To watch Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln – which is expected to do well at the 85th Academy Awards (the Oscars) to be held on Sunday 24 February – you would think Abraham Lincoln, the so-called “Great Emancipator”, freed the slaves all by himself. This is, of course, Hollywood fiction and not historical fact.
Fact one: The slaves freed themselves when the Civil War began in 1861. Some fled the plantations and found refuge among Union soldiers marching south to take on treasonous Confederate rebels. Others seized plantations and, evidence shows, divided up the land between themselves. They did not wait for an official edict to arrive from Washington to liberate them. “Freedom did not come to the slaves from words on paper, either the words of Congress or those of the president, [but] from the initiative of the slaves”, writes the African-American historian Barbara Fields.
The slaves “self-emancipated” themselves, is how Vincent Harding, the African-American historian and activist, memorably describes it. But the “self-emancipated” are nowhere in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Forgotten also in the film are the African-Americans born free in the North who were active in the abolitionist movement and who agitated for freedom for their brothers and sisters in the South. Few know, for example, about the group of black freedmen from Pennsylvania who, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, tried but failed to get the Lincoln government to send them on a secret mission South to provoke slave rebellions and encourage the enslaved to rise up. The only use the Union army had for blacks, they were told then, was as cooks and cleaners. In time, they would need blacks to save the Union from the Confederacy.
Fact two: It was not Abraham Lincoln who first pressed the US Congress to pass an amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude. It was abolitionists like the former slave Frederick Douglass and white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who fought both for freedom for blacks and, as leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, fought for the right to vote for white women.
While Lincoln dithered and prevaricated, Stanton and Anthony sent women onto the streets of America to gather names for a petition to present to the Congress that would show that Americans wanted an amendment included in the Constitution ending slavery.
The petition read: “TO THE WOMEN OF THE REPUBLIC: We ask you to sign and circulate this petition for the ENTIRE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY… Go to the rich, the poor, the high, the low, the soldier, the civilian, the white, the black, gather up the names of all who hate slavery, all who love LIBERTY, and would have it the LAW of the land and lay them at the feet of Congress.”
Presented to Congress before the 13th amendment legislation was voted on, the petition played an important part in the law’s passing. Yet Stanton and Anthony are nowhere in Spielberg’s picture.
Fact three: Lawmaker Thaddeus Stevens did more than his fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. Yet the role that Stevens, who was one of the most radical figures in the Congress during the Civil War period, played in the passing of the 13th amendment had, until Spielberg’s film, been almost entirely forgotten or deliberately air-brushed out from American history. Stevens was a leader of a section of the Republican Party known as the “Radical Republicans” because of their strong opposition to slavery and their demand not just for freedom for the enslaved but full voting and civil rights, too.
Lincoln, by contrast, was a conservative who long believed that it should be up to individual states to end slavery when they saw fit. Stevens had been a longtime opponent of “Slave Power”, as the Southern slave lobby was called, and fought, too, for the vote for Northern blacks who, though free, did not have the right to cast a ballot. Stevens practised what he preached. His wife – common law wife – was a black woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, whom his neighbours said he affectionately called “Mrs. Stevens”.
Hamilton Smith, whose mother was African and father Irish, was at Stevens’ side when he died in 1868. Stevens left the bulk of his fortune to her, which she invested wisely and later became a prosperous businesswoman, owning homes and businesses in Philadelphia and Washington DC. The boarding house she owned in Washington was the favourite hotel for many senators, congressmen and foreign dignitaries. As for her husband Thaddeus Stevens? He died as he had lived. More than 10,000 black people, who knew they had lost a great friend in the fight for freedom and equality, attended his funeral. Stevens was buried, at his own request, in the only cemetery in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that accepted people no matter their colour. “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot” the inscription on Stevens’ headstone written by him reads, “not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.”
