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Lincoln a dysfunctional, racist, manic-depressive?
March 19, 2001 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Lincoln a dysfunctional, racist, manic-depressive? This is the latest proposed Hollywood revision of history. So what's been the most egregious example of movie distorting or ignoring historical fact? JFK? Amistad? Gladiator?
posted by darren (37 comments total)

 
Pocahontas, perhaps? although JFK was a hoot. ( to clear it up, once and for all, I was the guy behind the grassy knoll. There weren't any porta-potties around.)
posted by bradth27 at 9:42 AM on March 19, 2001


Well, if they portray Lincoln as a racist who only freed the slaves to put pressure on the south and intended to send them all back to africa, well, then, they're right. I dunno about his personal life, though.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:45 AM on March 19, 2001


Yeah, people can argue whether or not the Civil War was about slavery all they want, but it had nothing to do with racism. They were all racists.
posted by techgnollogic at 9:55 AM on March 19, 2001


Lincoln didn't start the war to free the slaves and, in fact, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in the rebellious states. Slaves held in Maryland, etc. were still owned by their masters.

The Proclamation was a masterful political move by Lincoln that effectively removed the threat of foreign intervention in the war. Britain and France, who may have been leaning toward recognizing the CSA, didn't want to be seen supporting a country that advocated slavery.
posted by CRS at 9:58 AM on March 19, 2001


...Lincoln did not start the war intending to free America's 3.5m slaves.

Man, that's tall...

Seriously, though, I don't see anything here that I find hard to believe. The article claims Lincoln was:

1. "manic depressive" - Many historians have claimed he himself had bouts of severe depression. Whether it was chemcial, or the result of the extraordinary pressures of the War (or a combination of both) is impossible to say.

2. "dysfunctional" - Mary Todd was clearly insane, his children were stricken with illness. How could there not have been some dysfunction in that household.

3. "racist" - The "R" word is a pretty serious stone to hurl at the "Great Emancipator", but freeing the slaves was pretty much a political move necessitated by the war. It was not something he had planned all along. I think it would be very hard to find anyone from mid-19th century America who would pass today's "racism" litmus test.

and lastly, that he

4. "nearly lost the American civil war" - that's pretty much undeniable. The Union campaign was fraught with nearly as many blunders as....well, as Al Gore's.

Part of the appeal of Lincoln, at least for me, is that he wasn't a superhero--that he managed to save the Union despite his (sometimes extraordinary) shortcomings.

True Civil War scholars: Am I wrong?
posted by jpoulos at 10:07 AM on March 19, 2001


What historical facts about Lincoln are being distorted? If his film is based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I don't think it's going to be an Oliver Stone flight of fancy. Goodwin is a well-respected presidential historian.
posted by rcade at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2001


> I think it would be very hard to find anyone from
> mid-19th century America who would pass today's
> "racism" litmus test.

It's pretty much impossible to find anyone from today who passes the test -- not because everybody's a racist but because the test itself is unpassable by anyone except those content to parrot the very latest Received Antiracist Rant. Don't you dare think for yourself; if you accidentally discover that you disagree with any point, however minor, in the Received Rant, you're a racist.

Ditto the homophobia litmus test, ditto the sexism litmus test, in fact ditto all such litmus tests.
posted by jfuller at 10:47 AM on March 19, 2001


I have to agree with jfuller on the racism charge. Judging historical figures with todays standards is a slippery slope.
As for dysfunctional, I don't know that many families that aren't.

On whether he freed slaves just for strategic reasons, read his second inaugural address. I think he just saw an easy political opportunity to do something that he felt was right. That is to say, he believed it was right, but had to find a time and situation that it could be done.
posted by citizensoldier at 10:58 AM on March 19, 2001


Ditto the homophobia litmus test, ditto the sexism litmus test, in fact ditto all such litmus tests.

Ditto the dittohead test?

We fear what we don't understand...
posted by jpoulos at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2001


Everyone here should be aware of the meaning of presentism when getting into this debate.
posted by aaron at 11:11 AM on March 19, 2001


You mean Lincoln wasn't like Alan Alda either?

Dang.
posted by briank at 11:19 AM on March 19, 2001


Hollywood is the anti-Midas: everything historical it touches, it pretty much turns to shit.

Then again, most "national" history -- the stuff you get taught in senior school -- is bunk, anyway, filmed or not.
posted by holgate at 11:32 AM on March 19, 2001


This is just another attempt by Hollywood and the democrats to smear a great republican, I hope Spielberg loses another kidney for pulling this one!!!!
posted by RightWinger at 11:43 AM on March 19, 2001


Thanks for the defenition, aaron.

Strange the way that the lives of dead white men remain unchanged (because they're dead) while our perceptions of these lives change. Concepts evolve, and terms are redefined over time, and suddenly we're talking about Licoln as a racist. I'm also in agreement with jfuller on the racism litmus test issue. One might argue that Booker T. Washington's bottom-up approach to combating racism was itself racist... Why should newly-freed men have to prove themselves to whites by baking a whole bunch of bricks at a schoolhouse in Alabama? If he were really a non-racist, he'd attack things top-down, like Dubois, or start an unsegregated school...

