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Michael Erickson: Three things you should know about Spielberg's 'Lincoln'

By Michael Erickson

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Tonight, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" might earn multiple Academy Awards for its powerful portrayal of the nation's beloved 16th president. The two-and-a-half hour cinematic portrait brings Abraham Lincoln to life as the kind father, loyal husband, folksy storyteller, ingenious lawyer, able politician and wise statesman that history confirms him to be.

But buyers should nevertheless beware of three elements of "Lincoln" that can obscure the legacy of the venerable president. I'll label them language, lobbyists and lenses.

Language: Perhaps the most inaccurate element of Lincoln is the pervasive use of vulgar and profane language. Consistent with every major biography of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," upon which "Lincoln" was based, acknowledges that "Lincoln did not ... use profane language" (or drink, smoke tobacco or gamble). As such, the movie's portrayal of Lincoln using profanity is, tragically, the invention of Hollywood.

Few, if any, Civil War historians could equal the credentials of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson. Sent an early draft of the script, McPherson emailed his objections. "The profanity actually bothered me, especially Lincoln's use of it," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "It struck me as completely unlikely — a modern injection into Lincoln's rhetoric." Sadly, Lincoln is not the first historical figure, and surely not the last, whose language has been recast into the likeness of other's ill manners.

Lobbyists: How much was the passage of the 13th Amendment influenced by patronage-promising lobbyists? The answer is less clear and more complicated than "Lincoln" portrays. Michael Vorenberg has written, arguably, the most comprehensive study on the passage of the 13th Amendment. He questions the allegation that Lincoln dispatched subordinates to muster votes under the ominous threat (or promise) that he was "clothed with immense power." He keenly observes, "Lincoln was not the sort of executive" to say such a thing. Further, "(t)here is not one reliable source, nor even an unreliable one, that reports the president making any specific promise in exchange for a vote for the amendment."

There is no dispute that Secretary of State William Seward employed lobbyists to persuade the persuadable, but their actions and influence are open to debate. Many accusations of corruption were alleged by Democratic opponents who, not surprisingly, complained of their defeat. Partisan accusations of corruption were as common then as now. And viewers should take with a grain of salt the supposed observation by Thaddeus Stevens that the Thirteenth Amendment "was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

Whether he ever made such a statement is questionable given that it comes from a secondhand account written 40 years after the fact. At any rate, the latter half of that statement would certainly be more worthy of trust than the first.

Lenses: A cinematographer, like a photographer, portrays a subject through specific lenses. Different lenses render unique images, though the subject is the same. Goodwin's book is subtitled "The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." In basing his movie on her text, Spielberg renders Lincoln through the lens of "political genius" — and does so in an admirable and remarkable fashion. But there is something tragically absent from emphasizing the "genius" of Abraham Lincoln to tell how slavery ended in America.

In an 1864 letter, Lincoln downplayed his own role in the Civil War. "I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity (wisdom). I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Instead, he acknowledged a divine hand. "If God now wills the removal of a great wrong ... impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God." The day after the Confederate capital was abandoned to Union armies, Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond, Va. When a liberated slave fell to his knees, an embarrassed Lincoln said kindly, "Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter."

Spielberg's "Lincoln" deserves the praise it has received. But there are other stories to be told. Among them, stories revealing how Lincoln, and others, were instruments in God's hands to end slavery in America.

Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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