Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

You know that movie? The one where there are good guys and there are bad guys.   And the bad guys are doing terrible things to society and the good guys are fighting them. And it looks like the good guys will lose, but then in the end they eliminate the bad guys.

Yeah, it’s Star Wars. No, check that. The Avengers. Or maybe I mean Die Hard. Uh, is it Braveheart? Or maybe that classic western, Shane. No, it is every James Bond movie ever made. Wait, of course. It is….The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, OK.  The Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story is a very common formula. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite stories. For that matter, it’s a favorite story in a lot of other places in our culture.

Actually, the movie I have in mind is The Green Berets, with John Wayne (who did a few films, it seems, with this formula).

The film is about the Vietnam War. It came out in 1968, right in the middle of the war. There is a moment early in the movie when a group of reporters receives a history lesson. It’s obvious there is some controversy about the war and the public has been invited to a press conference to hear the soldiers’ side of the story. A reporter named Beckworth asks the Green Berets about the South Vietnamese government, pointing out they do not have free elections or a Constitution, even though a committee was formed to write one.

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there nothing he cannot do?

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there anything he cannot do?

The officer with the Green Beret-ish name of Sargent Muldoon then gives everyone a little history lesson to explain why the U.S. military is supporting South Vietnam.  (The clip in the link above is of the whole press conference in the film, about four minutes long.  The history lesson begins around minute 2:30, if you want to see that part):

“The school I went to Mr. Beckworth, taught us that the thirteen colonies, with proper and educated leadership, all with the same goal in mind, after the Revolutionary War, took from 1776 to 1787, eleven years of peaceful effort, before they came up with a paper that all thirteen colonies would sign, our present Constitution.”

With the history lesson out of the way, the movie then heads off to Vietnam where John Wayne and the good guys fight bravely for the free world. This includes a cute boy whom the film writers decided to give the very un-Vietnamese-ish name of “Hamchunk.”  (OK, that last comment has nothing to do with the point of this post.  I just have a little mental spasm every time I think about a movie giving the name “Hamchunk” to an Asian boy).

It’s typical John Wayne fare and fun if you like that sort of thing. The theme song is catchy.

As a historian, though, I can’t help myself. Sargent Muldoon has some factual problems. For instance, the United States actually had a constitution before The Constitution — it was called the Articles of Confederation. But truth be told, that doesn’t bother me too much. Hollywood regularly messes up its historical facts and this is the type of goof that most people wouldn’t remember anyway.

The bigger problem I have is this: it’s the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy narrative.

Now, Good Guy vs. Bad Guy stories are often fun and exciting. A lot of interesting plots and stories have been told with this simple formula. And on a certain level, it reflects something that we all should know (and Christians should know): that ultimately, some day, good will triumph over evil in this world.

But it stinks as analysis for how the world is today. And it stinks as a formula for how good will ultimately triumph over evil.  And it stinks as analysis of human nature.

(Sorry to be a spoil sport here, for all of you John Wayne fans. Be thankful you are not my kids, who had to endure this sort of thing from me when we watched movies).

The problem is this: I instinctively identify with the Good Guys in these films. After all, I like to think of myself as The Good Guy. The one who is right, and knowledgeable and can handle evil in the world through my own wits, courage and effort.

And that kind of thinking tends to blind me to my own limitations, my failures, and the sin within me. In fact, I like that blindness.  Who wants to see their own limitations, failures and sins?

But (spoiler alert) I am not going to overcome the sins of the world by my own effort, even if I join up with a bunch of other Good Guys. Apart from saving the world, it is a problem in dull, ordinary, daily life when I lose sight of my deep need for God’s grace and wisdom and guidance.

OK, we Christians know this. We know these movies are just entertainment.

Do we?

This brief observation about advertising is brought to you by Apple's logo. Have you ever seen it before?

The brief observation in the text to left about advertising is brought to you by Apple’s logo. Have you ever seen it before?

Here is something to consider: isn’t it true that if we hear a story over and over and over again, (without reflection or an alternative story to challenge the dominant story) it is likely to seep into out being, without us realizing it. Shoot, it doesn’t even have to be a story. That’s why advertisers work so hard just to get us to recognize their brand. It works.

Here is an alternative story to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story: though all people are good in the sense that they are created by God, all people are also stained by sin and limited in their understanding. The Good News is that God offers us forgiveness and grace and wisdom. But we cannot generate it without God.

But back to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story that is so common. The Green Berets is interesting because it consciously tried to make the connection between entertainment and real life.  It did not simply situate itself as entertainment. Produced at the height of the controversies over the Vietnam War, it was clearly a statement about how to solve the problem of the war. Trust in our own goodness and toughness and righteousness, and we will defeat the evil of communism.

That story, in so many other forms, seeps deep into the soul of our culture. So I think we ought to think more deeply about the way that human nature is portrayed in the everyday stuff around us.

