The Gospel Truth

A Hollywood History Lesson | January 3, 2013

While I love both movies and history, I cringe every time I see or read about a new Hollywood movie that attempts to give the definitive interpretation of a historical event.

The two are more like oil and water.

Hollywood never seems to get it historically right.

I think that is true–and I would add it is also true of many current historians–because their interpretations are driven by a particular agenda.

That agenda usually has something to do with social justice, abortion rights, civil right or the environment.

I recently spent a Sunday afternoon watching the new Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln.

A cold feeling

The movie was highly touted because of the quality of its ensemble cast, led by Oscar winners, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field.

As Lincoln Day-Lewis artistically caught many of the nuances and mannerisms of America’s most popular historical figure.

As Lincoln’s melancholic wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field, who looked much more matronly then when she was Forrest Gump’s mom, was voluptuously seductive in her nightshirt.

She had to lose 25 pounds to get the role and then had to gain 25 to keep it.

Only in Hollywood!

Sally Field On Fighting For Her Role in 'Lincoln'

A weighty role

I thought she was far better than many reviewers had led the public to believe.

The overall effect of the movie left me a little cold.

Since it was billed as Lincoln’s second struggle to get something concrete after his symbolic victory with the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, I smelled a civil rights agenda brewing in the Hollywood coffee pot.

Historians call that historicism.

It is a fallacy that I define as the viewing of past history through the ideological prism of the current day’s driving mores.

The movie underscored several interesting things about America’s political system.

It reminded me of another movie about Congress, Allen Drury’s 1959 novel, Advise and Consent.

It stands out in stark contrast for its accuracy and its attempt to portray things in a much more realistic fashion.

It was based on the sad tale of a homosexual Senator, Lester Hunt from Wyoming, who ultimately killed himself in 1954 after being pressured to resign by colleagues.

It captured the ruthless attempts by our leaders to maintain maximum control in Congress.

Unfortunately, as with Lincoln, millions of people will go to this movie and believe that this is the way it really happened.

Probably would have liked the movie.

Lincoln did go a long way to show the congressional divide that made the viewer think he was caught in a 2012 time warp.

Two congressional factions had coalesced around the subject of Reconstruction.

Taxes and spending had nothing to do with their divide.

A majority group of moderate Republicans in Congress supported Lincoln’s position that the Confederate states should be reintegrated as quickly as possible.

Lincoln believed that the Union was morally and politically indivisible.

To him the South had never really left.

It was akin to the child who runs away from home.

The South would almost be part of the national family.

A minority group of Radical Republicans–led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Ben Wade and Charles Sumner in the Senate–sharply rejected Lincoln’s plan.

They believe the South had really seceded.

They claimed Reconstruction should involve a re-admittance to the union at a great penalty for their secession.

Tommy Lee Jones Brings Intensity and Humor to 'Lincoln'

A sterling performance

Thaddeus Stevens played admirably by Tommy Lee Jones, Al Gore’s old roommate at Harvard, took his commitment to racial justice to his bedroom, as the movie showed his getting into bed with his black housemaid.

This stretches history a bit.

Though he never married, Stevens was rumored to have carried on a 23-year relationship with his widowed quadroon housemaid, Lydia Hamilton Smith.

A victim of Washington gossip?

In the film Stevens fudged his belief that the races were equal in all matters and not merely before the law.

These Radical Republicans wanted their pound of flesh.

They wanted to destroy the South’s ability, not only to wage war, but to ever be a threat to America’s social and political unity.

They wanted to effect sweeping social and economic changes in the South and grant the freed slaves full citizenship before the states were restored.

They wanted to pick its bones clean.

The influential group of Radicals also felt that Congress, not the president, should direct Reconstruction.

In July 1864, the Radical Republicans passed the Wade-Davis Bill in response to Lincoln’s 10 percent plan.

This bill required that more than 50 percent of white males take an ironclad oath of allegiance before the state could call a constitutional convention.

The bill also required that the state constitutional conventions abolish slavery.

Confederate officials or anyone who had voluntarily borne arms against the United States were banned from serving at the conventions.

Lincoln had pocket-vetoed, or refused to sign, the proposal, keeping the Wade-Davis bill from becoming law.

The Radical Republicans’ assault on the South in the post-bellum led to nearly 100 years of violence and repression.

Lincoln’s sense of magnanimity that Grant had so aptly displayed at Appomattox was quickly discarded.

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role

Death changed everything

The film was very contextual movie in that the debate seemed to imply that it would on a high note…that is the end of slavery.

The movie made little mention of the fact that three/fourths of the state legislatures had to approve the amendment.

This was not accomplished until December of 1865, several months after Lincoln’s assassination.

That was no easy battle.

Spielberg should have implied that Lincoln’s death made the 13th amendment almost moot and changed the entire nature of the post-war debate.

I do understand that Lincoln was not a documentary, nor was it bound by the rules of truth and accuracy but when movies do history they almost claim the same of kind legitimacy.

