Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Resilience of Historic Myths
By Ruth Hull
Think about the word “history” — his story. History is always told by the victors. Victors have the money and power to acquire spin doctors to come up with created history so these winners will sound so good that they are unrecognizable.
Some popular myths (as in not true):
- Lady Godiva’s ride (sorry),
- Columbus discovering America,
- Washington’s cherry tree confession,
- Betsy Ross sewing the first flag (though she was a successful businesswoman and flag maker),
- Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address being written on the back of a paper bag,
- Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation being written to free the slaves,
- John Wilkes Booth as a crazed lone assassin,
- Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone crazed assassin,
- Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,
- The killings of Osama Bin Laden by Bush and Obama (in different years), and
- Obama as a Socialist Muslim (when in fact he is a Christian and an extreme capitalist).
Some even cooler myths that I had never heard can be found at: Debunked Myths about the U.S. Presidents.
With Thanksgiving approaching, some people want to re-create the early days of the early settlers.
Remember Plymouth, a place where the Pilgrims did not land on a rock. There is a commemorative rock there now. Jamestown was founded first.
In Jamestown, one of the more interesting dishes was human beings. Yes, check out Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” Many of us were descended from cannibals. Now, while known cannibals like the Jamestown settlers were white, there are no documented instances of non-white cannibalistic societies. Such non-white societies are myths. So maybe a white Thanksgiving isn’t a good idea if you want to keep your body parts.
If you wish to eat like the Pilgrims, make sure you use your fingers. Howard Zinn calls Thanksgiving, “the celebration of the friendly dinner that came before the genocide.” So, in keeping with tradition, have dinner with your neighbors and then slaughter them.
The Lincoln movie by Spielberg also played into historical myths. Sometimes myths are fun. In the case of Lincoln, they were very entertaining. It’s easy to get lost in these myths and some believers are willing to fight against anyone trying to provide them with facts. Though Lincoln scared the South into seceding, he was at best a reluctant abolitionist, preferring an intact Union to freeing even one slave. Occasionally, he would say something to appease abolitionists and then go back to statements expressing his belief in inequality of the races. His letter to Horace Greeley is consistent with this as were his statements in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Emancipation Proclamation, which could have freed slaves in the Union territories but specifically did not free even one slave in the Union. The Proclamation was designed to demoralize the South, against which the Union was fighting while giving the appearance that it actually stood for something. Lincoln opposed interracial marriage. He spoke of deporting the Blacks to Africa and he supported fugitive slave laws. An African-American scholar named Leone Bennett, Jr., wrote a book in 2007 calling Lincoln a racist and documenting his claims directly from Lincoln’s speeches. Mr. Bennett ignored the myth-writers and therefore stirred up a lot of anger among whites who insisted their white President freed the slaves single-handedly. The book is called, “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” Regardless of your feelings about Mr. Bennett, Lincoln’s own words in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere show he did not consider himself an abolitionist. While we may wish Lincoln had been a stronger opponent of slavery, we are stuck with the facts as they were. It is hard to think our leaders were so ignorant that they didn’t get that even debating before ending slavery was itself an abomination.
In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, this is one of the most repeated of Lincoln’s statements. Here in the sixth debate, he is quoting his anti-abolitionist position to prove his consistency on this point.
“After reading I added these words: ‘Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any great length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery or the black race, and this is the whole of it; any thing that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so. I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.’” (source)
The Lincoln movie does have a certain amount of charm. The favorite part for Israel’s Likud Party is undoubtedly towards the end. Why would an 1865 Abraham Lincoln be reminiscing about wanting to take off to Israel? The Israeli plug was silly at best. Robert Lincoln refuted the false historical claim that his father was Jewish. The timing of the movie’s opening to coincide with the attack on Gaza was likely something Spielberg didn’t expect, but those in the Israeli leadership, who met with Spielberg, before the filming started, did have choices and they chose to massacre children on the opening weekend.
The movie also diminished the contributions of African-Americans and women in getting the 13th Amendment adopted, making it look as if the Amendment was a gratuity granted to them. In Lincoln, the physical handing of the 13th Amendment document to the African-American love interest of Thaddeus Stevens symbolizes the idea that it was a gift handed down from the Whites as opposed to something the Blacks inherently deserved.
Embellishing to build up our leaders as role models is sometimes considered useful, but not when the admission of teens to college depends on their getting 5′s on their Advanced Placement U.S. History exams. Fortunately for this year’s AP students, there is half a year to dispel the myths of this movie and get top scores. The best prep for that particular AP exam is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.
Now, while the Spielberg movie mixed myths with history, it left out Lincoln’s opposition to corporate rule and also the special holiday he gave America: Thanksgiving.
Lincoln was theoretically (though this could be another myth) inspired by editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England editor of Godey’s Book, to create the occasion. In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, he declared the National Thanksgiving Holiday.
So have a Happy Thanksgiving. If you want to see a movie over the holiday weekend, a good choice is the final chapter in the Twilight series. Breaking Dawn, Part 2, may well turn out to be the best anti-war movie of the year. See it and you will find out why.
Ruth Hull is the chairman of a liberal Democratic organization that is working to move the country towards its true base, the people. She has organized major human rights events and worked with some of the most liberal leaders in America. Her career has included work as a criminal defense attorney, a licensed private investigator, an educator and a writer.