Friday, November 23, 2012

The “Interpretive Choice” in Spielberg’s Lincoln

In the President’s annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln proposed a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery. Lincoln said, “The proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase in population, and proportionately the wealth of the country.” Though Lincoln’s “personal wish [was] that all men everywhere could be free,” his commitment to emancipation has been questioned by many contemporary scholars. In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, his commitment is clarified.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an outstanding exploration into how the 13th Amendment got passed in the House of Representatives. The movie followed the historical script so well that it was almost boring. There were moments when my head nodded, and it was not because I was nodding in agreement. (I went to the 11:00 PM show.) The movie had a documentary quality to it that was complimented by excellent acting. The more familiar one is with the Congressional Globe and Lincoln’s papers, both accessible at Library of Congress websites, the more impressed one is with the historical accuracy of the film. However, if one seeks a certain interpretation of history, the film might be a disappointment.

On Sunday morning, a friend sent me a review of Spielberg’s Lincoln from the New York Times written by Kate Masur a professor of history at Northwestern University. Masur wrote, “It is a well known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice [emphasis added]. A stronger African- American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.” Masur’s interpretive choice would have added affirmative action fiction to Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Professor Masur’s recommendation that Frederick Douglass be portrayed in the movie is an interpretive choice that would have made the movie less factual. The focus of the movie was on the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass did not have a role in getting the amendment passed in January 1865. His monthly had even ceased publication by then. The professor’s review was essentially an admonishment to Hollywood to do what Glory did and make history fiction in order to get the token Negro in the inner circle of the film’s main character. And, of course, when it comes to contemporary Civil War scholarship at our finest institutions, Frederick Douglass is the affirmative action inner circle Negro. Fortunately, Spielberg did not lend his talents to such fiction.

As it pertains to African Americans, Spielberg’s interpretive choice to include their role as soldiers is noteworthy because Lincoln truly valued their military contributions. With this choice, Spielberg chose to stay on topic and not venture to the margins in order to squeeze a selected African American into the frame. When the Confederate peace commission came through City Point, Virginia, in early 1865, thousands of African American soldiers were positioned in and around that Union stronghold. Therefore, the scene when the Confederate officials came face to face with African descent soldiers resonates with significant historical accuracy. Spielberg’s interpretive choice to note the military contributions of African Americans rather than to find a way to include an African American editor at the margins should be applauded not censured by those who seek to include the role of the enslaved in the “dynamic of emancipation” that was occurring inside the frame.

As for the overall historical accuracy as it relates to African descent soldiers, I have one minor criticism of the movie. Two African American soldiers are speaking to President Lincoln in the second scene. One shares his personal story in a Kansas regiment before being transferred to the East in a Kentucky regiment. The other a corporal from a Massachusetts regiment complains about there not being any African American commissioned officers. Though many popular scholars make that claim, it is simply not accurate. At the moment in history the scene depicts, there were over 100 African American commissioned officers who had served in the Union Army. Indeed, out in Kansas in late 1864, the Independent Battery United States Colored Light Artillery had been mustered into the Union Army commanded by an African American officer, Captain Hezekiah Ford Douglas. All the commissioned officers in the battery were African Americans. African American commissioned officers were also serving in a Massachusetts regiment.

The movie covers a time span from the fall of 1864 to April 1865. Therefore, there was an opportunity to report historically accurate events concerning Lincoln personally commissioning African American officers. Lincoln commissioned Alexander Augusta as a captain in October 1862, and Augusta was a Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet) as a surgeon with the 7th United States Colored Infantry in April 1865. Martin Delany met with Lincoln in the White House a couple of weeks after the President signed the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln commissioned Delany a major that February. The corporal’s fictitious complaint in the second scene was not consistent with the historical fact that Lincoln personally commissioned African American officers.

Because of the movie’s primary focus, I do not find fault in Spielberg’s Lincoln for not mentioning Lt. Colonel Augusta or Major Delany even though they could have been easily put in the frame where soldiers appeared not simply “at the margins” where Masur wanted her editor. Lincoln personally commissioned the highest ranking African American officer in the Civil War, Lt. Colonel Augusta, who treated wounded soldiers on battlefields Lincoln visited near Petersburg. Lincoln personally commissioned the only African descent officer to command his own regiment. Major Delany was the commander of 104th United States Colored Infantry in April 1865.

With that said, I consider my historical criticism extremely minor given the focus of the movie; and I highly recommend the movie to students of the Civil War. After you watch the film, I also recommend you compare the Congressional debates in the movie to the records of the Congressional debates that you can access online at the Library of Congress website “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation.” I also recommend a visit to the Library Congress website hosting the “Abraham Lincoln Papers.” (See below for the links.) Query keywords such as emancipation, 13th Amendment, African, colored soldiers and freedom. Read and enjoy the primary sources that will give you a more expansive interpretive choice and help you understand the intelligent choices of Lincoln and Spielberg. I am certain after reviewing these primary sources you will have a greater appreciation for the historical accuracy of Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film is almost a documentary, and far more historically accurate than 50% of the documentary films I have seen on the Civil War.

As for Masur’s criticism of the film, she admits that it is not historically based. Her criticism is simply a question of interpretive choice, which actually means the historical fiction she prefers for the sake of inclusiveness “even at the margins,” and Douglass is her recommended Negro “at the margins.” Douglass was an advisor to Lincoln many such scholars argue. Yet, to be fair to Masur, she only said he attended the inaugural ball in March 1865. Though many scholars assert that Douglass was the leader of the African American community during the war, he was not. Douglass was the editor of a journal read by more European Americans than African Americans. The young African Americans who fought in the Civil War were more likely to read the journal edited by Robert Hamilton, the Anglo-African, than they were to read the Douglass’ Monthly.

Masur’s interpretive choice would have placed Douglass in the movie because she does not know who else to put in the frame. I would love to know the professor’s opinion on the movie Glory, a grossly historically inaccurate film. My guess is that she probably compliments the director’s interpretive choice because Douglass was included in that film. He attended a fictitious party at the fictitious Shaw mansion in Boston and was engaged in a fictitious inner circle conversation with Robert Gould Shaw about fighting to free the Negroes. Such fiction is justified because it reveals “a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit,” suggesting, of course, that we must make up such stories.

Masur’s criticism of Spielberg’s Lincoln demonstrates a propensity common among many contemporary scholars who seek to provide a view of history (an interpretive choice) that is in fact tokenism. Simply stated if they do not know the Negro who really did something related to the subject matter, they put the most famous Negro of the time, their super Negro, in the story simply to have a Negro in the inner circle. Among contemporary scholars, Frederick Douglass is the affirmative action Negro of the Civil War. I wonder if he would be fond of that dubiously esteemed position.

A Century of Lawmaking:

Abraham Lincoln Papers:


  1. An excellent review. At the beginning, I was a bit confused because I did not note a date and place of Lincoln's encounter with the two "colored" troopers. But it quickly developed into a deeply moving -- as well as dark and moody -- historical drama, well acted by everyone. I was particularly impressed by the way Thaddeus Stevens' relationship was introduced near the end. (I think her name is Lydia Smith -- a resident of Gettysburg where Steven's retire, I believe.)

  2. Are there any records of the Confederate Peace Commission seeing specifically Negro soldiers? Their presence seems based on deduction rather than reminisces, ie. the conference went to City Point, there are records of black soldiers at City Point (including one of Lincoln visiting them), therefore they might have run into them.

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