Will the Real Abraham Lincoln Please Stand Up?


Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of "New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.

Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

This is not another review of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln.

Historians Kate Masur and Eric Foner have already raised what I consider two of the most important critiques of the movie. Masur found it “disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them ... Mr. Spielberg’s Lincoln helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.” She called the movie “an opportunity squandered.”

In a letter to The New York Times, Foner wrote, “David Brooks praises the new movie Lincoln” but “ Brooks, and the film, offer a severely truncated view. Emancipation -- like all far-reaching political change -- resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.” Brooks and the movie left out the campaign for the 13th Amendment headed by feminist foremothers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the role of enslaved Africans in bringing about the end of slavery by fleeing plantations, joining the Union army, and even “sacking plantation homes and seizing land.” Foner concluded, “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.”

Every historical movie, at best, can only offer a snapshot of individuals and events. To paint Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” Spielberg focused almost entirely on December 1864 through January 1865, two months in between the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in November and his assassination in April. However, if we look at a different “five minutes” in Lincoln’s life the snapshot and movie would be very different. We would see a very different, much less endearing, President Lincoln.

For example, in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, a month before the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln proposed a constitutional amendment that would have included compensation for former slaveholders and gradual emancipation that would have extended slavery in the United States into the twentieth century. Under this proposal, enslaved Africans received no compensation for centuries of unpaid labor and would be subject to voluntary colonization (deportation) outside the United States.

In 2000, Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine, published Forced into Glory, Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. The book, based on an article first published in 1968, was reissued again in 2007. Bennett charged, “academia and media had been hiding the truth for 135 years and that Lincoln was not the great emancipator or the small emancipator or the economy-sized emancipator.”

To support this position, Bennett quoted Lincoln from a speech in 1858 during the Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates held during their campaign for senator from Illinois.

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

Bennett’s article and book were not well received by historians. In a New York Times review titled “Lincoln the Devil,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson dismissed Bennett’s book as “600 pages of angry, relentless and repetitious prose” that “suffers from crucial flaws” and “distortions in interpretation.” The sub-title of the review, sarcastically credited Bennett with not being “deceived by the tricks that fooled Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.” According to McPherson, most Lincoln scholars considered Bennett’s original article “a tendentious work of scholarship, marred by selective evidence taken out of context, suppressive of contrary evidence, heedless of the cultural and political climate that constrained Lincoln's options and oblivious of Lincoln’s capacity for growth, which enabled him to transcend the racist environment of his youth”

In the Los Angeles Times, Eric Foner, a more modulated voice and also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, wrote, “Apart from Bennett's indignant tone, little in the Ebony piece was actually new. Millions of readers had already encountered Richard Hofstadter's brilliant portrait of Lincoln in The American Political Tradition, which belittled the Emancipation Proclamation and pointedly juxtaposed Lincoln's 1858 speech in Chicago affirming the equality of man with his address in pro-slavery southern Illinois the same year insisting that he opposed "bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races."

Unfortunately, what Richard Hofstadter understood about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1948, what Lerone Bennett was so angry about in 1968, and what Foner believed to be not “new” in 2000, missed being included in Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, which will probably define the way we understand Lincoln and Emancipation for decades.

After viewing Spielberg’s Lincoln, as a historian, teacher, and teacher educator, I wondered: what do people really know about Abraham Lincoln, the end of slavery in the United States, and the American Civil War?

With the help of classroom teachers affiliated with the Hofstra University teacher education program I conducted a brief, unscientific, impromptu quiz with ten multiple-choice questions. Participants included students from an ethnically diverse high school on Long Island, an overwhelmingly white suburban high school, a middle school in Florida, college students taking a class about slavery, and students in a teacher education program.

Some of the questions on the quiz were intended to be simple and almost everybody got them correct. Who was Abraham Lincoln? (a) star athletic and Olympic champion; b) award-winning actor; c) 16th President of the United States; or d) well-known vampire slayer). What bill has Abraham Lincoln’s picture? (five dollar).

The key question on the quiz, at least for my purpose, was the last one. How did slavery in the United States finally end? The choices were:

a) Slavery ended in 1776 when the colonies declared independence from Great Britain.

b) Slavery ended in 1820 when voters passed a new law declaring slavery illegal.

c) Lincoln ended slavery in the United States in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

d) Slavery did not end until 1865 and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The correct answer, in case you are unsure, is “d) Slavery did not end until 1865 and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.” Choices “a)” and “b)” unfortunately, are just wrong. Choice “c)” was the tricky one and the point of this exercise. Since the Emancipation Proclamation only liberated enslaved Africans kept in bondage in rebel-held territory, very few people were actually freed at the time, the reason Lincoln and his supporters wanted the 13th Amendment passed.

Sadly for the future, the worst performers on the quiz were people studying to be elementary school teachers. Twenty students took the quiz and thirteen, or 65 percent percent, got the answer incorrect. Seventeen students studying to be secondary school social studies teachers took the quiz. Fourteen, or 82% got the question correct, but they all should have known the answer.

I do not know exactly when they learned it, but 56 percent of the twenty-five students from the diverse Long Island high school, 58 percent of the sixty students from the overwhelmingly white suburban high school, and 69 percent of the Florida middle school students got the answer right.

The students in my freshman history/anthropology class who were in the midst of studying slavery in New York State and city, and who had actually discussed the question in class on multiple occasions, did the best. Fourteen students took the quiz and twelve or 86 percent percent had the answer correct -- but two did not.

Whether you agree with everything Lerone Bennett wrote about Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and continuing white racism in the United States, it is clear that many Americans do not have a very good grasp of the nation’s history. I think it is also pretty clear that myths and movies have a greater impact on national consciousness than do historians and history books.

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