At the Civil War Institute, Pete Carmichael once made the comment, “You know us academics, we always overthink things.”
Ain’t that the truth! Okay, sweeping generalization. But consider the following.
Kevin Levin has written that the responses of some academics have mirrored their particular research interests. He’s absolutely right.
As to the historical facts about the abolition of slavery, these academics are 100% correct. It was a complex process that involved far more players than Abraham Lincoln, including African-Americans, both free and enslaved. If they were critiquing a book or an essay that purported to be a history of abolition, they’d be exactly on target. But they’re talking about a movie. It’s amazing to me that folks who are trained in handling and evaluating evidence and who normally do fantastic work in reading and understanding documentary evidence have such problems telling what this movie was about. Time after time they are telling us it’s a movie about abolition, or the 13th Amendment, or emancipation, or something else. They’re far off. It’s a movie about Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his role in getting the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives. The academics referred to above bemoan the fact that Spielberg didn’t portray African-Americans proactively working for abolition. Well, Lincoln didn’t have any African-Americans in his cabinet, nor were there any African-Americans in the House of Representatives.
Of course, not all academics have done this. Brooks Simpson has had some very sagacious comments. Allen C. Guelzo has a nice review at The Daily Beast. Here and here are some small surveys of academic opinions.
When I was a Poli Sci undergrad many years ago, there was a pithy saying I learned: Where you stand depends on where you sit. It basically means that our opinions about something depend on how it affects us. So if our job is to distribute funds to schools, we’re generally in favor of distributing funds to schools. If our life’s work is to study and write about the role of African-Americans in abolition, then we will tend to view Spielberg’s movie through that lens. It’s human nature. So add to that a person who likes to think about things views a movie and immediately starts thinking about it. They think about the story the movie told, whether or not it was accurate, how it could have been more accurate, and pretty soon you get people saying a movie about Lincoln was actually a movie that starred the 13th Amendment.
What do you think?