As it turned out, the Vietnam War was a lot more complicated than The Green Berets made it out to be.   Whatever righteousness and wit and courage we Americans had was not enough to shape that conflict the way we wanted it to be shaped. In real life, the Good Guy story did not come true.

The Good Guy/Bad Guy story is not, by any means, just a conservative characteristic. There are liberal versions. For radicals in the 60s, the solution was to work for a revolution to overthrow the bad guys controlling the system. Many leftists in the 60s were sure that revolting against the Establishment would produce a good society. Some thought the North Vietnamese were the Good Guys. That didn’t work, either.

For liberal idealists, the solution was just to believe in the goodness of all human beings, a stance captured in John Lennon’s hit, “Imagine.” The Beatles made some nice music but let me just say that the Christian rocker Larry Norman, in his song “Readers Digest,” gave what I thought was the most succinct critique of this view of human nature: “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.”

Here, then, is a parting thought that I plan to expand upon later: democracy (and other institutions, like the church, the family, business, education, movies, rock songs etc.) work best when they are built on systems that, to paraphrase James Madison, recognize that humans are not angels.

“42,” History, and Race

I have to admit that I was a little nervous about how “42” would handle history when I entered the dollar-movie theater.  (Yes, I am cheap. And now you know why my reviews come so long after a film is released).

It’s too bad we don’t wear fedoras anymore, don’t you think?

Of course, the film did well with the material items:  three-fingered gloves, 47 Chevys, the metal grill doors in the airport, flannel uniforms and steel girders in the stadiums.  (There is that problem with the slope in Crosley Field, but we’ll let that pass).  The material items are the easiest part of history to get right in films, so I wasn’t too concerned about that part.

No, I was worried about how the filmmakers would handle race.   They did a fairly good job, in my estimation.

Let me explain my concern.  Have you seen that movie with heroes whom you root for on one side, and bad guys on the other, and there is a complicated and tense conflict between them, but the good guys win in the end?  It’s called Star Wars.  Or maybe it’s Spider-Man.  Or Rocky.  Or The Little Mermaid.  Or The Wizard of Oz. Or Independence Day.  Or Cinderella.  Or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Well, I don’t know.  It’s one of those movies.  Or maybe one or two that I haven’t mentioned.

If you haven’t noticed, we Americans like films that fit into this simple narrative.  We, the viewers, naturally identify with the good guys (in the old cowboy movies they wore white hats, just to be sure you got it) and we cheer against the bad guys.  And then good wins out, and we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

This can happens with films about race.  We want to put ourselves on the sides of those fighting racism.  We want those bad racists to lose out to freedom, justice and equality.  And when they do, we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

But reality, human nature and race is much more complicated than that.  How do we know we would have been on the right side in 1947 or 1852 or 1666?  And can we really divide humanity into good people and bad people?

Mississippi Burning is among the worst films on this score.  The FBI agents are the heroes and we root for them because we, like all decent Americans at the time, were on the side of justice, right?   Just about every white southerner in the film, meanwhile, is a redneck racist.  With those ignorant accents.  And they’re ugly, too.  Boy I’m glad we’re not like them.

Usually, (and by “usually,” I mean “every time”) when a film that is “based on a true story” divides the good from the bad in such a clear-cut and simplistic way, the film is distorting history.  Exhibit A:  in real life, the FBI spent most of its resources investigating the “trouble-making” civil rights movement, not those who killed civil rights workers.

I was relieved, then, to see a somewhat more complex picture of race emerge in “42.”

Yes, the ugly racists are there – most notably the Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, whose racist taunting of Jackie Robinson had me squirming in my seat.  (There’s a little bit of the simplistic “feel good” motif here, as we all smile with gratification in the credits when we find that Chapman never managed in the majors again after that season.  Yeah, take that, you racists!)

But one of the fine qualities of “42” is that one gets a range of racial responses from the characters in the film.  Robinson’s minor league coach welcomes him, but expresses a disparaging attitude about the ability of “niggers” to play ball (an accurate historical characterization of the guy).  The players on the Dodgers were initially cold, but eventually displayed a range of different reactions, from outright opposition, to conflicted feelings, to gradual respect, to open support – another accurate characterization.

One of the best scenes occurs after Robinson has been on the Dodgers for several weeks and the team is about to play in Cincinnati for the first time.  Pee Wee Reese, who was from nearby Kentucky, comes to general manager Branch Rickey’s office because he has received a threatening letter for playing with Robinson.  Having never faced anything like this before, he wants Rickey to do something about it.  Rickey (whose crustiness is overdone by Harrison Ford — sorry, but his acting bugged me) then pulls out file after file after file of death threats that Jackie Robinson has been receiving all along.

The beauty of the scene is that we the audience, like Reese, are bothered by the idea he has received this threat; we feel the sting of racism.  But when it is revealed that Robinson has been receiving a constant barrage of threats, we realize that he has been living with something much, much worse for quite some time.  It is hard for those of us who are white to fully understand what the world looks like to blacks.  Through this scene we, like Reese, get just a slight glimpse of the sort of pressure that Robinson had to play under (though it was even worse than the film portrayed it:  Robinson also received death threats directed at his wife and threats to kidnap his infant son).

