The Academics Weigh In On Spielberg’s Lincoln

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.

Most are already familiar with Kate Masur’s Op-Ed piece in the NYT.  She’s written another piece to respond to what others have been saying.

She’s not the only one.  Eric Foner has weighed in, as has political scientist Corey Robin (here).  Aaron Brady, a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, has his say here.

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 BeastHere 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?


  1. jfepperson · · Reply

    I think Peter Carmichael was on-target. Many people are reviewing the movie through the lens of the film they would have liked to see made. I haven’t been as emotionally grabbed by a movie as I was by “Lincoln” in a *long* time.

    1. I agree, Jim. While I wouldn’t say I was emotionally grabbed, I did enjoy it, and it even motivated me to buy a couple books. I think that’s exactly the reaction historians ought to want the general public to have.

  2. Yes, we are persnickety lot, us academic historians. You would be too if you had to deal with Hollywood’s myth machine and the powerful effect it has on many students. If a film maker puts it up on the screen for some students the account presented becomes the gospel truth, and you bang your head in frustration getting them to think otherwise. I’ve even had undergraduates cite Hollywood films as historical sources for heaven’s sake.

    The worst example in my experience in this regard is Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. It has convinced a generation of students that guerrilla warfare won the American Revolution.

    Spielberg’s Lincoln will probably not be that much of a problem, but it perpetuates the myth of Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Certainly, Lincoln was an important player in emancipation, but this event was a complex process with a lot of other important players. The prospect of getting students to understand that in the face of Spielberg’s powerful film is really what underlies the frustration expressed by Masur, Foner, and yours truly. Hollywood can get students excited about history, and it can teach them useful things sometimes, historically speaking, but it makes the work of the history professor harder. C’est la vie.

    I can live with that, but when I complain about film makers I’m not just being whiny.

    1. Hi Don, thanks for the comment. I can appreciate the extra work placed on profs and teachers as the result of people believing what they see in movies and thinking it’s not only the truth but also the entire truth. Can it not be viewed as an opportunity instead of an obstacle? Show a clip from a movie and discuss the real history?

      What it comes down to, in my view, is that until historians can become Oscar-winning screenwriters and directors, movies are going to have historical inaccuracies because the purpose of making a movie is to tell a great story and get people to fill theatre seats and buy DVDs. Even then, of course, there will be problems, since there are inaccurate textbooks out there as well.

      I think instead of criticizing Spielberg and the movie, the thing to do is to partner with them. Team of Rivals is already connected with the movie. Nothing says historians couldn’t bring up other interesting books to tell a fuller story. “Lincoln” is a great view of one part of the story. How about affirming that and pointing out if you want to know more about the story, go here, and then maybe suggest Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. When the DVD comes out, maybe play some clips and then talk about how we got to that point. Instead of banging heads due to the power of the visual medium, harness that power.

  3. I’m always saddened when historians sweepingly dismiss movies. Yes, the general public is fairly dim, and I imagine it gets tiresome repeatedly “correcting” inaccuracies. But movies can be a gateway into historic interest. I first really started loving history after seeing 1776. While most people will not go the extra step to research the topics from films, films do serve to peak an interest in the subjects they depict. If historians embrace films as an appetizer of sorts and instead of begrudgedly answer “did that really happen?” type questions they should take the opportunity to delve further into the subject. I mean, it is what they’re supposedly passionate about, why not take the opportunity the share the passion, and perhaps pass it along.

    1. Outstanding comment, Karen. It should surprise no one that we agree completely.

      I wonder what Gordon Wood or Joseph Ellis thinks about “1776.” I saw it in Middle School, which is why you saw it growing up. 🙂

      Historians need to harness the power of the medium.

  4. Tom Thompson · · Reply

    While watching the Lincoln movie, it occured to me that it might not all be portrayed accurately. I decided to do some research…I looked on Wikipedia. Now my question is: do I know more or less than when I began my research?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tom. Personally, I take Wikiepedia with a huge grain of salt, but it’s a good thing you’ve decided to look deeper into the facts. The best sources to look at depend on what you’re interested in learning more about. If it’s Lincoln generally, I would recommend the David Herbert Donald biography as a good start. If it’s the process of emancipation and abolition, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial may be your best bet. Best of luck in delving further into the details.

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