This in itself underscores just how powerful Hollywood has become.

Lincoln the film missed the historical consequences of Lincoln’s actions.

Having the gift of historical foresight, film-makers should always be faithful to the way things really happened.

They should imply that things are not always as rosy as they appear and that many political victories turn out to be hollow and often filled with a den of vipers.

The legacy of the 13th amendment and its sister laws, the 14th (citizenship) and 15th amendments (male suffrage) was filled with a den of unintended consequences, such as the KKK, Jim Crow Laws and segregation.

The Klu Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 by Nathan Bedford  Forrest.

F. Gump’s namesake

This led to another 100 years of racial strife and social disruption.

Millions voted for a black man for president twice now, hoping to heal the sins of Radical Reconstruction...only to find out that we are now almost as divided as we were in the 1840s.

There is a history lesson to be learned from this movie but I doubt it is the one that Spielberg had intended.

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8 Comments »

  1. Thanks for relieving me of the burden to see this Hollyweird treatment of history. The one about Lincoln the vampire hunter remains on my list. One other note: if millions indeed voted for the president twice as expiation for slavery, then it has to be the single greatest example of covering up a bad decision with an allegedly good motive in history of USA

    Comment by Joe Crowley — January 3, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

  2. Bill you failed to mention an important factoid. The slaves were only freed in the states that seceded. Yes, Lincoln was a good president for that time, but he was not great as many give him credit. In my reading of that time, Lincoln wanted to repatriate the slaves to other countries. This is the main reason he was killed, he was going to destroy the ability of large landowners to work their fields and earn a living.

    Comment by Mike Ellington — January 3, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    • Bill answered your first point below. Prior to his presidency, Lincoln did advocate removal of blacks to willing African countries on a voluntary basis, but I don’t think he did so once he became President. And finally, a not-so-fine semantic point: the large landowners (slaveholders, I presume) did not earn their living. They legally lived off the confiscation of others’ earnings, just like the government does now. And a black president wants more of it! Shame on him!

      Comment by John — January 4, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

      • John:

        John:

        The internal problem with mass manumission of slaves had always been, their ultimate disposition. In plain English—what to do with them? Conservatives have always argued fro gradual integration of groups that are foreign to the general population. The Liberia Movement—not sure they ever called it that—but the movement to set up a free colony of blacks in Liberia, Africa, dated backed to the James Monrone administration—thus the capital today is Monrovia. It was an absolute failure. Those who went eventually left or perished. Such is the fate of most utopian experiments. The bloody Civil War eliminated all such chimera. The politcians focused on using the black slaves as some sort of gambit in their dealings. Lincoln had always danced gingerly on the issue because of his very real fear of alienating the border states—Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky. The geopolitics of the war always trumped the moral issues.
        As for your statement that the owners of the slaves lived off the confiscation of the slaves wages is a bit of a stretch to me, though it does echo Lincoln’s views on the subject. Farming even on a plantation is still subject to the vagaries of nature. There was a large overhead on these plantations and did get “room and board.” The way yopu put it sounds more like something the Marxists would use in an argument and have even greater application to businesses in general.

        One of the South’s best arguments was to compare how the “wage slave”—their term—in the NOrth fared visa vie the Southern slave. In the North the living conditions were often much harsher than on the plantation. While the wag slaves were not beaten or sold, nor were their women used as concubines, they had absolutely no job security—Lose and arm and they were cast into the street.

        Of the course the bottom line was they were free and some, especially the next generations, did break out of the stench of the tenements.

        Comment by bbprof — January 4, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

  3. We are even more divided now. Divided over
    multiple issues that can/will destroy our country:
    Religious Freedom, Gay-Marriage, Life Issues, Power
    of the Federal Government, Taxation, Socialism, etc.

    We are in a battle to rescue our country from the
    religion of secular humanism as opposed to the
    virtues our country were founded on: Biblical Truth!!!

    This current administration has trampled on the Ten
    Commandments. We will not survive as a free country
    unless we reclaim our God-Given Rights to life, liberty,
    and the pursuit of happiness.

    MFritz

    Comment by MFritz — January 3, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    • Mike:

      I believe you are confusing the 13th amendment with the Emancipation Proclamation which only applied to states, not in federal control. The amendment the Constitution applied to every state. Bb

      Comment by bbprof — January 4, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  4. BB, I concur with MFritz. I am just sick over this administration and have become an ostrich. Trying to live my life based on the big Ten and doing small things to keep the faith. Pax

    Comment by Mary B. Lachney — January 3, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

  5. Bill, unfortunately most Americans are only as deep as the televisions (and movie theatres) they came out of. That said, we enjoy television and film for what it is – entertainment, emotion, and whatever. If you think positive, the small percentage of truth in any “historical” movie at least teaches that much to some. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the untruths or the stretches that Hollywood teaches that can be misleading, harmful, or hurtful.

    Comment by Edward Poniewaz - Friend of Jim Rygelski — January 7, 2013 @ 1:22 am


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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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