Reese began to see this.  And that is why, in one of the more memorable scenes in the film, as Robinson is jeered and taunted by the fans in Cincinnati, Reese walks over and very purposefully puts his arm around Robinson and talks with him in solidarity for a moment.  We empathize with Reese, who empathized with Robinson.

It’s a great scene.  And it didn’t happen.

Well, it sort of happened, just not in the dramatic fashion portrayed in the film.  I have not seen any historical evidence that Rickey pulled out the file of threatening letters to show Reese what Robinson had been enduring.  That seems to be a dramatic invention by the filmmaker.  More famously, (and despite a statue in Coney Island commemorating the event) it is unclear whether Reese put his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati in 1947.  We don’t have filmed footage or same-day accounts of the event.  Two years later, Robinson said something like this happened, though he thought it might have been in Boston and it might have been 1948.  Others put it in Cincinnati.  And Reese might not have put his arm around Robinson.

As a historian, though, I’m fine with this scene.

Filmmakers have to invent all sorts of things in film. They make up almost all the dialogue.  They have to arrange scenes in ways that hold together and hold our attention.  They have to build some sort of drama.  Real life is never so neat and tidy and dramatic.  But I’m fine with the scene because it draws the viewers into a better understanding of Robinson.  It also reflects some level of transformation within Pee Wee Reese, who was not an avid supporter of Robinson in the beginning, but did become someone that Robinson counted as a friend.  (He was one of Robinson’s pall bearers at his funeral).   So it reflects what was true about Reese and Robinson.

The portrayal of Reese should give us hope that we can be transformed as well.  That is a much better position for us to be in.  We haven’t conquered the problems of race (or any number of other things) yet.  So it is better that we ask for grace, wisdom and humility, than to thank God (like the man in a certain parable) that we are not racists like those ugly redneck southerners…..


By the way, even if you are not a baseball fan, you should read Jackie Robinson  by Arnold Rampersad.  It is one of the best biographies, of any kind, that I have read.


Also, I’m off to Brazil for two weeks, so there will be another lull in my blogging.




“Argo,” the Oscars, and the Canadians

Do you pay attention to Canadians?  Should you?

If you are Canadian, do you pay attention to yourself?  Should you?

Let me start with a recollection, as a preamble to my comments about the film, “Argo.”  Years ago, I taught American history to high school missionary kids and Africans in Kenya.  Most of my students were Americans, but I always had a sizeable mass of non-Americans in class.

I remember that some Canadian students tended to make snarky comments about Americans.  According to the tenor of the snark, we Americans had an over-inflated sense of ourselves, we overlooked our faults, and we claimed more for ourselves than we should.

At the time I figured that their reaction was based on two factors:  1) a few of their fellow American classmates probably got obnoxious with their patriotism from time to time, and 2) it’s hard to be a minority, even if you are simply a Canadian trying to convince Americans that they should pay attention to your nation.

I did not think that my American history class contributed to either of these problems.  My course was merely a verdant setting for anti-American snarkiness to flower.  After all, I never subscribed to the philosophy that American history ought to be taught merely as a celebration of glorious advances and triumphs.  In addition to the praiseworthy parts of American history, I taught the flaws and problems:  times and places where racism, greed, sexism and unchristian behavior shaped American history.  I was fair and balanced.

Now, I am not so sure.

Humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception, particularly if it makes us look better.  And because of this capacity for self-deception, we can’t be so confident, on our own, that we have figured out when we aren’t deceiving ourselves.

I was reminded of the dynamics between my Canadian and American students when I watched “Argo.”  And I was reminded even more of the problem of self-serving deceptions when, acting like the suspicious historian that I am, I looked into the history of the event a bit more after I had seen the film.

“Argo” retells the story of six Americans who were caught in Iran in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy and held fifty-two Americans hostage for more than a year.  These six Americans, however, managed to make their way to the Canadian embassy and (SPOILER ALERT – in case you have not seen the film or you don’t know how history turned out) after several weeks in hiding were smuggled out of the country by the CIA.

Ben Affleck is one cool CIA operative

It’s a compelling story.  Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who has to figure out how to get the six Americans out.  We see him working through several ideas and coming up with a crazy idea that gets approved, only because nothing else is better.  We see him creating a fake film company so he can lead the six Americans out of Iran posing as a Canadian film crew.  We see him flying to Teheran himself and driving the Americans through crowded streets with angry protesters.  We see him finally get the six through the checkpoints at the airport and on the jet to wing it home.  And we see him hugging his estranged wife in the end on her porch, while an American flag flutters in a light breeze them.

A fun movie.  Good guys win.  Bad guys lose.

