How we should remember Lincoln

“Surrender won’t be thought of unless you’ve assured us, in writing, that we’ll be readmitted in time to block this amendment.” So declares Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at a crucial turning point in the movie “Lincoln.” The scene depicted was the shipboard Hampton Roads “peace conference” between Abraham Lincoln and three southern commissioners in February 1865, in which the leadership of the two belligerents unsuccessfully attempted to end the raging Civil War. In Steven Spielberg’s biopic the impasse revolves around the recently adopted 13th Amendment. “Slavery, sir, it’s done,” answers Lincoln as the Confederate leadership storms out of the cabin, rendering the conference a failure.

This depiction makes for a climactic scene, combining the moral clarity of Lincoln’s push for the amendment with the frightening weight of the path not taken. It is also almost wholly fabricated. Slavery was discussed at Hampton Roads, though the recollections of its surviving participants place it in the context of an offer by Abraham Lincoln to secure funding for the purchase of the south’s peculiar “property” — a scheme of compensated emancipation typical of the sixteenth president’s brand of tempered antislavery. The conference itself failed not on an impasse around the 13th amendment, but the Southerners’ unwillingness to formally negotiate on any terms but independence and Lincoln’s refusal to accept the same.

Similar liberties were taken with the film’s dramatic depiction of the 13th amendment vote some days prior. The casual viewer might be forgiven for believing that the United States was narrowly spared from the continuation of slavery by a tense and uncertain vote on the smallest of margins. Yet as Lincoln described the event to a White House visitor in February 1865, “I had dismissed … all anxiety about that voting. I knew the bill would pass the day he introduced it.” Indeed it was a certainty if not by January 31, then early March when a larger Republican majority took office.

“Lincoln” is still cinema and may be entitled to dramatic license, though screenwriter Tony Kushner repeatedly extolled the film’s historical accuracy, a point he hammered home only slightly less than the supposed parallels between its subject and President Barack Obama. “I’ve watched the Obama presidency through the lens of looking at Lincoln,” he told a reporter during the film’s pre-publicity stage, “And it’s given me a very deep conviction that Barack Obama is a great president.” In so doing Kushner continues a long tradition of connecting Abraham Lincoln to modern politics, and with it bending historical depictions of the “Great Emancipator” to suit a distinct narrative in keeping with his ideology. Attempts to appropriate Lincoln are popular with self-described progressives, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrated in a controversial lecture on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg that meandered into a modern political message of women’s liberation, praise for LBJ, and a political plug for Hillary Clinton.