“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As beautiful as that is and as much as I’d like to believe it, it’s not really true. Like any good politician, Abraham Lincoln knew how to take the history he’d been given and spin it into his own personal legacy. He, more than any other president, left a legacy that cannot be challenged in the American mind. He has accomplished two things, that today we as a culture overwhelmingly consider to be good; preserving “The Union” and abolishing slavery. It is fitting then that Spielberg’s Lincoln focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment.
Spielberg paints a more nuanced picture of Lincoln than exists in the collective American mind. Although that’s not very difficult considering that most people believe in the Disneyland Hall of Presidents version of Lincoln. A president that gave soaring speeches, freed the slaves with a stroke of his pen, and died for the cause of freedom. The reality that Disney doesn’t mention at all and that Spielberg glosses over or ignores completely is that Lincoln employed tyrannical means to achieve his ends.
Here are five details that are either glossed over or omitted in Spielberg’s Lincoln (and in most rudimentary American history courses as well):
US History Affirms a Right of Secession
There have been several encounters with secession in the US, starting, of course, with the Declaration of Independence. At that time 13 free and independent states voted to leave the British Empire. The Empire reacted much like Lincoln did, asserting (with force) that the colonists had no legal right to leave.
During the War of 1812 a gathering of delegates from the New England states convened at the Hartford Convention. At this convention the delegates from the New England States (all of which were opposed to the war) attempted to find solutions. One that was seriously considered was a secession from the United States, forming a federation of New England states and achieving a peace separate from the United States.
There was even a secession that Abraham Lincoln himself embraced. When Virginia voted to leave the United States representatives from the western part of the state were unhappy with the results of the election. As a result they formed their own secession convention and voted to secede from the rest of Virginia. At their constitutional convention they included an amendment abolishing slavery and in 1864 they joined the Union as a free state. This new state born out of secession exists to this day as “West Virginia”. Given this history of secession in the US, it is not at all evident that the the war to “preserve the Union” was a necessary one.
Lincoln Suspended Habeas Corpus and Violated Freedom of the Press
Habeas corpus is a legal recourse available to those arrested in the US in order to challenge the legality of their arrest and detention. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus at first from Philadelphia to DC, then along the whole eastern seaboard, and finally across the whole United States. The military could arrest citizens for as little as discouraging voluntary enlistments, and Journalists critical of the war were jailed in military prisons with no access to the courts. There were no official records kept for how many journalists were jailed but conservative estimates for civilian arrests by the military during the civil war start at upwards of 13,000. The right to legal fairness was a right that apparently had little place in the “new birth of freedom” for the United States.
He Waged a War On Civilians
Lincoln was infamous for micromanaging the war via telegraph throughout the conflict. He instructed General Philip Sheridan to take the forces in the Shenandoah Valley and destroy their economic infrastructure. Sheridan did just that and citizens of the valley called his campaign “the burning”. Targeting economic infrastructure was targeting civilians means of survival, especially during a war.
More infamous is General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” or as it was officially known “The Savannah Campaign”. Sherman marched from Atlanta, which he and his forces had captured, all the way to Savannah, all the while burning not just military targets, but crops and private citizens homes. Georgians’ houses were often looted by Sherman’s forces and the goods that could be were sent back up north to the Union soldiers’ families. What couldn’t be shipped was often destroyed. This destroyed the economy in Georgia and caused some southern citizens to starve.
Despite What His Speeches Suggest, He Was Not the Great Champion of Equality
Lincoln is often seen as the champion of racial equality, but the real Lincoln was not as egalitarian as his cartoonish, textbook version, makes him out to be. In debates with Stephen Douglas he was accused of advocating for racial equality, to which he responded; “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgement, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.” I don’t think that’s a quote they considered putting in the Lincoln Monument.
It could be argued that Lincoln’s views were moderated over time. If so it didn’t show in the policy he sought to implement. His solution to the problem of what to do with slaves once they were freed was to deport them. Like most Americans at that time, Lincoln believed that white people and black people would have challenges living peaceably together. His solution sounds like it could have come from Donald Trump himself; deport them, to Liberia, to Guadeloupe, to Honduras, to British Guiana, anywhere but the US. Lincoln even went so far as to sign a contract with a man named Bernard Kock to set up a colony in Haiti, but Kock turned out to be a crook and embezzled most of the money paid to him for the settlement.
Act First, Get Permission Later
Lincoln, on a regular basis, usurped powers reserved to the Congress and asked for permission later. After the shots at Fort Sumter, Lincoln blockaded southern ports, an act of war which traditionally required a declaration of war by the congress. Lincoln raised troops, a power left exclusively to the congress. He suspended habeas corpus, which is listed in Article I Section 8 of the constitution, the section listing the powers delegated to the US Congress. The overwhelmingly Republican congress was, of course more than willing to oblige, but this does not excuse Lincoln, nor can it erase the precedent left for future presidents to point to and say “well Lincoln did it, and so can I.”
Spielberg explicitly shows this in his film but rather than the notion being frightening, it appears to be put in a positive light. When discussing the Emancipation Proclamation (which affirmed slavery in the border states) and presidential “war powers” (a phrase found nowhere in the US Constitution) Lincoln says: “I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don’t exist. I don’t know. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution”. Lincoln essentially pretended that there was a provision in the constitution that allowed him to act legally, but there was no such provision, he made it up. When asked what authority he had to do it he responds by saying that the people re-elected him so it must have been constitutional. In addition to that he essentially said that he had to violate the constitution in order to save it. To be sure he was not the first to do this, but he helped to strengthen a precedent that continues on to this day.
I enjoyed Spielberg’s Lincoln, if only for the fact that he was portrayed, not as the God enthroned in his temple on the banks of the Potomac, but as a nuanced (if only ever so slightly) character. That is a step in the right direction if we are to move away from seeing him as the American Deity, who sacrificed his life for freedom, to who he really was, a tyrant who was adept at weaving a legacy for himself.