And the Canadians?  Well, the ambassador and his wife sure were nice to host the Americans at their house.  Just the sort of thing we Americans would expect from our friendly neighbors to the north.

If the film weren’t portraying itself as history, I wouldn’t have a problem with this.

But we have this:  according to Ken Taylor, who was the (real) Canadian ambassador who hid the six Americans, 85% to 90% of the ideas and consummation of the plan was due to the Canadians.

Is Taylor exaggerating?  A bit sensitive, perhaps?  After all, it is possible that he is  1) feeling a bit bothered by a few Americans who get kind of obnoxious with their patriotism,  or  2) finding it hard to live in a world in which Americans don’t pay much attention to Canadians.  Is that why he said this?


Probably not.

Well, no, actually I don’t think so.

I trust Taylor’s analysis.  This is the clincher for me:  Taylor came up with the 85% to 90% number in reaction to comments made by Jimmy Carter, who said that “90 per cent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian.”   So is Carter misrepresenting the situation?  I don’t see why he would be.  The Iran hostage crisis was the most damaging and painful event in his presidency.  He has every incentive to play up and exaggerate the role the U.S. played in this one bright spot of that traumatic ordeal.  Why would he misrepresent the event in a way that downplays the government he led?  I’m buying the analysis given by Taylor and Carter.

And can you cast a Canadian in a cool role?

Ben Affleck could have made essentially the same film, only with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as the heroes rather than the CIA.  He could have cast himself as Ken Taylor and done all those things that Tony Mendez did.  But he did not.

Here is my question:  would “Argo” have sold as well as it did if the story was about

Canadians saving six Americans, even if it were the same thrilling story of danger and escape?  Would Americans have enjoyed the movie?

Would it have won an Academy Award for Best Picture?

What Thaddeus Stevens Did Not Say About Abraham Lincoln

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”  —  Thaddeus Stevens.   Supposedly.


Toward the end of “Lincoln,” Thaddeus Stevens shows his African-American mistress a copy of the 13th Amendment and utters the above line.  It’s a great quote.  It embodies the essence of Spielberg’s film.  It captures so much about politics.  It frames the film’s conception of Lincoln, the quest for abolition, and Stevens’ rhetoric.

And that’s why it is too bad that he did not say it.

If you Google Thaddeus Stevens and the phrase “aided and abetted” you will get a lot of people explaining how Thaddeus Stevens said this.  About 682,000 hits.  That’s a lot of people repeating one another about this little bit of history.  (Truth in Advertising:  I did not check them all, but I am willing to bet that just about all of them attribute them to Thaddeus Stevens).   But I am 93.7% sure that he did not say this.

I know that historians spend too much time ruining good stories.  In graduate school I discovered that so many of the great quotes and anecdotes and stories I told when I taught high school history probably never happened.  For instance, I used to mine the highly entertaining historical series by Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, for all sorts of funky stories about ancient Rome and Greece.  (The descriptions of the grotesque games the Romans set up in the Coliseum were particularly fascinating).  Turns out, though, that those books are notoriously unreliable.  Bummer.

And now, Thaddeus Stevens?  I’m afraid so.

When I first saw the film, I figured that Spielberg or one of the writer’s had made the quote up.    It didn’t fit with what I know Stevens, who had been a harsh critic of Lincoln for years.  I couldn’t imagine Stevens calling Lincoln “pure” unless he said it sarcastically.

Would Thaddeus Stevens have taken kindly to getting misquoted?

Then I did a quick internet search and discovered that Thaddeus Stevens really did say this.  The internet sites referenced a couple of books by historians.  Oh.  OK.

But……I was still a bit suspicious because, well, I am a product of graduate school.  I started digging a bit more.  I knew the film took a lot from Doris Kearns Goodwin, so I checked out, Team of Rivals.  I couldn’t find the quote there.  I went back to the internet and found several people referencing a book entitled Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights by somebody named Milton Meltzer.  I was not familiar with him or the book.  So I kept looking.

Then on an Amazon site I saw that Paul D. Wolfowitz had written that the quote came from someone else.  What a minute.  That Paul D. Wolfowitz?  The deputy Defense secretary under Bush, who pushed so hard to get us into Iraq, has been spending time on Amazon critiquing books about Lincoln?  Or is it just somebody else who says  they were Paul D. Wolfowitz?  Either way, I had trust issues here.  So I had to dig some more.

I found Meltzer’s book.  He wrote books for young adults, so his book did not have footnotes.  Auuggh.  This is why we need footnotes.  I checked Allen Guelzo’s biography, Redeemer President.   He had the quote and his footnote referred to a book by Fawn Brodie.  I checked David Donald’s acclaimed biography of Lincoln and he also had the quote.  He referenced Fawn Brodie.  (This happens:  sometimes historians just quote one another if they have a clever little piece of history).  So I tracked down Fawn Brodie, who wrote Thaddeus Stevens:  Scourge of the South  in 1959.  She had the quote, which she got from an article on Thaddeus Stevens published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in April, 1898.  In that article James M. Scovel attributed the above quote to Stevens.  Paul D. Wolfowitz, even if it was a fake Paul D. Wolfowitz, was right.

