Sean Wilentz: Lincoln in Hollywood, from Griffith to Spielberg

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: The New Republic, Lincoln, D.W. Griffith

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton.

... Lincoln is a remarkable historical rendering, offering a deft, knowledgeable depiction of Lincoln as well as a shrewd handling of the politics of the Civil War and emancipation. But the film’s larger importance lies elsewhere. For a century and more, American culture has been polluted by outrageous and pernicious portrayals of the war that apologize for the Confederacy and, by extension, for slavery. A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what American historians know as the myth of the Lost Cause, vaunting the slaveholding South. With its gallant white Southrons and its happy-go-lucky slaves, living an idyll heavy with the scent of blooming magnolia, it is an all-American variant of the larger genre of reactionary sentimentalism that is as old as the Romantics.

The myth, in turn, has helped to perpetuate long discredited views of the war and its origins that first appeared in writings by the Confederacy’s apologists after 1865. Not the least of these is the twisted proposition, advanced by President Jefferson Davis in rebuttal to Lincoln, that states’ rights and not slavery was the primary issue that led to secession and war. Much has changed over the decades in Americans’ perceptions of the Civil War—a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center showed that respondents who had a negative response to displays of the Confederate flag outnumbered those who had a positive response by a margin of three to one; but the same survey showed that nearly half of those polled believed that the war was mainly about states’ rights, substantially more than those who named slavery.

Gone with the Wind, the book and the movie, is the most familiar work in the Lost Cause canon, but the most influential, artistically as well as historically, has been D.W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1915 and famously (although apocryphally) described by President Woodrow Wilson as “like writing history with lightning,” The Birth of a Nation brilliantly depicts a power-mad and merciless North vanquishing a gallant Old South. Pillaged by black Union soldiers, then ravished by bestial ex-slaves and tyrannical Yankee politicians during Reconstruction, Griffith’s South seems broken and undone, until the courageous godly white gladiators of the Ku Klux Klan overthrow the vile oppressors. Lincoln, a significant figure in the middle of the film, appears bizarrely as a Southern sympathizer, whose murder paved the way for all of the horrors visited upon the defeated Confederacy. And although it may be difficult to believe today, the film set the cultural tone for what was becoming the conventional wisdom—inside the academy as well as among Americans at large—about the Civil War era. The war came to be perceived as a tragic, avoidable conflict that led to a cruel and corrupt imposition of rapacious Negro equality on subjugated Southern whites. What the proSouthern Dunning School (headed by William A. Dunning of Columbia University) was to historical scholarship on the war and its aftermath, The Birth of Nation was to American popular culture....

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