Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” should scoop up some Oscars. Oscar voters love to congratulate themselves for admiring a serious movie, and “Lincoln” is serious – seriously wrong.
As the New York Times and other papers have reported, the movie gets some facts wrong. It also gets the main characters wrong: Lincoln and his wife, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and, most of all, the blacks who were largely responsible for the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution.
In “Lincoln,” blacks like Thaddeus Stevens’ housekeeper and Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker follow the lead of their white employers. The truth was the other way around. Housekeeper Lydia Smith was a conductor on the Underground Railroad (Stevens helped her by impeding Southern efforts to capture fugitives). The “UG” spoke not only for runaways but also for the black soldiers who formed a growing part of the Union army.
Smith might have been Stevens’ mistress, but she did not routinely sleep under his roof. She owned her own house. Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, founded and led an organization to help runaways. The president’s wife merely contributed to it.
Pressure to abolish slavery came from the slaves themselves, from black soldiers and from the UG and other organizations. It reached Washington through blacks like Lydia Smith, and they put pressure on congressmen like Stevens. He had tried to pass the amendment in 1864 and failed. In 1865, he tried again and succeeded.
After the amendment passed, Stevens ensured that it received the approval of ¾ of the states. Congress was unsure whether Southern states should vote on the amendment, and Stevens, not the Lincoln administration, persuaded Congress to let only border states and Northern states vote. The movie omits this phase of the ratification process. Had it been included, Stevens would look better, and Lincoln would look worse.
In some ways, Stevens was not a progressive. He was an iron manufacturer who had no union in his shop, he favored high tariffs and he did not think that the president – even Lincoln – should be in charge of Reconstruction in the South. He believed in a stronger dose of congressional supremacy than even tea party congressmen do today.
Passage of the 13th Amendment was mostly the work of blacks, their leaders and congressional Republicans. A movie crediting Lincoln with this amendment is like making Lyndon Johnson the hero of a movie about Civil Rights. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Shawshank Redemption” – Hollywood loves to make white people the heroes of stories about black people. Perhaps 40 years of Black History Month have not been enough.
Fred S. Naiden is an associate professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.