Lincoln gets his mouth washed out

At long last, we arrive at the most pressing issue yet regarding Spielberg’s Lincoln: Is there too much cussin’ in it?

The Hollywood Reporter asked David Barton for his take:

“The historical record is clear that Lincoln definitely did not tolerate profanity around him,” Barton says. “There are records of him confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the F-word used by [W.N.] Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”

Barton is overstating his case, as he often does. Lincoln didn’t make a habit of swearing, but he did break out the curse words occasionally, especially when his temper got the better of him. Check out Chapter Seven in Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which discusses some of these episodes. And as we’ve noted before, he wasn’t above telling an off-color joke.

What about those records of Lincoln confronting generals who cursed? Barton doesn’t specify which records he’s talking about, but in an article at his organization’s website he says Lincoln “personally confronted one of his own generals when he learned of his profanity and then urged the general to use his authority to combat that vice.” His source is Arthur Brooks Lapsley’s The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, which briefly mentions the incident without naming any names or providing specific details. Off the top of my head, I don’t know what incident this is.  In any case, I don’t really think we can use this story to draw any broad conclusions about Lincoln’s level of toleration for profanity.  It wouldn’t be unusual for a commander-in-chief to rebuke an officer who used vulgar language in his presence in the nineteenth century.

As for the f-word being “virtually nonexistent” during the Civil War, while the term wasn’t as common or endowed with so many varied meanings as it is now, it wasn’t unknown. It was rare to see the f-word in print, of course, although even during the Victorian era it appeared in pornographic stories.

Barton notes that officers and enlisted men in the Union forces were subject to courts-martial for using profanity, and that’s certainly true. Yet to judge by their own accounts, soldiers in that war—like soldiers in other times and places—swore profusely. “There is so much swearing in this place it would set anyone against that if from no other motive but disgust at hearing it,” wrote one Northern soldier about life in camp. Another noted that “Drinking, Swearing, & Gambling is carried on among Officers and men from the highest to the lowest.”  The same thing was true of the Continental Army, where cursing was officially discouraged but widely practiced.

So if you ask me, here’s the bottom line: While  Abraham Lincoln didn’t curse much, and while profanity wasn’t as ubiquitous in his day as it is in ours, there’s nothing particularly inaccurate about the movie’s language.

None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s interesting that moviegoers are surprised at the notion that nineteenth-century Americans had an arsenal of vulgarities at their disposal and the moxie to use them. I think it’s because they look so stern and dignified in those old paintings and photos. We’re so used to seeing them in gilt frames and on marble pedestals that encountering them in any other way can be a jolt.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

6 responses to “Lincoln gets his mouth washed out

  1. Pingback: Canister! « Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

  2. The movie could have been just as good without the profanity. But as I’ve said, what I like most about the film is that it portrayed Lincoln in some very human moments, like slapping his son and arguing with his wife. Of course, this doesn’t mean I enjoy seeing domestic strife but Abraham Lincoln deserves to be a regular guy, too.

    Knowing that Lincoln couldn’t resist telling bawdy, colorful jokes, I would not be surprised at all to know he used words like shit and fuck. But I understand it’s hard to see historic figures we’ve put on pedestals engaging in lewd behavior.

    Like David Barton, I’m also an evangelical Chrsitian. I believe that Lincoln was also affected by Christ in his lifetime. So was Private John Gleichmann, who served in Company A of the 136th Indiana Infantry. On May 29, 1864, he lamented that “the godlessnes is great, cursing and whoring cries to heaven. Men from our company, yes even married ones, have gone to whore houses and paid 5 and 6 dollars a night… The Christian is tested here.”

    And Corporal James G. Crawford of the 80th Illinois wrote to his parents in 1864 of the desperate need for “good Books or useful papers” or else his fellow soldiers “will be supplied with this worthless yellow backed ‘Literature’ so plentiful in every camp.”

    When I was in college, I went to hear David Barton speak on campus. I have also met other people from his organization, Wallbuilders. Like them, I am very encouraged when I read stories of personal faith from 150 or 200 years ago. Unfortunately, they haven’t provided me a satisfactory answer yet on how people of such Godliness could have tolerated enslaving Africans and destroying their lives and families or wiping out Native Americans and taking their land.

  3. I was a bit late seeing this movie but I felt the movie didn’t need the profanity. The story would have been told just fine without the use of the curse words. Hollywood always seeks to blur the lines it seems.

  4. david barton has a habit of not citing sources, as in his james Madison quotes, which are obviously not true in my opinion as well as some Madison experts who have tried to get him to cite his sources. in my opinion he seems to make things up

  5. Kathy from Kansas

    Whether the scene where Lincoln unexpectedly appears in the three fixers’ lair is historically accurate or not, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. And for me, it rings true with what we know of Lincoln’s sense of humor. IF Bilbo HAD said, “Well, I’ll be f***ed”, I can easily imagine Lincoln responding, “I wouldn’t bet against it!” That is SOOO like Lincoln.

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