That’s it.  As near as I can tell, all roads lead back to James Scovel.  Stevens died in 1868, but I can’t find any other source that gets the quote any closer to him than Scovel’s 1898 recollection.

Who was James Scovel?  He had been a state senator from New Jersey during the Civil

What? You don’t remember James M. Scovel? That’s OK. He doesn’t remember things very well, either.

War.  Lincoln appointed him to some sort of diplomatic mission to London.  Later he served in various political positions and then he became a Baptist evangelist who cooperated with Dwight L. Moody.  He also gave speeches about Lincoln’s religious character.  It seems he had well-developed rhetorical skills.  And he wrote an article about Thaddeus Stevens.

As a source, Scovel’s quote is of dubious merit.  Scovel does not say where the quote came from.  We don’t even know if Scovel knew Thaddeus Stevens.  And even if he did hear Stevens say something like this, there is the problem of memory.  How clearly and accurately are any of us able to remember something that somebody said thirty-three years earlier?  Every now and then my sister and I have conflicting memories about something that happened to us thirty-three years ago, which just goes to show you how unreliable my sister’s memories are.  (That’s a joke.  Don’t’ tell my sister).  We are on even shakier ground if we have to rely on the memory of politicians.

Actually, historians who work with oral histories know this.  When memories are checked against documented evidence, a fair amount of unreliability creeps into the oral histories, especially when it comes to precise details.  Cognitive psychologists know this, as well.

It’s possible that somewhere out there, some sort of documentary evidence exists to show that Thaddeus Stevens actually said this.  Until that time, I’m chalking the quote up to James Scovel’s rhetorical flourishes.  Sorry to spoil the party.









“Lincoln” – My Complaints, Part II

With “Lincoln” in the running for best film at the Oscars this weekend, I feel like I’m a grumpy, kill-joy, nit-picking, griping curmudgeon of an historian.  After all, I am devoting not one but two entire posts to my complaints about the film.

So let me repeat an earlier point:  it’s a great film.  Go see it.  See it twice.  I’m serious.

Then, read some good histories of the Civil War.  This will give you a more complete picture and a deeper understanding than Spielberg leaves you with.

This is where my grumpy, kill-joy, nit-picking, griping, curmudgeonliness is coming from:  Spielberg’s film, by itself, gives us a misreading of how abolition came about.  It misses the critical part of the story.

Consider this question:  who is the real hero of abolition in the United States?  Is it Abraham Lincoln?  Hmm.

Let us return to 1860.  In that year there were almost 22 million people living in the northern states that would soon make up the Union.  How many of those northerners were abolitionists?  The numbers are hard to determine with precision, but about 2% of the population belonged to or supported abolitionist societies.  It’s important to understand that one could be antislavery but not an abolitionist.  Many northerners did not like slavery, did not want it to spread to the West, and/or thought it was morally wrong. Many of these same northerners, however, worried that setting free 3 million blacks would create huge

William Lloyd Garrison did not get invited to many dinner parties.

social, economic and political problems for the nation.  They did not want to mess with the system.   So abolition was a very unpopular movement, even in the north.  That’s why William Lloyd Garrison was nearly lynched by a mob in Boston.  That, and the fact that he was obnoxious.

Abolitionists were trouble-makers.  And Lincoln was not among them.  Although he was actually well ahead of many white Americans in his views on race, equality and antislavery, he still had some issues to work out in 1860, as I explained in my previous post.

Now jump ahead to 1865.  Lincoln was firmly, sincerely and rather masterfully pushing through the 13th Amendment.  He was supported by almost all the important Republican politicians, many soldiers in the Union army, and a great deal of the American public.  Lincoln, and many white northerners had turned into abolitionists in less than five years.

It was a remarkable transformation.

How did Lincoln, and many northern whites like him, come around to this position?  Now this is a movie I’d like Spielberg to make, though I’m not sure what he would call it.  “Lincoln:  the Prequel?”  “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Lincoln?”  “Lincoln and the Phantom Abolitionist Menace?”

Here’s the point:  Abraham Lincoln was led down this path by the unexpected and complicated events of the Civil War.  So, if you are looking for heroes who pushed Lincoln on the abolition issue, you can turn to African Americans.   And abolitionists.

Consider the role of blacks and Union policy in 1861.  At that time the Union was not fighting to eliminate slavery.  When slaves ran away and made their way into Union army camps, Union officers were instructed to return them to southern masters.  Free blacks who volunteered to fight were turned away and were not allowed in the Union army.  These were all official policies established, approved and enforced by Abraham Lincoln and his administration.

