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Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

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.

And another:

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.

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October 14, 2012

A Re-Election Campaign for the Ages

A little humor for your Sunday: Lincoln1864.com, a website devoted to re-electing President Lincoln and electing Senator Andrew Johnson as Vice-President, discovered via blogger Matt Yglesias.

It’s unclear who’s behind it; the only live links go to pages devoted to campaign finance reform. But the site contains quite a bit of detail, and is clearly offered with malice toward none (save perhaps George McClellan) and with charity to all (of us).

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June 7, 2012

The Year of Mashing Up Slavery

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:12 am

. . . with vampire slayers and western gunfighters

Historians of 19th-century America, the pop-culture trend of dressing up modern genre tropes in period-drama drag has finally reached us. A couple of weeks from now, the latest big summer action movie will be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the mind of the man who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The plot posits a Lincoln who has secretly been using his rail-splitting ax skills on vampires his whole life; it seems that poor Nancy Hanks was actually murdered by bloodsuckers, and young Abe trained himself to become Whigman and fight back.  Slavery and the southern Confederacy are really vampire conspiracies to farm human beings and take control of a nation for themselves. It will take a vampire-aware chief executive to put a stake in their plans. There seems to be some kind of showdown between Lincoln and 20 vampires in a Gone With the Wind-style plantation Big House. Or at least that is what I can gather from the trailer. No time to read the book just now.

I wish had more hopes for the movie being any good — it looks like the kind of CGI-choked living cartoon that is typical of our current cinematic era — but I could not help but feel some bemusement at the trailer‘s opening narration. Abe the Vampire Slayer seems to be writing an historiographic essay in his diary about the superiority of social over political history: “History prefers legends to men, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, and forgets the blood. Whatever history remembers of me, if it remembers anything at all, it shall only be a fraction of the truth.”  So what we seem to have here is the labor history of vampire hunting — History from the Coffin Up, I guess you could call it.

For Christmas, well, I will let the eminent scholar of Caribbean slave rebellion Laurent Dubois give you the news, delivered via Twitter last night: “Tarantino does plantation slavery. What could possibly go wrong?” Quentin Tarantino of ultraviolent postmodern gangster movie fame, that is. You may remember his last movie, and first foray into history, Inglourious Basterds, the one where the magic of cinema and a band of Jewish commandos kill Hitler. In Django Unchained, a Roots-ish Jamie Foxx gets rescued from a slave trader’s coffle that seems to have accidentally wandered into Death Valley on its way from Virginia to Mississippi. Django then teams up with his rescuer, a strangely German-sounding bounty hunter, to rid the West of racist crackers and rescue his wife from the vicious planter-and-overseer combo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson. We can only hope that some of the mayhem will be scored to anachronistic pop songs; James Brown sounds pretty good in the trailer.

What I find interesting about this new departure in historical action trash is the way both these films seem to represent a shift in a long-established pop-cultural convention regarding the use of the Civil War as “backstory” in adventure fiction. In popular westerns, especially, if the hero was a Civil War veteran, he was almost always an ex-Confederate, usually someone who had been victimized in some way by the Union and went west in exile . Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, originally from Virginia, was one of the first. A common western scenario was vividly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, in which a marauding band of “redlegs” in Union army uniforms burn Clint’s farm and murder his family, throwing in the rape without which no ’70s revenge film was complete. He then spends the movie hunting and being hunted by glowering heavies in blue. Conveniently, the ex-Confederate hero never has a word to say about slavery and seems to be remarkably free of racial animosity for a man who had fought to preserve white supremacy. John Carter is the only unprejudiced creature on all of Barsoom, bringing Virginian tolerance and civilization to the Red Planet’s multi-hued warring savages.  (Carter also kills a considerable number of bigoted no-hopers with his low-gravity-enabled super powers.) Josey Wales ends with Clint defending a multi-racial group of social outcasts from a pack of degenerate Union veterans. The convention was going strong right into 2012, with Disney’s John Carter film and the AMC transcontinental railroad drama Hell on Wheels. The latter features yet another ex-Confederate hero who also happens to be the least racist guy around. American culture’s devotion to the idea of lone rebel as the only possible repository of decency, honesty, and freedom — as opposed to the seemingly inevitable perfidy and rigidity of any character who serves an institution like the U.S. government — always seemed to trump the question of which side in the Civil War had actually fought for freedom.

