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Peck: ‘Lincoln’ reminds us of ideal of liberty

Graham A. Peck

Graham A. Peck

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:44AM



Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” arrived with the nation in the middle of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, again facing the challenge of sifting through the past.

Remembering the Civil War has never been easy for Americans. Post-war Northerners deemed it a necessary evil, one justified and perhaps even hallowed by the nation’s purification through blood.

Southerners bitterly recollected Northern aggression that destroyed their families, society, economy and political system.

Black Americans mixed the joyous memories of emancipation with the painful and portentous failure of Reconstruction.

The nation’s memories are perhaps more complicated now than they were during the Civil War’s centennial 50 years ago. While defenses of the old South are rare today, so too is the confident Northern nationalism that celebrated the ending of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Instead, in a society more critical of national shortcomings, the Northerners’ motives are frequently considered suspect, devoid of any great moral purpose. Consequently, we find it hard to celebrate even icons such as Abraham Lincoln.

Although never universally admired — Northern Democrats during the war and Southerners long after considered him a tyrant, and more than a few historians consider him culpable for the outbreak of the war — Lincoln now is under fire from Americans who accuse him of being insufficiently committed to emancipation. The title of Lerone Bennett Jr.’s book about Lincoln’s road to emancipation says it all — “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.”

Into this mix comes Spielberg’s movie, a story about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in early 1865, shortly after Lincoln’s re-election.

Once ratified, the amendment permanently abolished slavery in the United States and hence stands as a crowning achievement of Lincoln’s presidency and a turning point in the nation’s history. Spielberg uses it as a prism to judge Americans’ commitment to national ideals.

Spielberg’s judgment carries weight because feature films are perhaps our most powerful historical narratives. They draw in millions of people who do not wish to read complex explanations of a seemingly alien past.

Scripted dialogue, memorable performances, mesmerizing visuals and evocative soundtracks seduce viewers by making the past come alive in a way that no historian can. And, unsurprisingly, Spielberg employs his medium to masterful effect, dramatizing history with enviable skill to drive home his point.

Yet Spielberg also tells a great historical truth. He knows that Southern slaveholders launched the Civil War to preserve slavery and that many Northerners embraced emancipation only to preserve the Union.

Spielberg shows this ugly side to our national history by showcasing Northern Democrats’ vehement resistance to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Their visceral contempt for black people is starkly portrayed and accurately reflects most mid-19th century white Americans’ racial views.

But it’s precisely for this reason that Spielberg’s ultimate judgment rings true. In contrast to Lincoln’s modern detractors, Spielberg understands the political challenge that Lincoln and other antislavery Americans faced — Southerners’ implacable determination to maintain slavery combined with Northern Democrats’ unshakable commitment to white supremacy.

By contrast, Lincoln advocated a “new birth of freedom.” His commitment to antislavery politics flowed from the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed human equality to justify consent of the governed. And he sought to preserve liberty in America so it could remain a hope for people everywhere.

This was a noble goal and remains so. The cause of liberty is still our cause, and “Lincoln” should renew our devotion to that cause for which Northern soldiers “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Graham A. Peck is an associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago.



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