As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).
In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”
Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:
I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.
The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:
One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.
As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:
I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.
As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.
The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):
Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement. I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.
On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.
The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.
In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.
Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:
One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.
I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.