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Hollywood Offers Revisionist History In 'Lincoln' Film
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Sitting in the movie theatre watching Lincoln, I was determined to pay close attention to the scene depicting the roll call vote on the proposed 13th Amendment, having earlier received an email from a bar colleague who was of the mind that it may have inaccurately portrayed the vote of the Connecticut delegation. I saw the film with other lawyers, one of whom grabbed a piece of paper and a pen when that scene came, and scratched down the information.
Sure enough, the quickest of Internet searches revealed the error. The film's writers had miscast our state's congressmen as voting against the slavery-banning amendment. There were two reasons to conclude this departure from historical truth was intentional. First, in another historical inaccuracy, the film has Connecticut at the beginning of the roll call; our state's response was thus an especially dramatic and attention-getting scene.
Second, the fact that it took but a one-minute Google search to uncover the error says much. Recently, Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner confirmed that he was not ignorant; that is, he knew the entire four-member Connecticut House delegation had voted for the amendment. He defended his decision to flip the votes as an acceptable use of dramatic license.
Connecticut U.S. Representative Joe Courtney, a Democrat, took to a soapbox over this, using the imprimatur of his congressional office to slam Kushner and the film's director, Steven Spielberg, for essentially defaming the state. Defending the honor of his predecessors in Congress, Courtney made official demand on Spielberg and Kushner for a public retraction and notice of correction to future film-watchers. In Courtney's mind, the mere suggestion that Connecticut was an anti-Lincoln, slavery-tolerant territory of indifferent Yankees is an outrage and an insult. He called out Kushner; the duel began. Amusingly, Kushner sliced up Courtney, effectively dismissing him as a grandstander looking to bring maximum attention to himself by timing and labeling his missive to Kushner as a "pre-Oscar" challenge.
Courtney's opportunistic grandstanding aside, he is right to complain, and Kushner is wrong to assert that use of dramatic license was appropriate on such a matter. Under Kushner's logic, he could have changed Lincoln's party affiliation to Democrat and broken no rule of artistic integrity. This was not a film about a fictional event with fictional characters. This was a film about American history and it should have been accurate on matters of historical record.
But Hollywood has always misled. I groaned through many a movie about lawyers, especially those depicting trials. For dramatic appeal, screenwriters pretend ex-parte conversations with judges are permissible, political speeches by lawyers in front of juries are allowed, non-existent rules of evidence exist, and the bench is populated by dishonest, vindictive creeps. We applaud when the heroic lawyer overcomes a black-robed devil.
As to Joe Courtney, if he is really interested in historical truth, he should acknowledge that it was not his party that freed blacks from the bonds of involuntary servitude, nor was it his party that led the later charge for civil rights legislation. Abolishing slavery was almost exclusively a Republican Party effort only four Democrats voted for it. And contrary to the myth that only "southern segregationist" Democrats were oppositional, the vote on the 13th Amendment took place without them.
Kushner also took Courtney to school on Connecticut history, pointing out that Connecticut barely supported Lincoln and its population was evenly divided over slavery.
Courtney should read (and I strongly recommend) Ann Coulter's latest book, Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama. There you will see the many facts that put the lie to the continuing myth that the GOP has been and remains the "party of white people."
Apart from the facts that the Democratic Party was the obstacle to ending slavery, Democratic opposition to civil rights for blacks continued for many decades. For example, 99 members of Congress signed the "Southern Manifesto" denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Two were Republicans. Ninety-seven were Democrats.
It was a Republican president that sent troops to Little Rock in 1957, and pushed through the 1957 Civil Rights Act and the 1960 Civil Rights Act, against oppositional Democrats. It was the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, not the Democrat Harry Truman, who fully desegregated the military.
The 1957 civil rights bill was passed on the intervention of Vice President Richard Nixon, and was opposed exclusively by Democrats not "Southern" Democrats, but Democrats period. Indeed the bill was weakened, and its enforcement provisions were gutted, by none other than then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. Even with this stripping, the bill was still opposed by 18 senators all of them Democrats.
Joe Courtney the Democrat beasts his breast about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and demands that history be accurately recounted. Next time he takes to his soapbox, he ought to condemn his own party's history and give credit for the nation's progress on civil rights where due to the GOP.
Karen Lee Torre, a New Haven trial lawyer, litigates civil rights cases in the federal courts. Her email address is email@example.com.