In these two upcoming films, however, the script seems to have been flipped: we get antislavery heroes wreaking bloody vengeance on monstrous southern slaveowners, some of them literally monsters.  It is doubtless unintentional but still symbolic of the shift that the actor who plays vampire-hunting Lincoln, Benjamin Walker, was previously best known for playing an inappropriately young and handsome version of a pro-slavery president in the stage musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  It’s sad that it took lurid post-modern mash-ups of exhausted genres for Hollywood to finally get past its infatuation with Confederates, but with so much cultural recycling, I guess every idea has to come to the top of the pile eventually.

[UPDATE: YouTube embeds not working too well here lately, so instead I switched them out for images that will lead to trailers when clicked. NEW UPDATE: Testing new embed plugin below the jump. Let me know if it works.]

(more…)

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February 28, 2010

Famous Events on February 27

In addition to being the birthday of Publick Occurrences 2.0′s senior proprietor, February 27 is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union address in 1860 (making this the sesquicentennial, come to think of it).  I was actually walking near Cooper Union this past evening, which gave me the chance to reflect on great men of American history and great American historians.  A fine way to say farewell to this short month.

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July 6, 2009

Chopping Down Old Hickory

Filed under: Civil War Era,Conspiracy theory,Jacksonian Era,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:16 pm

I imagine a lot of readers here already subscribe to H-SHEAR, the Early Republic historians’ email list, but for those who don’t, here is a notice for a bit of worthwhile historical television that is airing tonight, from Dan Feller, director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project:

This coming Monday, July 6, the PBS show “History Detectives” will air a segment featuring the work of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee Department of History.  The episode concerns a letter threatening Jackson’s assassination, signed with the name Junius Brutus Booth (a famous actor and father of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth) and sent to Jackson on July 4, 1835.  Housed in the Library of Congress and long known to scholars, the letter has been presumed by Jackson biographers and political historians (following the lead of John Spencer Bassett, who printed it in his Correspondence of Andrew Jackson with Booth’s name in quotation marks) to be the work of a pseudonymous writer, while some Booth biographers and theater historians have accepted its authenticity but considered it a gag among friends. As “History Detectives” will show, the Jackson Papers staff were instrumental in proving that neither is correct.  Booth really wrote the letter, apparently in one of his legendary choleric rages.  He later apologized.  Killing presidents, or threatening to, seems to have run in the family.

I will be interested to see how the show handles the Booths. One of the cardinal points in my History of Conspiracy Theories course is that Lincoln’s was perhaps the only truly political assassination of all the presidential assassinations. I was not aware of the elder Booth’s threat against Jackson, but I would not have put the letter’s attribution in quotation marks. A guy named Brutus who named his son John Wilkes obviously had some extravagant, self-dramatizing ideas about fighting for freedom.

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Now playing: Mott The Hoople – Violence
via FoxyTunes

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December 2, 2008

Hillary’s Folly?

Filed under: Obama Administration,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:04 pm

I do plan to have some thoughts on this “team of rivals” Cabinet concept, if I find time. The shorter version is that while it may be a good idea for a disciplined leader like Barack Obama to fill his Cabinet with strong personalities in this especially gutless, herd-minded age, the idea that this follows Abraham Lincoln’s example is considerably off-base, the adorable Doris Kearns Goodwin notwithstanding. Though the media and popular historians love to see genius strategies in every move that popular past presidents made, at the time of his election, Lincoln really was a minor figure laboring under serious political constraints — winning a four-way election where you were not even on the ballot in many parts of the country will have that effect — and he desperately needed all major northern factions on board with his presidency, including unionist Democrats and various state party bosses. In other words, the original “team of rivals” was a bug, not a feature, and the avoidance of “groupthink” was very far from being one of Lincoln’s most serious problems. Obama is in a vastly different and far stronger position.

Also, a memo to Hillary Clinton: Lincoln also chose his chief party rival, William Seward, as a Secretary of State, but that precedent may not portend great things for your historical stature. Once I started training to be a historian, I learned that Seward was one of the true giants of 19th-century American politics. Seward expected to be running Lincoln’s administration, and understandably (though inaccurately) so, as he was a co-founder and longtime standard-bearer of the Whig and Republican parties. But what happened to Seward’s public image after eight years as Secretary of State? He ended up a trivia question. The only thing I remember learning about William Seward as a school kid was “Seward’s Folly,” the purchase of Sarah Palin’s moose-hunting grounds. Seward was so eclipsed by Lincoln that the schoolbooks even left out the fact that John Wilkes Booth’s assassination conspiracy tried to get Seward, too, but only succeeded in stabbing him repeatedly in the face.

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