Untellable Human Suffering

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, historians are raising different issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

They tell me some do you will take back the Proclamation, don’t do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it. Ought one man to own another, law for or not, who made the law, surely the poor slave did not. so it is wicked, and a horrible Outrage, there is no sense in it, because a man has lived by robbing all his life and his father before him, should he complain because the stolen things found on him are taken.

So wrote Hannah Johnson, of Buffalo, N.Y., to the president in the summer of 1863, encouraging him to be as strong as the son she had sent to fight and die for freedom. Hers was one of many such letters written by black people and addressed to President Lincoln, though it appears, as documented by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, that he probably never saw them.

Yet we do know that he was aware of the inestimable part enslaved people and their abolitionist allies played in the long struggle for emancipation. It was Lincoln who said in 1863, “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union.” We know, from Lincoln’s words, that he had been particularly moved by the contributions of black soldiers.

So when, in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, the title character (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) says to the free black seamstress and activist Elizabeth Keckley, “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley,” or “your people,” it is recognizably a kind of conceit.

Spielberg has elaborated: “One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.” This, of course, is what we generally value most about art. Yet it is sometimes the case that the impossible places art takes us are impossibly implausible.

The film is in many ways magnificent. Lincoln towers as a president facing the possibility of another spring of unspeakable grief and loss on the war’s battlefields, even as the defeat of the Confederacy seemed more certain than ever. And withal, the question of slavery remained constitutionally unresolved.

In these last months Lincoln would use the power of his office to push for a resolution. Interestingly, the film provides little insight into the sources of Lincoln’s transformation into an advocate of the 13th Amendment.

How, for example, did witnessing enslaved people move the Union agenda in a far different and more radically democratic direction than he intended shape his sense of the politically possible? Was it (as the film suggests) his own internal moral compass, his “extraordinary political genius and faith in democracy,” that virtually alone brought him to secure passage of the amendment?

Lincoln had announced, in his first Inaugural Address, that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.” He said he had neither a “lawful right to do so” nor an “inclination to do so.” In his famous letter to Horace Greeley in 1862 he wrote that if he could save the Union without interfering with slavery, or free some or all of the slaves to save the Union, he would do so. In 1864 he had reminded the South of the chance it had squandered by refusing his offer, in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, to return to the Union and keep slaves, resulting in his embrace of the 13th Amendment as “a fitting and necessary conclusion to the final success of the Union cause.”

Perhaps, given the stakes involved and the stated views of the principal creators of the film, the rather grandiose failure to acknowledge the long history of abolitionism and slaves’ wartime resistance that preceded the debate over the amendment could not have been otherwise. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner did not lack for opportunities to tell the larger story or the facts on which to base such a narrative. It was just not the movie they intended to make.

Kushner tells us that he read some 20 books on Lincoln in preparation for writing the screenplay, along with 19th-century novels and newspapers, to gather a sense of contemporary syntax, among a “whole host of other things.” One wonders if his reading lists included Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, the newspaper Douglass edited, or the speeches he gave. Did Kushner read anything on the estimated 500,000 enslaved people who fled the South’s plantations and farms or of the resistance mounted by those slaves who stayed?

Based on comments on NPR in which Kushner said the tragedy of Reconstruction lay in the nation’s “inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way,” the answer would seem to be no. “The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering,” Kushner has concluded. This is an old and familiar line (one would have thought no longer tenable) that may help to explain a narrative that leaves little room for the role of black people.

The film’s flaws in this regard resist calls to see it mainly as a testament to the power of political compromise and raw politics. Nonetheless, I would argue that Lincoln remains an important film for the story it does tell as much as for the one it does not.

The film is arguably at its most powerful in the glimpses it provides into the tortured path the abolition of slavery took at the national level. This story of the effort to win passage of the 13th Amendment gives us a vivid portrait of the national problem of slavery and democracy. Here we have not Southern slaveholders protesting abolition but white Northerners, like the Ohio constituent who worried that the amendment would lead to an influx of “Alabama coons.” Here, in the opposition to the amendment, we see clearly the power and intransigence of racism and a widespread refusal of the idea of human equality.

In the end, no matter how much some might wish otherwise, Lincoln is not a film about how emancipation was achieved in the United States. But neither, importantly, does it purport to be. We get a few glimpses of black people in the film—black men in uniform and combat, and a cursory glance at free black people in the White House. We learn little about how constitutional limitations that prevented Lincoln from freeing the slaves, except via his powers as commander in chief, left slaves not yet free most responsible for making (in Lincoln’s words) “their actual freedom.”

The actions and sacrifice of the enslaved and abolitionists, and their impact on Lincoln’s transformation, are excised, as is any sense of the continuing struggle of the enslaved as they took the road that Lincoln advised, at the risk of “untellable human suffering.” We get nothing of what Du Bois, in the subtitle of his seminal study Black Reconstruction, memorably termed “a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880.”

Thavolia Glymph, an associate professor of history, African, and African-American studies at Duke University, and a faculty member at its Population Research Institute, is the author of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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