Tag Archives: slavery

Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

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Lincoln looking south from Peoria

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses.  The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery.  Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong.  The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.

The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.

Abraham Lincoln in 1854. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension.  He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve.  Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery.  He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.”  He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”   Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”

To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward.  But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it.  Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors.  Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it.  This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.

For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best.  His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices.  On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric.  Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet.  He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves.  That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.

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A proclamation visitation

The honest-to-goodness original Emancipation Proclamation came to Nashville for a limited engagement, and since my cousin and I are dedicated history aficionados, we hit the road to see it.  I would’ve snapped a photo, but…

photo-9

Anyway, as an unexpected bonus, we got to see the Thirteenth Amendment, too.  The Tennessee State Museum hosted these items as part of a special Civil War exhibit from the National Archives, and even if you don’t see the proclamation itself, the exhibition is still worth a visit.  It uses NARA holdings to illustrate various subjects relating to the war, so you get a sense of the incredible variety and value of primary sources from the period as well as learning about the conflict itself.  Check out Gordon Belt’s blog for some photos.

This was one of the most rewarding public history experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Getting to see the proclamation was great, of course, but what I enjoyed almost as much was seeing the other visitors enjoy themselves.  People of every age and background were there; the TSM was open late to accommodate the crowds, and as we left, the line of ticket holders and standbys was as long as it had been when we entered.  While everyone waited to be admitted, the staff passed around handouts with transcriptions of the proclamation’s text, and visitors huddled in groups to read them, discussing particular passages and arguing over implications and meanings.

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Miscellany

  • If you’re within driving distance of Nashville, don’t forget about the special exhibition of the original Emancipation Proclamation at the Tennessee State Museum, Feb. 12-18.  Viewing hours are limited and lines may be long, so click here to learn how to make advance reservations.  Some time slots are already full.
  • Hey, speaking of Lincoln, did you know that in addition to leading a Marxist war effort, he was also an “unscrupulous fascist“?  A sneaky devil, that Lincoln.
  • Here’s an interesting history of the sites associated with Lincoln’s early life.
  • Thoughts from East Tennessee on the importance of family heirlooms.
  • There’s another proposed state law to prevent people from fiddling with or renaming monuments.  This one is right here in Tennessee.
  • Some info on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Chattanooga Campaign.
  • Mt. Vernon has acquired an original painting by Benjamin Latrobe.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Rep. Joe Courtney makes a mountain out of a molehill

I can understand why he’d be miffed that Lincoln wrongly depicts representatives from his state voting against the Thirteenth Amendment, but sending a letter to Spielberg asking him to fix it in time for the DVD release is going a little overboard.

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Remind me again why this guy is an authority

Whenever Glenn Beck and David Barton get together to talk about history, you know you’re in for a show.

Check out this conversation they had about the movie Lincoln.  Beck asks Barton about the film’s accuracy, and Barton claims that, contrary to what the film shows, the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress easily as a “slam dunk” and without all the wheeling and dealing.

In reality, the vote in the HOR was anything but a “slam dunk.”  Approval of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority, not a simple one, and the Thirteenth Amendment just barely passed.  A mere handful of additional nays, and it wouldn’t have.

Barton’s supporters are always assuring us that he’s an expert in matters constitutional and historical; he does know how new amendments get added to the Constitution, right?

As for the “wheeling and dealing,” Lincoln’s administration did, in fact, put quite a bit of pressure congressmen to support the amendment.  The exact nature and extent of that pressure is a matter of some uncertainty (for obvious reasons, it’s not the sort of thing that leaves a paper trail), but that Lincoln was more heavily involved in this congressional matter than was usual for him is pretty well established.

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Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Abraham Lincoln spent the morning of Dec. 31, 1862 meeting with his cabinet to revise the final text of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was due to go into the effect the next day. On the morning of January 1, 1863, after an 11 A.M. reception at the White House, he signed the final, official copy of the document, which had been prepared by the State Department. Frederick Seward, the son of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was an eyewtiness:

At noon, accompanying my father, I carried the broad parchment in a large portfolio under my arm. We, threading our way through the throng in the vicinity of the White House, went upstairs to the President’s room, where Mr. Lincoln speedily joined us. The broad sheet was spread open before him on the Cabinet table. Mr. Lincoln dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the sheet, seemed to hesitate. Looking around, he said:

“I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say ‘he had some compunctions.’ But anyway, it is going to be done.”

So saying, he slowly and carefully wrote his name at the bottom of the proclamation. The signature proved to be unusually clear, bold, and firm, even for him, and a laugh followed at his apprehension. My father, after appending his own name, and causing the great seal to be affixed, had the important document placed among the archives. Copies were at once given to the press.

Many abolitionist churches in the North and communities of contraband slaves in Union camps in the South held watch night services on Dec. 31 to await the final proclamation. This year, on the 150th anniversary of the proclamation, some organizations are continuing this tradition, and the document is on exhibit for a limited time at the National Archives.


A Union soldier reads the proclamation to an enslaved family in this 1864 engraving by J.W. Watts. Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University

You can read the final proclamation’s text in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, towit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James[,] Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New-Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk & Portsmouth [)]; and which excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

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