Blacks began violating those policies.  Newly freed blacks in South Carolina and Louisiana formed regiments on their own, anyway.  A black man, Robert Smalls, took it upon himself to steal a Confederate ship in the Charleston harbor and sail it out to the Union blockade.  A group of blacks in Kansas formed a regiment on their own and actually joined a skirmish against Confederates.

More importantly, slaves, who were considered property by both southerners and War Department policies, refused to behave like property and sit still.  They kept running away to Union camps when the armies got close enough.   In the summer of 1861, General Benjamin Butler saw the military logic of holding on to this property that kept landing in his lap.  If slaves were property, as the logic goes, and the rules of warfare allowed an army to keep property of the enemy as contraband when it fell into their hands (think guns, wagons, ammunition, horses, etc.), then slaves could be declared contraband when they made their way into the hands of the Union army.  The War Department eventually saw the military logic of this position, changed its policies, and declared that slaves who had worked for the Confederate army would be declared “contraband.” But the Union would not accept other slaves working for private landowners, the War Department (and Lincoln) declared, because it was not, after all, trying to eliminate slavery in the southern states.

As the fighting of 1861 continued on into 1862, the Union kept on losing key battles.  This helped the cause of abolition.  I love the irony here.  Every Union loss and every Confederate victory brought the nation closer to eliminating slavery.

How?  Black and white abolitionists kept making arguments that the Union could defeat the Confederacy by abolishing slavery.  Slaves made up 40% of the Confederate population, they argued, and provided the labor for most of the Conferedate economy.  Slaves made up one third of the workforce of the primary Confederate producer of armaments, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.  More than half of the miners in southern iron, lead, and salt mines were slaves.  Why not encourage the elimination of slavery, since most northerners already thought it was wrong, and help the war effort at the same time? As Frederick Douglass declared, “To fight against slaveholders without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business.”

And so Lincoln brought forth the Emancipation Proclamation in late 1862.

The abolitionists were right.  Emancipation greatly aided the Union war effort.  Consider this:  over the course of the war, 500,000 slaves ran away, the vast majority after the Union had changed its policies.  That’s 1 out of every 8 slaves.  Not only did this weaken the workforce for the Confederate military and economy, but 200,000 of those freedpeople joined the Union military system as unlisted laborers.

And then there were the black soldiers.  Lincoln and the War Department were reluctant to put guns in the hands of blacks, but blacks persisted in their desire to fight.  In early 1863, abolitionists pressured the governor of Massachusetts, John Andrews Albion, to form black regiments.  The governor, in turn, pressured Lincoln to allow him to present the Union army with two regiments of blacks.  Lincoln finally agreed.  There were more political battles over equal pay and allowing blacks to fight (the film “Glory” captures this well).  But in the end, 185,000 blacks fought for the Union army, the vast majority of whom were slaves who had run away.  Consider this number in light of the fact that Robert E. Lee typically had about 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers under his command when he fought in Virginia.

By 1864, most Union soldiers had come to realize that abolishing slavery would help them win the war. A great book detailing why soldiers fought in the Civil War, For Cause and Comrade, by James McPherson, demonstrates this effectively.  Lincoln had become firmly converted to the cause of abolition by 1864, as were many Republicans.  So the time was ripe, in early 1865, to pass the 13th Amendment.

This, then, is how the paradigm shift occurred:  a few whites first became convinced that abolition was necessary, just by the sheer morality of the issue.  But most whites first became convinced that abolition was necessary because it would help them win the war.

This is how human nature works.  It is hard to see and do what is right when it costs us something.  It is easier to see and do what is right when everyone else (and the cultural norms) uphold what is right.  It is easiest to see and do what is right when we also get some benefit in return.

My biggest complaint with Spielberg’s Lincoln is that it gives the impression that one great, pure man brought about “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century.”  The reality is that while most of the country followed Lincoln’s lead, Lincoln was following the lead of runaway slaves, free blacks and abolitionists.  And none of this would have come about but for the unpredictable and unanticipated events of the Civil War.

Let me be so arrogant as to suggest that Lincoln probably understood this.  Though rather unorthodox in his Christian beliefs, he did believe very deeply in providence.  He also believed that the ways of God were mysterious and hard to discern.  Lincoln did not believe that any individual or collection of individuals could overrule providence and by sheer will or masterful politics, compel events to conform to one’s expectations.  I give Lincoln credit for that. (An aside:  for a great discussion of Lincoln’s role in the theological debates over the Civil War, click here).

I also give Lincoln credit on another score.  Many people today think we are fully baked and incapable of transformation.  That’s probably true if we are unwilling to change.  But Lincoln was willing to change his views of abolition and racial equality.  It came first through his primary desire to save the Union and defeat the Confederacy.  But he was changing in the end, which is more than can be said for many others. That, it seems to me, is a more admirable quality than political astuteness.

It was a transformation that came about because of the actions of hundreds of thousands of African Americans whose names we will never know.




“Lincoln:” My Complaints

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”    – Thaddeus Stevens.  Supposedly.

