Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Cagey Mr. Lincoln

Read an interesting piece by Jim Downs in the 1/6/13 SundayReview section of the NY Times.  It was titled "Dying for Freedom" and took Abraham Lincoln to task for not providing for the welfare of newly freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863.  This lack of preparation contributed to the death of thousands of people, Downs insists.  Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and part of his agenda (made much more obvious in a Huffington Post blog) is clearly to undercut the patriotic glow that surrounds the movie "Lincoln" by highlighting its numerous historical inaccuracies and exaggerations.

Which is fine.  A movie like "Lincoln" can overshowdow years of real scholarship and thought in a matter of minutes (and that's got to annoy anyone seriously interested in history) and trying to alert readers to its problems might actually get some folk to dig a little deeper into our national history.  There were a number of things in Downs' article that bothered me and a discussion of them could produce a really extended and lively discussion/debate. 

But one phrase kept leaping out to me.  When thinking about the liberation of the enslaved, Downs says, "Lincoln can no longer be portrayed as the hero in this story." 

Why, I wondered, did he have to say that?  Bashing Lincoln is guaranteed to get a certain amount of attention, of course.  And maybe even result in publication in one form or another.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, though was necessary to demote Lincoln's hero status in order to set the record straight?  It might be a more emotional and passionate way to reconsider Lincoln, but is it correct or fair? 

When I wrote A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom  I was careful not to portray Lincoln as moved solely by idealism and compassion when he drew up the Imancipation Proclamation.   He wanted to abolish slavery in the United States and the western territories, but he knew this wasn't universally popular and could take years, even decades to carry out fully.  The Emancipation Proclamation was a way, as Downs points out, to scare southern states into rejoining the union.  Yet, what Lincoln did was extremely clever because he couldn't legally free the slaves anyway.  He had sworn in his presidential oath to uphold the Constitution; at the time, the Constitution clearly said slavery was legal; for Lincoln to abolish slavery would be a violation of his oath and, at the very least, open him up to scathing criticism, not just from the south, but from northern political rivals as well.  Instead, he used an act of war that allowed him to seize enemy property used for war purposes (and the slaves fit this description perfectly).  It was a clever, legal manuever and, as they say, a game changer.

At the same time I tried to balance this seemingly cold and distant reality with some of Lincoln's own personal feelings about slavery, the ones where his heart spoke without his political-lawyerly filter on, the ones that make him human, filled with self-doubt and, yes, caring.  I also discuss the potential for a mass boycott by many of his senior officers (George McClellan and many of his staff openly opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and weren't shy about telling this to newspaper reporters) and this must have weighed heavily on the President as the new year approached.  Lincoln knew he was in an epic battle in many ways and he used every way he could to win his ultimate oibjective.  My aim wasn't to simply recreate Lincoln as a classic flawless hero, the kind we meet in textbooks, but to let kids meet a man who faced the complex issues and had to figure them out on the fly, usually by taking a pragmatic and calculating approach.  That might not make a compelling movie or an attention getting article, but it does portray Lincoln as human and cagey and, oh yes, heroic.           


Deborah Heiligman said...

I loved Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie, and some of the other actors, but I found the movie itself flawed--not from a historical point of view, because I don't know the history well enough--but from a storytelling point of view. Now I want to read your book, Jim! I'm sure will give me much more of a real sense of Lincoln and his story, and the history. Thanks for this post! (!!!! as per yesterday's post!!!!!)

Susan E. Goodman said...

Jim--I'm with you 100 percent. Giving a more complete story of our heroes better history. Also, reminding us that people who accomplish such amazing milestones did not act perfectly and are far from perfect or bigger than life themselves, it encourages us and our readers to think that change is more possible again.

Cheryl Harness said...

I would want to point out that once you classify an individual as a hero - or as a 'monster' for that matter, you're stripping either classification of meaning. Ever so much more heroic is one who does bold things despite thorny thickets obstacles and her or his own human frailties. And all the more monstrous is is, when one considers that a person who's behaving monstrously, was once a human child, who grew up and developed a belief system that enabled him or her to believe that his or her actions were for the highest good - and unable to see that he or she had become, in effect, a 'monster.'

Cheryl Harness said...

oh, and as to Mr. Downs' remark I'd quote my mom's favorite epithet: "What a SNOT."