It has been exciting, encouraging and slightly exhausting to keep up with the commentary on the recent Lincoln film. Perhaps more than any other American president, Abraham Lincoln seems to carry our expectations and political hopes, even in retrospect. He continues to play the role of national prism—we turn him sideways and upside down searching for answers, generations later.
Many historians, including the Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer (he served as a consultant for the film and related book Lincoln: A President For the Ages) have noted the profoundly powerful sway of the film, regardless of its omissions or oversights. Matthew Pinsker, author of Lincoln’s Sanctuary, notes that “this movie probably does better on this difficult subject than any other American film” and that it is an excellent piece of art, despite not sticking to letter of the law in terms of historical detail.
Other scholars, including leading historian Eric Foner, in a letter to The New York Times, have lamented what they see as a lost opportunity to show the critical roles of slaves, free blacks and abolitionists in overturning slavery. Foner argues (and the weight of evidence shows) that emancipation took place “on the ground”—not just in the unofficial and official rooms of Congress.
Meanwhile, The Atlantic has organized a Lincoln Roundtable with many contributors analyzing the film, its portrayal of Lincoln and what it all means when it comes to questions of slavery and emancipation. Wow–lots of discussion! As we continue to debate what exactly happened, when and why—and Lincoln’s role in the drama of the 1860s–it is heartening to see a feature film serve as a vibrant platform for these conversations.
It is interesting to look back on what one key player–who does not play a role in the Lincoln film but did play a very key role in the movement to end slavery–said about Lincoln in the decade after his death:
“It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement…which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.”- Frederick Douglass, April 1876