'Lincoln' Would Have Been Better if It Had Told More of Lincoln's Story

Tony Horwitz joins in for the fourth installment in our roundtable discussion of Steven Spielberg's film.

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I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here's my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.

The impatient emancipator depicted in Lincoln was, in 1858, a senatorial candidate who said slavery might endure another hundred years, and that he opposed social or political equality: "I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." In 1860, as a presidential candidate, Lincoln used John Brown as a foil, calling the abolitionist's attempt to free and arm slaves "absurd" and reiterating his pledge to leave slavery "alone where it is." As president, Lincoln clung to his long-held belief that freed blacks should be "colonized" in Africa or Latin America, because they could never live as equals to whites in this country. He urged Congress to fund such colonies, and as late as August 1862, he pressed colonization on a black delegation to the White House, prompting Frederick Douglass to call Lincoln "a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred."

It's possible that Lincoln didn't believe his own words and uttered them out of political expedience. Or, one can argue that he was a true white supremacist who only emancipated slaves due to military necessity. I think the answer lies between. Part of what made Lincoln so remarkable was his capacity for growth. He was a self-questioning man who listened to others and heeded changed circumstance—unlike John Brown, or fire-eating Southerners. As historian James Oakes writes, "Lincoln was radicalized by the war," and influenced by men such as Douglass, to the point where he ultimately embraced Brown's mission of arming blacks and overthrowing slavery in the South. In 1865, Douglass wrote that Lincoln "had the wisdom to be instructed" by events, and went so far as to declare him "the black man's President."

Part of what made Lincoln so remarkable was his capacity for growth. Perhaps I missed it, but I don't recall the movie giving any hint of his transformation.

Perhaps I missed it, but I don't recall the movie giving any hint of this transformation. Lincoln seems to have always been a die-hard emancipationist, differing from radicals like Thaddeus Stevens mainly in his tenor and tactics. There's a whiff of Lincoln's doubts about the future of race relations in his conversation with Mrs. Keckley, in which he says, in essence, I guess we'll learn to tolerate each other. But that's all I remember.

Movies, of course, demand compression, and I certainly wouldn't have wished Lincoln any longer. But now that I've reached the age Lincoln was when he took office, I'm struck by how rare it is for folks in their 50s to grow in the way he did.

Daniel Day-Lewis was brilliant at portraying Lincoln's inner struggles. What if, in addition to taking on a recalcitrant congress and largely racist public, we also saw him bending the arc of his own moral universe? Frederick Douglass, who met with Lincoln three times in office and attended his second inaugural, would have been a perfect vehicle for exploring Lincoln's evolution. Douglass's fiery presence would also have addressed the problem others have cited: namely, the relative absence of blacks in the movie except as passive supplicants.

Previously

Kate Masur: "Is 'Lincoln' Liberal? Depends on What You Mean by 'Liberal'"

A.O. Scott: "The Underrated Radicalism of 'Lincoln'"

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Why Aren't More Liberals Defending 'Lincoln'?"

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Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. His books include Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

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