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Entertainment :: Despite factual flaws, 'Lincoln' should awaken our interest in history
· 1:37pm February 6th, 2013
Monday was a presidential day for me, as I watched President Barack Obama's Second Inauguration before going to the packed Palace to see Lincoln.
We arrived early -- just after 1 p.m. -- and watched Marcy and the volunteers looking for empty seats as 2 p.m. approached.
Nearly two decades ago, as I was beginning my journalism career, I read just about every book on media that I could find. The best of these, by far, was "Lincoln and the Press" by Robert S. Harper, published around 1951.
As I sat, waiting, I wondered how the Hollywood perception of Lincoln and his time would compare with historian Harper's.
Steven Spielberg's award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) movie brings to life a forgotten part of American history, and does it for the most part very, very well, matching some of the more familiar faces of Hollywood to the most historical names of that era.
Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field portray the First Couple; the actor I remember most was James Spader, who played the hate-able but charming Alan Shore on "Boston Legal." Spader played an equally hate-able but charming lobbyist William N. Bilbo, who offered jobs (and tried to offer bribes) to Congressman in exchange for voting for the 13th Amendment.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, although Stevens would probably say "Hey, I was not THAT ugly in real life." The audience (including me) was shocked to see Jones' portrayal of Stevens in one of the final scenes in the movie; but that scene was actually historical. (Look it up.)
Abe Lincoln had begun his term by saying that preserving the Union was his top priority, whether he needed to free all slaves or let slavery continue. But as the Civil War began to change America, Lincoln began to see that the only way to keep the country together long-term was to end slavery. His Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863.
The movie catches up in Lincoln at the beginning of 1865, as the war is ending and Americans are still debating the slavery question. (Although the movie does not mention this, the Mayflower arrived in 1620; the first slave ship only one year later; slavery had been part of the American story for 240 years; ending it quickly would, and did, drastically change society.)
By this time, the U.S. Senate had already passed the 13th Amendment, which would prohibit slavery everywhere. (The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in Rebel states.) The House needed to pass it before the states could vote to ratify it.
The movie tries to explore both the process of obtaining enough votes in the House, and the feelings and personal and political conflicts facing those making those decisions.
Why you should go
Spielberg does as well as possible at capturing 150-year-old history in a modern movie. It should make each viewer go home and start looking up the history of Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War.
What you should know before you go
The first two minutes would have made historian William S. Harper want to hit Steven Spielberg over the head with his 418-page hardcover edition.
The rest of the movie, however, would have probably impressed Harper.
One of the first scenes of the movie shows Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln riding in a carriage as Mrs. Lincoln urges her husband not to squander the "love" of the American people on freeing the slaves via the 13th Amendment. Harper, however, would have pointed out how incredibly unpopular Lincoln had been throughout virtually all of his presidency -- even in the Northern States. Modern Americans love him -- and politicians of both parties long to be identified with him. But Lincoln never enjoyed the popularity he has now -- remember how his enemies mocked him for sneaking to D.C. disguised as a frail, old woman. (Yes, he did. Look it up.)
A couple of minutes later in the film, one of the characters referred to the "Conservative Republicans." The movie used that phrase on more than one occasion. That is another area where the screenwriters got their facts totally backwards. "Conservative" in the 1860s only referred to Democrats.
I know this, because I used to work for a company that had owned a paper originally named the "Conservative."
Like every other paper called the "Conservative" in the middle of the 19th Century, that paper was a Democratic newspaper.
One popular motto of the Democracy (what the Democrats called themselves back then) was: "The Constitution as it is; the Union as it was." While Democrats had a variety of views on slavery, the party's official position was that keeping the Union together and avoiding war should be the nation's top priority. The use of the word "conservative" to describe Republicans was a late 20th Century trend.
(One of the shocking chapters in Harper's book includes a statement from Illinois Democrats calling Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation an "ineffaceable disgrace." One has to wonder what those Democrats would have had to say if someone told them that in a century and a half, Americans would elect a black man -- and Illinois Democrat -- as President. One also has to ask how the party of Lincoln managed to lose most of the black vote, despite being mostly responsible for the 15th Amendment, which gave Negroes the right to vote. But those are not questions that can be answered in a movie -- or a movie review.)
The "F-Word" also appears a few times in the movie, although language historians would point out that the once-taboo word was not used in the 1860s the way modern Vice Presidents Cheney and Biden have been so famously fond of using it publicly.
My favorite part
The partial recital of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. No President in 150 years has even come close to having so much to say, or saying it so well. Look it up.
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