One of the great effects of the spectacle of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been the public space its release has afforded professional historians. While there are affirmative things to be said for a society that’s moved beyond restrictive reliance on the academically credentialed, it’s been a refreshing jolt to see qualified experts get their turn with the megaphone usually hogged by pundits and columnists in the appraisal of cultural events.
Among scholars weighing in on the film are two whose books on Lincoln we’ve published just this year. Lincoln’s Hundred Days author Louis Masur, writing in the Chronicle Review, assesses this new film’s corrections to a lineage of cinematic portrayals of Lincoln that reaches all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and also sees Lincoln as a challenge to a “decades-long scholarly, if not popular, vision of him as halfhearted and reluctant in his efforts to eradicate slavery.” He catalogs some of the reasons for the growth of that vision:
The civil-rights movement focused attention not on emancipation but on the disappointing results of freedom: poverty, disenfranchisement, segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. paid homage to Lincoln at the beginning of his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, but lamented that a century after emancipation, “the Negro still is not free.” Others were less generous to the Great Emancipator. In a magazine article in 1968, and again in his 2000 book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony, denounced Lincoln as a racist and white supremacist whose actions against slavery were dilatory and halfhearted at best.
Parallel to the civil-rights movement was a shift in scholarly focus away from elites and toward the social history of ordinary people. Historians examined the lives of the enslaved and began to grasp the role they played in shaping their own destiny. That trend culminated in the 1990s with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which began in the 1970s and, over the decades, has unearthed tens of thousands of documents and published multiple volumes that have revolutionized our understanding of the lives of African-Americans in slavery and freedom. The voices of the supposedly inarticulate were being heard.
This new film, Masur writes, “restores for our time a vision of Lincoln as a tireless opponent of slavery and, in the process, speaks to the political problems we face as a nation today.”
In doing so, the film diverges from history on both minor details and, as some argue, in its depiction of the determining forces of abolition itself. At the Daily Beast, Spielberg’s willingness to take liberties with the historical record is somewhat amusingly highlighted by Harold Holzer, who served as a “Content Consultant” to the film. Holzer, author of literally dozens of books on Abe, including our recently-published Emancipating Lincoln explains that “not all of [his] suggestions were adopted.” Which affords us the strange pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s leading authorities on Lincoln fact-check the work of filmmakers who had his expertise at their disposal.
Most interestingly, Holzer takes aim at the veracity of the film’s very first moments:
As for the Spielberg movie’s opening scene, in which a couple of Union soldiers—one white, one black—recite the words of the Gettysburg Address to the appreciative Lincoln, who is visiting the front toward the end of the war—it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.
Despite such historical inaccuracies, Holzer, who also wrote the film’s authorized “companion book for young readers,” holds that “Spielberg has traveled toward an understanding of Abraham Lincoln more boldly than any other filmmaker before him.”