“I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God”   – Henry Fonda



Isn’t it just like a historian to complain and nitpick about the flaws of a good movie?  You may not know any historians, but I do.  We are like that.  Just ask my daughters.

Yes, I have complaints about this very good film, “Lincoln.”  And frankly, they are not insignificant complaints.

My first complaint:  Steven Spielberg has a tendency to confuse Abraham Lincoln with Jesus Christ.

To be fair, he is not the first.

It has been a habit for Americans (particularly from the north) during the last century to make Lincoln into a demi-god.  As a result, it is very difficult for any of us to get an accurate bead on this guy.  Before I ever became a history major in college, my own

Is this person like anybody you have met?

mythic impressions of the man were shaped by dollar bills, luxury vehicles, pennies, granite monuments, state capitals, high schools, toy cabins, highways, Illinois license plates, and a trip to his boyhood home in southern Indiana when I was about ten, which left me with a memory of his mother’s tombstone set in a dark woods.  That was kind of creepy.  This image was balanced, or further confused, by a particularly memorable cartoon (which apparently is not shown on TV anymore because of its racial stereotypes) where Bugs Bunny suddenly appears in a stove-pipe hat, beard and long black coat and says in a deep, serious voice (to Yosemite Sam, who plays a Confederate officer), “What’s this I hear about you whippin’ slaves?”  It’s just difficult to imagine Lincoln as a recognizable human being with all this material buried deep in one’s subconscious.

Let me, then, give Spielberg credit for making Lincoln look less than perfect in a couple of key ways.  Lincoln gets deeply frustrated with his family (an unavoidable response if one were married to Mary Todd Lincoln) and even strikes his son in one scene.  And throughout the film, Lincoln struggles with his conscience as he tries to reconcile his high anti-slavery goals with the dirty process of politics.

And, yet.

While Spielberg’s Lincoln wrestles with the ethical dilemmas of dirty politics, he never seems to waver in his rock solid conviction that everything must take a back seat to ending slavery.  And unlike most everyone around him, he doesn’t doubt that blacks deserve full legal, political and social equality.  This Lincoln is inspiring.  This Lincoln is thrilling.  This is the Lincoln that every (white) moviegoer wants to be.

And he is not the real Lincoln.

Now it is reasonable to argue that, for those weeks in January of 1865, Lincoln was firmly convinced that he had to get the 13th Amendment passed.  The film does, after all, only focus on these few weeks.  But by leaving out (or just plain missing) the Lincoln of 1862, the Lincoln of 1861 and the Lincoln of 1858, we end up with a Lincoln who is, in the words supposedly spoken by Thaddeus Stevens, “the purest man in America.”

Historians know better.  Most Americans do not.  Spielberg is like Disney:  his portrayal of a story will become the definitive version.  So his Lincoln will be what the next generation of Americans remember and believe about Lincoln.  That’s not all bad, but there are problems.

Any high school history teacher worth her salt will tell you that Lincoln’s highest desire had always been the preservation of the Union and that his antislavery convictions came in second.  Lincoln always opposed slavery – he was consistent about that throughout his life—but his first love was for nation-state.  That meant that in 1862 he did not have the power to abolish slavery in the southern states, especially if it meant damaging the Union as it was presently constructed.  He wrote, famously, to Horace Greeley in the summer of 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” In his First Inaugural Address in 1861 Lincoln reassured the southern states that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 

Obviously, Lincoln changed his mind between 1861 and 1865.  That is the key.  Lincoln’s greatest internal struggle did not revolve around whether to stoop to log-rolling and horse trading and playing dirty politics in order to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century. His biggest dilemma was whether or not he really ought to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century in the first place.

Nor does Spielberg’s Lincoln deal effectively with the real Lincoln’s internal struggle with his own racism.

Ouch.  Painful subject.   We are OK if our demigods have minor flaws, but it is just too much to attach racism to them.  Better just leave those questions alone.  Spielberg accomplishes this task masterfully.

The reality is that Lincoln believed blacks had the right to freedom but he was not sure that they were fit to live as social equals with whites.  Some samples:  In his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said about the black man, “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”   Hmm.  He fudges a bit on social equality, though he does come out pretty strong on a type of labor equality.  But then we have this declaration in another debate with Douglas:  “While I was at  the hotel today an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and the white people.  [Great laughter.]….I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races–[applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality.”

And lest we think that Lincoln, that wily politician, was simply saying what he did not believe in order to curry support from racist voters in Illinois, we have other evidence.  For instance, in the summer of 1862 he met with black leaders to try to convince them that they ought to embrace colonization.  This plan promoted the wholesale migration of free blacks to some other country.  In this case, he asked them if American blacks would move to Central America.  His justification?  “Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong afflicted on any people.  But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”  (The African American leaders politely, but firmly, refused).

The purest man in America?


