after the November election, because he didn't want the film to become a tug of war about party politics." (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865566193/Steven-Spielberg-held-back-6Lincoln7-release-until-after-election-to-avoid-contemporary-politics.html?pg=all). The truth is that, even today, Lincoln is political dynamite. Spielberg is a Hollywood Democrat who was making a film about the founder of the Republican party. One of the central political myths of our time is that the Democratic party is the party of racial equality. The example of Lincoln shreds this concept and turns it on its head. The Democratic party was the party of plantation slavery in the South and the Northern "Copperheads" who were complacent about the institution of slavery.*
|Lincoln in London, Parliament Square|
Photo courtesy of James Hooper
Just as the best lines in Patton were spoken or written by George Patton himself (Coppola won the Oscar for best screenplay though), the best lines in this movie were written by Abraham Lincoln.
I worried that Spielberg would apply a bit too much Vaseline to the camera in his scenes with Lincoln. His use of sepia tones in imitation of Matthew Brady photographs set Lincoln up as as an icon.** The fact was that Lincoln was neither a saint nor a liberal Chardonnay-sipping 21st century college professor. He must be understood as within the context and circumstances of his time. He did violate Habeus Corpus and strained the limits of the constitution nearly to the breaking point. Lincoln did flirt with the hare-brained idea of deporting ex slaves back to Africa on the war's conclusion. He also authorized Sherman's march to the sea which brutally set Atlanta ablaze and resulted in many civilian deaths. The draft riots in New York city were the equivalent of a Confederate battlefield victory. The extenuating circumstance was that the very existence of the Union was in jeopardy and extreme measures were needed to preserve it. Lincoln said famously, "The constitution is not a suicide pact." Habeus Corpus was restored in the USA at the war's conclusion.
The early and brief combat scenes in this movie are truly disappointing, especially from Spielberg who was masterful in Saving Private Ryan. The major technological innovation in warfare between the Napoleonic era and the US Civil war was the widespread introduction of rifled weapons. These put much greater range and accuracy in the hands of the infantry. The kind of hand-to-hand combat represented in this movie was extremely rare during the Civil war.
Spielberg's Lincoln has some historical flaws. Connecticut, a staunch Union state, DID vote to ratify the 13th
amendment (http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/02/06/did-lincoln-put-connecticut-on-the-wrong-side-of-history/). Thaddeus Stevens did not use the original copy of the 13th amendment as an aphrodisiac. Tad Lincoln did not learn of his father's assassination in a crowded theatre.
Most significantly, Lincoln DID NOT strike his son Robert as portrayed in this movie (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/house-divided/post/lincoln-experts-impressed-with-lincoln-the-movie/2012/11/21/534630ca-33f9-11e2-bfd5-e202b6d7b501_blog.html). This misrepresentation is disturbing as Lincoln was essentially a gentle soul who detested violence and was scrupulous in his personal conduct.
One of the great ironies of American history was that Lincoln, a non-violent pacifist, was Commander in Chief during the bloodiest conflict in American history (About 750,000 American deaths according to revised estimates that came out in 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). Congressman Lincoln had adamantly opposed the highly popular Mexican-American war (1846 -1848) that gained vast territory (from Texas to California) and cost relatively few American lives (about 13,000 total US casualties). He was by training a lawyer with no previous military background. Lincoln checked out books on military strategy from the library of Congress to learn more about the art of war.
Consider a bit of counter factual history. Had the Southern states not seceded and fired on fort Sumter the US Civil war could have been avoided. President Lincoln would have presided over a period of peace and he would be chiefly remembered for having initiated the transcontinental railway; that is to say, he would be forgotten. The scope of the crisis brought out the greatness of Lincoln -- our nation's greatest politician and its most humane man.
It is interesting to consider some of the great "ifs" of history. Had Lincoln been endowed with the military genius of Napoleon, the US Civil war (given the North's many strategic advantages, population, industry, railroads, navy, etc.) might have been brought to a swift close after the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, saving countless lives. Early in the war, Lincoln was overly tolerant of a series of incompetent Union commanders. The great tragedy of the US Civil war was that, due to Lincoln's weakness as Commander-in-Chief and the superiority of Southern generalship, a war that could and should have been won by the North in four months, required four dreadful years. On the other hand, had Lincoln been like Napoleon...he would not have been Lincoln.
* The first African-Americans elected to the US Senate were Republicans in the reconstruction South. The vast majority of Black voters supported Republican candidates from 1865 until the 1930's. The KKK was for many years the "militant wing" of the Democratic party. DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a KKK recruiting film, was the first film ever screened in the White House. On viewing it Democratic President Woodrow Wilson exclaimed, "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true." FDR and particularly Eleanor worked to gain the support of Black Americans, but FDR was the Commander in Chief of a strictly segregated military during World War II. It was a Republican President (Eisenhower) who integrated the US armed forces and send in the national guard at Little Rock. A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the landmark Civil Rights act of 1964. Ronald Reagan made Colin Powell his National Security Advisor, George HW Bush appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and George W. Bush made him the first Black Secretary of State. Bush also appointed Condolezza Rice the first black female Secretary of State.
** We can be certain that the US Civil War, viewed from the perspective of the combatants, did not resemble a Matthew Brady print or a Ken Burns film; it was fought in living, bleeding color.
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