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Spielberg's Mythology of "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" is more mythology than history. 

Not only does the film glorify Lincoln's motives for delivering the so-called "Emancipation Proclamation," but it brazenly ignores the fact the Lincoln was neither an abolitionist nor a proponent of civil rights or "equality" between the races.

In his famous debate with Senator Stephen Douglas (D - IL) on September 18, 1858, Lincoln described his views with uncompromising specificity in a lesser-celebrated proclamation that prompted Douglas to declare that he had "at last succeeded in getting an answer out of him" after he had "been trying to bring him to the point ever since the canvass commenced."

Lincoln announced:

"While I was at the hotel today, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races ⁠— that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Short of the moralistic hero, Lincoln endorsed the Emancipation Proclamation strictly as a war measure during the War Between the States in order to decimate the economic and military might of the Confederate States. 

Furthermore, with the smacking of his lips, Lincoln's Proclamation exclusively declared free only those "persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States." 

His so-called "Emancipation Proclamation" did not apply to any of the five border states that remained with the Union throughout the war. 

Ironically, Lincoln's Proclamation lacked both constitutionality and jurisdiction within the seceded states, and where Lincoln's Proclamation would have had jurisdiction, ostensibly by precedent, he blatantly exempted those states from the order.

While focusing on the feverish rush to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg's film fails to make any mention of the previously-proposed Corwin Amendment concocted by Lincoln's Republican Party.  

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln spoke of the proposed Corwin Amendment: 

"I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service... holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."

Nor did the film acknowledge the unconstitutionality of an anti-slavery amendment that so irrevocably altered the compact so as to render the amendment invalid, a source of revolution.

Nor did it acknowledge that the seceded states were barred from submitting votes on the Amendment, that Reconstruction governments would "represent" the conquered states instead.

Nor did it reveal to the audience the numerous suspensions of habeas corpus, the tens of thousands of Northern reporters, legislators, citizens and government administrators Lincoln incarcerated during his first term. 

Nor did it recall when Lincoln declared martial law in the state of Maryland to prevent the state from seceding, nor when the Republicans rigged the 1864 presidential election with the aid of the Federal soldiery and Lincoln's own discriminatory furlough policy.

Nor did it show Lincoln's censorship of media, a clear violation of the First Amendment's freedom of the press, when he even shut down hundreds of Northern newspapers to suppress unfavorable sentiment regarding the war or his administration.

Through the Confiscation Acts, Lincoln and the Union even blatantly violated the Second Amendment by infringing upon "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms," and the Fourth Amendment by violating their right to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." 

Through these Acts, American citizens were deprived of their property, and their liberty, in the absence of probable cause or due process for the ostensible purposes of preempting the slightest hint of rebellion or any sentiment critical of Lincoln's administration or remotely sympathetic to the Confederate cause. 

But just as governments make canon, heroes and monuments out of men and moments, so too does every successful motion picture depend upon a worthy story and protagonist. 

For both industries, their interests rest not on the validity of their accounts, but on the power of their hypnotizing influence. 

Unfortunately, both seldom balk at a better story, and the two often swimmingly pair together for the pernicious sacrifice of the truth.

Spielberg's "Lincoln" appears here as the quintessence of this collaboration between government and theater.

According to "Lincoln" playwright Tony Kushner, from the very beginning the flick abandoned any hope of capturing the truth: “You sort of begin by understanding that you are not going to succeed in getting at some sort of core truth, because you are using a myth-making apparatus to try and strip away myth; it’s not a history.” 

This certainly doesn’t prevent the film’s audience from walking away with different opinions, as they obediently embrace the storyline, confusing it as objective history to bolster their existing beliefs about the man, the myth and the legend of Lincoln. 

After all, the average American has very little appetite, let alone the requisite patience, to diligently explore the dark and complex labyrinths of history. So, for average Americans, these kinds of films are as close to history as they’ll ever get. 

Thomas Jefferson insisted, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” 

The modern reincarnation of this statement would no doubt account for “the man who watches nothing but movies.” 

By now, even when faced with the real Lincoln, or any sobering discovery that contradicts the standard narrative, average Americans are happy to discard the inconvenient truths, or rationalize them away, to defend the godlike figure they’ve developed in their minds with the aid of others who are desperate for the same, who are otherwise interested in capitalizing on that bias. 

Lincoln has become a sort of folk hero: though the name of a man who was very real, his conventional biography is of a man far less fact than fiction, far more device than human. 

The playwrights of such massive undertakings as those which aspire to reproduce important histories face the daunting, even impossible, task of creating a seamlessly elegant narrative in the absence of insight or fact. Kushner admits, “History is a source of anxiety for writers who choose to engage in the marriage of the real and the unreal.” 

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that most playwrights aren’t moonlighting as historians, just as most actors and producers who, despite their misguided sense of self-importance, are involved in the fabrication of Fisher-Price history, a safe and hollow form of imitation history that proves useless for the historian yet generally harmless for the average unsuspecting viewer who doesn’t want to think too hard. 

Kushner appreciates the power of his platform: “Most of what we say about Lincoln will be accepted without question.” If only people were as desperate for an honest understanding of history as for cartoonish heroes and mindless entertainment. 

In the case of the sweeping propaganda efforts surrounding Abraham Lincoln since his death on April 15, 1865, it appears that in order to finally remember that preceding period of history, we will first have to forget all of the myths and boldfaced lies that we have learned, which have crept into our collective subconscious to protect us from the inconvenient truths about government, politics and mankind. 

Most are simply not brave or strong enough to subsist in that world of honesty and truth — one absent the adult equivalents to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny — so they instead latch on to the hero, the icon and the great fiction that will help to sustain them, whatever the cost. 

Perhaps we may begin the epic journey with a more modest undertaking: admitting to ourselves that we are only human, confessing that to be human is to be fallible, and to make peace with the fact that there are no exceptions. 

Upon achieving these objectives, we might finally free ourselves from the instinct to emulate others to instead live in accordance with the values and goals we have found for ourselves, respectively. 

With our own personal purposes and senses of direction, we might feel comfortable enough to abandon the childish concepts that comforted our fragile minds before we revealed ourselves to the world in order to finally discover it for the first time.


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