Great White Men, Again?: On Lincoln and Our Civil Religion

When you hear the soaring John Williams music telling you to feel, and what to feel, before the scene plays itself out, you know you’re in Stephen Spielberg territory—and that’s exactly where we are with Lincoln, a film which has already generated a great deal of discussion and debate among film critics and historians.

Filmmaker Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (the author, of course, of the classic Angels in America) pre-empted criticisms by historians, pronouncing their thanks for historical works (notably Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) that inspired their re-imagining of this story. “You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Spielberg told one group of historians, noting that the job of art is to “go to the impossible places.” But any faithful “resurrection” of the past is, he said, just a “fantasy and a dream.”

So despite many notable efforts at historical verisimilitude, and the inclusion of a central role for the critical historical figure of William Henry Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and Thaddeus Stevens (last seen in American film at any length in the horrendously distorted role of Augustus Stoneman in the D. W. Griffith’s historical travesty The Birth of a Nation), it is the filmmaker’s intent to use history to create art; or, in other words, to give us a myth for our times that will tell us something about what is necessary to make a more perfect union.

In all its ugly sausage-making cynicism, the messy everyday business of lining up the votes sometimes achieves transcendent ends. And more power to the filmmakers to give us a redemptive story about politics, and even more so about a politician who would not compromise on his most fundamental principle—even if he would test constantly the political winds on what would be needed to achieve that principle in practice. That’s a grown-up story about politics (notably here including Lincoln’s own qualms about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation) that many viewers will appreciate. This is Lincoln as political realist, but one who is able to turn that realism towards visionary ends.

And on that front, there is much to enjoy about the film, from the magnificent and humanizing performance by Daniel Day Lewis (who captures Lincoln’s speech patterns and strategically timed humor in a way far superior to any other film representation I have seen); to the significant research Sally Field did for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln, even down to the precise ways someone from the Lexington, Kentucky area in her era would have spoken; to the personally imperious but indispensably Machiavellian personality and role of William Henry Seward; to the gloriously ill-tempered Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Thaddeus Stevens, played with relish by Tommy Lee Jones.

Then there are the minor characters, including the trio of rascals, fools, and patronage-dispensers employed by Seward to round up the last remaining needed votes to carry the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery) through the House of Representatives. That was no easy task, and no mean feat for a president whose views on race had advanced astonishingly.

Lincoln began his national political career as a Whig who combined an opposition to the extension of slavery together with casual racism and the willingness to entertain colonization of blacks out of the country. By the last months of the Civil War, he had arrived at a determination to achieve the 13th Amendment and the willingness to countenance limited black suffrage in the post-Civil War era. That was a transformation in his vision of American society, one not really captured in a film that essentially focuses on a few weeks of his life.

The film is an emotionally gripping docudrama on a hugely significant event in American history. Even those with the critical antenna raised and beeping throughout will still find themselves emotionally engaged. Even when we are told to feel, and what to feel, we do, at the skillful filmmaker’s command. We can’t help it. Such is the power of movies as purveyors of myths.

A History Told by the Powerful

But there is another level to consider here, as well: the civil religious myths that the film invokes, and the very limited growth in public understanding of those myths that the film ultimately suggests.

After the emotion evoked by the film subsides, sober consideration begins here: why, in the supposedly “post-racial” age of Obama, is there no space in movies to imagine the historical story of African Americans creating the conditions of their own emancipation?

Is it because in the context of our civil religion of “great white men who end up doing the right thing,” we as a culture cannot yet imagine such a thing?

Historian Kate Masur, among others, has pointed out that the story historians have dug out of the archives—the story of African American actions which virtually forced enlistment in the army, emancipation, and reconstructing the Union with blacks in the polity—finds almost no place in the film.

Black soldiers appear at the beginning, meeting Lincoln and quoting back to him his Gettysburg Address (wholly fanciful, given the fact that the Address was little noted at the time). Two White House black servants have bit roles, but are there primarily as archetypes to pronounce what “our people” want, and to show Lincoln’s humanity when confronting African Americans in person.

Thaddeus Stevens’ black housekeeper and common-law wife appears in a fictionally contrived (albeit plausible) scene at the end, where Stevens presents to her the “gift” of the original parchment of the 13th Amendment. In fairness, films focus on stories they can tell, usually about very particular turning points in history with visibly evident dramatic personae. This is the case here. To the extent they tell a public something significant about the political machinations and struggle to achieve the 13th Amendment, I am glad.

What leaves me frustrated is the seeming impossibility of bringing into our civil-religious myths the demise of slavery as a possibility—and, really, only a possibility—as a result of the actions of the most powerless in American society, those who forced the hand of the most powerful. The actions of the powerful were necessary, but they were only possible because of the countless actions of the powerless. And in this sense, it is the same problem that civil religious myth-makers of the most modern civil rights movement have in portraying what made that movement move, an issue some of us tried to capture in this dialogue for RD.

At a key moment in the legislative process leading to the 13th Amendment, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, at his most emotionally insistent and least folksy, yells out, “I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me these votes!” Whether Lincoln the person said any such thing as unknown, but at the very least the line captures Lincoln’s willingness to invoke the Commander in Chief role when he needed to do so—whether to arrest disloyal newspaper editors and rabble-rousers in Maryland, or to pardon poor soldier boys who made cowardly decisions on the battlefield, or to push forward his legislative agenda of the 13th Amendment.

That is all well and good, and in line with contemporary historically informed myths of Lincoln. When we have popular culture mythmakers who can speak with equal skill, ease, and authority to the struggles over the Civil War, Reconstruction, and civil rights, then perhaps the public conversation could advance to a whole different level. But we’re not there yet.

Regrettably, the screenwriter for Lincoln, Tony Kushner, has recently re-articulated some long-discredited myths about Reconstruction.

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

He has since partially apologized for and retracted those comments, insisting that he should have clarified that he was talking about the congressional refusal to fund the finding and burying of Confederate dead still lying in battlefields in 1866, an action which lead to the sorts of post-war Southern organizations to tend to Confederate memory that resulted in much ill will and historical distortion. Point well taken.

But the larger story here remains even in the clarification of the original comments, which insists that Lincoln’s more “moderate” vision of Reconstruction would have spared the country much post-war agony.

That is radically false to history, albeit depressingly in line with a historically familiar vision of Lincoln. In fact, it was the Radicals’ vision all along which pushed and propelled a moderate such as Lincoln, such that by the end of the war Lincoln effectively had adopted all the Radical positions that he considered unthinkable in 1861. Those Radicals certainly needed the political sense of Lincoln, who had a genius for timing and “messaging” momentous actions. But Lincoln needed the Radicals, and even more the slaves who “occupied” contraband camps demanding a recognition of their humanity, to bring him to consider his most historically significant actions.

That is a story familiar to the historical guild but one which has not yet found its way into our civil-religious mythologies. It is, sadly, only fleetingly captured even in an enormously humane and moving films such as Lincoln.