But it is at just this point where Christian theology is far more helpful to us than the modern faith in human purity.  (Or the modern faith in the human purity of a few select heroes and demigods).  Why should we be surprised by Lincoln’s racism?  Abraham Lincoln, like you and me, was a sinner.  More importantly, (and this is a point that many evangelicals miss), Lincoln internalized social norms and cultural patterns that were also a product of a fallen world.  In other words, we also inherit cultural sins, most of the time without even realizing it.  Lincoln, like the vast majority of white Americans of the mid-nineteenth century (and arguably just about every white American of that era), was socialized by a culture that viewed blacks as inferior.  To greater or lesser degrees, this racism came out in his behavior and attitudes.

In one sense, Lincoln could not help the fact that he was shaped by a racist culture.  But that does not make the racism of nineteenth-century whites acceptable.  It was still wrong.  It still harmed others.  It still prevented Lincoln and others from loving their neighbor as themselves.   And it demonstrates one way that original sin operates on humanity – through the cultural norms and practices that shape them.

It is not surprising, then, that those who do not believe in this kind of sin desperately want Lincoln to be a pure and shining example to all of us, one that we might be able to achieve if we just try hard enough.  Nor is it surprising that we buy it.  That reaction fits well with Christian theology also.

Strangely, perhaps, this is not my biggest complaint with the film.  That will come in my next post.





“Lincoln:” A great, flawed, film.

I finally saw the film Lincoln this week.  Since I am an American historian who actually teaches a class on the Civil War, my tardiness on this bit of film-going might qualify as a professional embarrassment or even a dereliction of duty.  However, I am here to vow that in the future I will try to become more responsible on such matters.

Thus, my analysis:  the film is significantly flawed and everyone should see it because it is excellent.

If that sounds a bit like I am from Kentucky, trying to support both sides of the war, so be it.

I’ll give you what I truly loved about the film now and save its flaws for my next post:

1) Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant as Lincoln.  His Lincoln was the most compelling Lincoln I have seen, a folksy Midwesterner with a high-pitched voice whose hidden depths of calculation, intelligence and resolve led others to underestimate him, as was true of the real Lincoln.  Several times I consciously asked myself whether this Day-Lewis was the same grizzled oil man who sat in a saloon barking, “I drink your milkshake!” in There Will be Blood. I do need to confess, though, that I developed some affection for Day-Lewis’ Lincoln because his wry humor, gentleness and patience reminded me of my Unkenholz uncles from North Dakota.  (That is correct.  My mother’s maiden name is Unkenholz, so I have Unkenholz uncles.)

2) The material components of the film effectively transport one back to the world of 1865 Washington D.C.  The over-stuffed Victorian furnishings, the muddy roads, the telegraph wires nailed to posts hanging above the politicians in the war room, and so much more.  In one scene Seward wears a yellow silk Japanese robe, even though only a handful of people know he was an avid collector of Asian artifacts.  Nice touch.  The principal characters look remarkably like their historical counterparts:  Stanton, Seward, Gideon Wells, Mary Todd, Robert and Tab Lincoln.  For instance, check out this “Slate” article comparing the film characters to their real counterparts.  (They didn’t quite capture the stunning ugliness of Francis Preston Blair, Jr., though.  Maybe this was out of respect to

Daniel Day-Lewis or Abraham Lincoln? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

Hal Holbrook.)  Steven Spielberg makes great use of Day-Lewis in profile, often in silhouette, where he looks strikingly like the Lincoln images we are all so deeply familiar with. (I should point out that the material elements are the easiest parts of a historical film to get correct.  Getting the beards and doorknobs right do not make a film historically accurate, as some people think, but they do make one feel historically embedded, which is something.)

3)  The film wonderfully captures the deal-making, logrolling, posturing, compromising, horse-trading politics that we get in our American democracy.  It is a bit over-dramatized, but that is what helps make it hit home.  A friend from church remarked that she realized from the film that politicians are politicians and that what we get in Washington today is not new.  Yup.

4) The film gives us a good dose of the human dilemma of how to fight for high ideals in the midst of a fallen world.  It seems that Spielberg ends up supporting a Machiavellian stance that one has to play dirty and corrupt in order to bring about noble accomplishments. I have a problem with that theologically and historically, but since my understanding accounts for the grace of God in human affairs, I don’t really expect Spielberg to get that.  What he does get is how difficult the dilemma can be.  I had tears in my eyes when Thaddeus Stevens found himself struggling to decide whether he should reign in his long-standing rhetoric of racial equality in the hopes that it would help the pragmatic goal of passing the amendment to end slavery.

5)  Finally, I do not wish to go on record as an avid supporter of tearing others apart, but I can’t help but admire the finely flung insults in this film.  Eloquence at least takes some of the malice out, if for no other reason that one is rather impressed by the cleverness of the thing.  Two cheers for the insulting political oratory in Lincoln, then.  I was reminded of that master of the English-language insult, William Shakespeare.  From King Lear, Act II, Scene 2:

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.”

You should see the film.  And read my next post as to why it is flawed.