Steven Spielberg only hints in his film at the man Thaddeus Stevens was and at the profound love between him and his wife Hamilton Smith, and how they defied prejudice and discrimination all around them. Not least of all from people like Abraham Lincoln, who, while he believed there should be an end to slavery, did not believe black and white should be equal under the law. Lincoln, for example, was an opponent of inter-racial marriage. “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” Lincoln said in 1858. “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”
Steven Spielberg made sure this racist side of Abraham Lincoln did not appear in his film. Described, admiringly, by one deluded reviewer as “real and relatable and so, so cool”, the real Lincoln would not have seemed half so “cool” had Spielberg let him speak for himself.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” wrote Lincoln, shockingly, in August 1862 to Horace Greeley, the editor of a New York newspaper. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Lincoln was the “great pragmatist” not the “great emancipator”. Had this Lincoln appeared in Spielberg’s film, it would not have received all the Oscar nominations and praise that it did.
“What I do about slavery and the coloured race,” Lincoln’s 1862 letter to Greeley went on. “I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” Here, Spielberg, again, chose not to be honest about “Honest Abe”. Still, leaving inconvenient truths out of his film did not stop critics like A.O. Scott in The New York Times describing Lincoln as a masterwork. It is, Scott says, “a rough and noble democratic masterpiece”. But it is not a masterpiece. What it is, in fact, is a masterpiece of misinformation. Spielberg has given us the “Great White Man” version of history. This, says Civil War historian James McPherson, is the tendency to focus “only on the actions of great white males and ignoring the actions of the overwhelming majority of the people, who also make history”.
Vincent Harding, agrees. He says black people then and now have been bamboozled into viewing Lincoln, and not themselves, as the true architects of their liberation. “The poor, uneducated freedman fell for that masterful propaganda stroke that White America, personified by Abraham Lincoln, had given them their freedom,” Harding says, “[rather] than allow them to realise the empowerment that their taking of it implied.”
Spielberg’s Lincoln perpetuates this by depicting blacks in the film as passive figures, stymied and stultified. Yet this could not be further from the truth.
Writing in The New York Times, Kate Masur, a professor of history at Northwestern University (USA) points out that Lincoln visited at least one of Washington DC’s government-run “contraband camps” where many escaped slaves fled to from plantations in the South. Visiting one on a short walk from the White House, he was moved, Masur says, by the singing and prayer of the newly freed slaves. Masur also points out that the nation’s capital, Washington DC, was home to a large, highly organised and highly politicised community of free African-Americans and that one of the black servants in Abraham Lincoln’s White House, Elizabeth Keckley (who has a brief cameo in Spielberg’s film) was a leader in this free black community.
Keckley, a mixed race woman, was First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s closest confidante and her dressmaker, designing many of the dresses the First lady wore to major functions. Interestingly, Keckley was introduced to Mrs Lincoln before the Civil War by two of her customers from the South: the wife of Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become the president of the Confederate states, and the wife of General Robert E. Lee, who would go on to become the commander of the Confederate rebel army. There was much, much more to Elizabeth Keckley than fabric and fine dresses. Sadly Spielberg fails to tell us that in his film. A former slave who purchased her own freedom, Keckley founded what became known as the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association, an organisation that aided black Union soldiers who had been wounded or had fallen ill. Keckley’s organisation did the same for recently liberated slaves, too.
“They came with a great hope in their hearts, and with all their worldly goods on their backs,” wrote Keckley in a book about her life, the Civil War period and her strange relationship with the First Lady, who was the daughter of a slave owning family from the South.
“The North is not warm and impulsive,” she wrote in her autobiography, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. “The bright joyous dreams of freedom to the slave faded – were sadly altered in the presence of that stern, practical mother, reality. Poor dusky children of slavery, men and women of my own race – the transition from slavery to freedom was too sudden for you!” Other freed people helped their recently freed brothers and sisters, too.
The African-American writer, Harriet Jacobs, who herself escaped from slavery, set up a school for freedmen in Alexandria, Virginia. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, famous for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, who had escaped slavery in the South, helped run several freedpeople’s hospitals in the Washington DC area. This African-American community, which did so much pro-abolition work and provided sustenance for escaped slaves and wounded black soldiers in the Union army, does not feature at all in Steven Spielberg’s film.
In short, there is no room in Lincoln for the slaves who freed themselves, and for the white feminist abolitionists who delivered a mighty petition to the US Congress demanding that slaves be freed. Nor is there room for a truly “Great White Man”, Thaddeus Stevens. But there is room for a not so Great White Man, Abraham Lincoln.