historian, author, film producer

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“Lincoln”–a brief review

Last night I went to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with my Civil War and Reconstruction class at the University of Nebraska. The theater was sold out for both showings. We actually had to sit in the very front row of the theater. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the front row–Live and Let Die, Starwars (the first, rather fourth)? Lincoln’s words and those of his opponents and supports have been in front of me lately because I am editing James A. Rawley’s last book, titled A Lincoln Dialogue. This compilation will be released posthumously next year by the University of Nebraska Press, and features many of the speeches included in Spielberg’s production.

It should be said that making biopics of presidents as commercial film is tricky business and no one has gotten it right perhaps until now. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is full of words, and yet it is gripping and humanizing. In many places it is laugh-out-loud funny. It avoids many (but not all) of the traps of this subject–such as overplaying the majesty of the office and presenting an ultimately unknowable leader. Lincoln makes none of these mistakes. Instead, this film makes us feel we know Lincoln better, more intimately, and more fully. Much of this is due to Daniel Day-Lewis, who turns in another brilliant performance here (after There Will Be Blood). When his Lincoln clasps the hand of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) as they wait in the telegraph office for the results to come in about the Battle of Wilmington, the physicality of their grip is not only authentic but truly moving. Day-Lewis has always excelled at this physical, kinesthetic acting. We too wait there with Lincoln and Stanton, and we too gradually realize that we would need another to hold us steady in the face of such anticipation of such news. This moment like so many in Lincoln is shorn of fist-pumping triumphalism. Instead, it works on our humility and common purpose. And it is spine-tingling.

Historians will be concerned that for so much of the film African American characters are observers rather than actors–they passively wait while the white politicians essentially vote them their freedom by a narrow margin. Emancipation, technically the end of slavery, is presented here as a gift to black Americans, one engineered only through shady political dealing. The subtle message is that all ennobling acts in American history, such as the passage of the 13th Amendment, are suffused with corruption, and yet therein lies the genius of the American political system, those who understand it (Lincoln), and those who created it (the Founders). In this respect Lincoln works to make many Americans proud of their history and government–indeed, the sold-out theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, last night applauded spontaneously and with gusto at the end of the film.

Black soldiers confront Lincoln in the opening scene of the film, one of them pressing for equality. A bedroom scene of an interracial “marriage” nearly closes the film–Thaddeus Stevens and his longtime lover and housekeeper Lydia Smith. Between the two scenes, however, black actors are marginal if not caricatured. Kate Masur has written about this in her recent New York Times Op-Ed on the film. Masur considers the film an “opportunity squandered.”

To my surprise Lincoln offered striking parallels to this post-election season. The film opens with his having won re-election, unsure of his second term agenda, winding down a major war, facing a recalcitrant House of Representatives, and seeing his major war measure (emancipation) open to court review and potential dismantling. Lincoln at one point says that the public had two years to consider emancipation and decided to re-elect him. The political infighting presented in Lincoln, while entertaining, suggests another missed opportunity. Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), a former Senator from New York, and longtime political operative in the Republican Party, organizes the campaign to turn Democratic votes. But the speeches and the patronage are presented as comedy rather than what they were–knife fights in the dark. Colorful personalities aside, the idea that American politics is light-hearted mischief, eventually redeemed by the process itself, ignores not only the brutal calculations of those involved but also the depth and power of those resistant to change.

The intense appeal of Lincoln, then, over the long run will derive not from its political scenes but from its portrayal of Lincoln’s attempt to manage the political and personal consequences of the war.

This blog post was initially published November 17, 2012 and updated November 18, 2012

The British View of Lincoln and the American War

In the fall of 1860 as the United States presidential election heated up with four major party candidates in the field, few observers in England had formed much of an opinion of Abraham Lincoln, the prairie lawyer from Illinois. The rise of the Republican Party and the emergence of Lincoln as its standard bearer took place so quickly that many in Britain were uninformed about the party and the man.

Few commentators, for example, were as widely known in Britain as Harriet Martineau who traveled to the United States in the 1830s and wrote over one thousand letters in the London Daily News on American affairs. A renowned political economist, highly successful author, and committed abolitionist, Martineau knew little about Lincoln. Naturally, she was doubtful. Her overall impression of the Northern United States was that the white politicians there had been so subservient to the South’s slaveholders for so long that as a group they possessed no moral backbone, and consequently could not be trusted. The North was a fallen, immoral society, complicit in the greatest evil of the day–slavery. To Martineau, a Garrisonian and a close friend of Maria Weston Chapman, the Republican party and Lincoln seemed hopelessly conservative.

After Lincoln’s election she wrote her editor, “I fancy Lincoln is honest, as far as he goes; but it is a very short way.” As the sectional crisis deepened and Virginia threatened to secede, she admitted to a growing admiration for the man. He had at least done the things she had hoped and not done the things she thought should be avoided. When Virginia left the Union and Lincoln issued his call for troops, Martineau revised her opinion of him: “he is an immense relief!”

Martineau’s friend, Richard Cobden, also initially misjudged Lincoln. Cobden, an influential M.P. and longtime free trade and antislavery proponent, met Lincoln in Springfield when he went to Illinois to evaluate the prospects for his investment in the Illinois Central Railroad. Cobden took this trip in 1859 and only briefly spoke with Lincoln. In March 1861, however, he wrote his friend John Bright, also an M.P. and leading antislavery man, that Lincoln was a “backwoodsman of good sturdy common sense but evidently unequal to the occasion.” Such views were common.

If Lincoln did not initially impress the liberal British politicians and observers, he certainly held little weight with the conservative classes. August Belmont, a British emigrant to the U.S. in 1837 and a successful New York financier, reported every week on American political affairs to his London banker N. M. Rothschild. Belmont was a Democrat and viewed Lincoln’s Republican Party nomination over William Henry Seward as entirely unexpected. When his election prompted South Carolina’s move to secede, Belmont was surprised again, admitting to Rothschild that he had had no idea the situation was so serious.

Because Belmont kept Rothschild informed on political affairs every week, and perhaps because Rothschild held large shares in U.S. federal and state bonds, the London banker showed little surprise when Lincoln was elected. Only when Lincoln began to pursue a policy of unrelenting war for the Union was Rothschild stunned. To a significant degree Rothschild’s realism left him unprepared for a civil war that traced its proximate cause to a presidential election. Rothschild, like many other British observers, expected a settlement and compromise to come quickly and doubted whether Lincoln, and the North, had the resolve to carry out a war with such a limited political objective of keeping the Union together as its chief war aim.

Few presidents have been nominated and elected who had less experience in political office than Abraham Lincoln. None have been confronted with the crisis he faced in his first weeks in office. Knowing how successfully Lincoln waged the war, it would be easy with hindsight to smirk at the way Lincoln’s contemporaries underestimated him. Yet, the British concerns about Lincoln point to an important, and often overlooked, dimension to the Civil War: the conflict had significant international ramifications and there were huge differences of perspective between the British and Americans on the war.

On no issue was this more pronounced than the British view of the violence and destruction in the war as a humanitarian crisis. The Americans were willing to kill one another at a rate and with a determination the British had not anticipated.The assessment of Lincoln that British observers conducted in late 1860 and 1861 mirrored their assessment of American affairs more generally. Lincoln and his party represented a resurgent Northern determination to contain slavery, a goal widely admired in Britain. But the prospect of a modern, large-scale war offended British sensibilities and ideas of progress. Lincoln’s election and the move to secession were surprises, but the war and its unprecedented bloodshed were a shock.