Presentist music history: The Beatles weren't very imaginative. They didn't think music could combine anger and heart, as did Nirvana. They didn't appreciate urban rhythms, as did Moby and Tribe Called Quest. In fact, I daresay the The Beatles were Anglo-centric.

ack.

I'm more interested in hearing how Lincoln's interests compared to those of his contemporaries, and how his actions changed things. Ditto for the Beatles. I respect leaders for their leading, not for doing things 50 or 1000 years ahead of everyone else.

Oh: my least favorite retelling of history would have to be Titanic. The ship-crumbling was exceedingly accurate, as I understand it... but now kids think the tragedy focused on a big love story.
posted by sixfoot6 at 11:46 AM on March 19, 2001


I think it would be very hard to find anyone from mid-19th century America who would pass today's "racism" litmus test.

I'd rather not assume that when you say "anyone" you mean only white people, but it's hard to interpret any other way.

Even if we limit the discussion to whites, you don't have to look that hard to find John Brown.

I'd really like to hear how the notion of presentism is supposed to fit into this debate.
posted by sudama at 11:54 AM on March 19, 2001


"presentism" sounds like some demmycrat made up word!
posted by RightWinger at 12:05 PM on March 19, 2001


"Rightwinger" sounds like a troll....
posted by jpoulos at 12:10 PM on March 19, 2001


sudama: John Brown was insane, IIRC. So I dunno if he's the best example. But there were abolotionists for equal rights, although not many.
Presentism has nothing to do with this discussion. The point being made was that the image of lincoln as the great emancipator doesn't quite fit him. If he could've won the war another way, he most likely would have.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:28 PM on March 19, 2001


i think rightwinger is confused about just who is making words up.

and aaron, i'm really getting sick of the commie/demmycrat slant of your posts.
posted by lescour at 12:41 PM on March 19, 2001


I am stumped as to how this discussion is supposedly unrelated to presentism. The very definition of it is doing what we're doing in this thread: looking at and psychoanalyzing an 1860s figure through the prism of an early-21st-century value system.

Sadly, however, we have little to go on here but conjecture anyway. Lincoln himself had no real time to reflect on his actions, the feelings behind them or their repercussions. The war started almost as soon as he took office, and he was offed less than a week after it ended. As a result, it's far too easy to put into his mouth any words anyone wants to.

lescour: I have no idea what you're getting at.
posted by aaron at 12:46 PM on March 19, 2001



And BTW, you linked to a discussion of a SATIRE. Who's making words up indeed.
posted by aaron at 12:56 PM on March 19, 2001


Of course, it can be (and has been, though I don't propose to) argued that Lincoln didn't actually free any slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states of the Union, and the South was a separate country in 1863.
posted by nickmark at 1:08 PM on March 19, 2001


OK but lets look at film makers as storytellers, which they are, and not historians. Stories, myths, legends, may be based in fact but have always become 'enriched' by 'exaggeration'.

Story tellers have always been given the right to bend the truth to tell a better story, until someone bends a different truth or just starts telling the truth and then everyone gets all upset.

Which brings us to the question of what the heck truth is anyway. And wether our glamorous view of history is more true than the dark depressing 'realism' or vice-versa.

Basically we all choose what we're going to believe and I hope we've all learned by now that to make an informed decision we're going to have to look at more than one source.

...Back to my original point that films are stories, not historical documents. Enjoy the story, because that's what it is. Until a few years from now when it becomes a historical document of the time in which it was made.
posted by fiery at 1:19 PM on March 19, 2001


lescour was using dry wit, nicely.

This debate has devolved and drifted, but I'll try anyway. I don't believe it's possible to judge Lincoln fairly by today's standards. I don't believe it's possible to say what he personally believed without reference to his own words, either: I suggest anyone take some time and read just one or two of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, when the man was running for Senate against the incumbent Douglas. The debates show a man conflicted, personally "glad" if slavery were abolished, but "never" challenging the Supreme Court rulings on slavery such as Dred Scott, convinced that the nation could not continue "half slave and half free", but unwilling to agree that only war would solve the question. Slavery and the subtleties of the law surrounding it -- from humans-as-property issues to simple population-counting for congressional representation -- was complicated and seemingly touched the lives of everyone, and events of six or ten years ago were as fresh in peoples' minds as yesterday.

Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were Union states -- and slave states. Also, it's important to note how the Emancipation Proclamation effectively repealed Dred Scott.
posted by dhartung at 1:21 PM on March 19, 2001


If your definition of "racist" is: blacks/asians/whatever are naturally inferior to whites, then, in fact, there are quite a few folks who don't fit that definition in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries, ranging from evangelical Christian abolitionists to Quakers to rationalists like the Utilitarians. Many evangelicals were strongly invested in the "all humans are equal" argument because to argue otherwise seemed to controvert the Biblical account of creation. (Perhaps ironically, this insistence on a so-called singular or unique creation was the primary counter-attack against 19th c. racial science, which posited multiple origins for mankind.)

On the other hand, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that blacks/Asians/whatever are equal "now." That is, we might all be equal by nature, but not by nurture. As a result--to sum up this side of the argument--blacks/Asians/whatever need careful tutelage before being admitted to the full privileges of citizenship. Or, more liberally, blacks/Asians/whatever cannot achieve full mental or civilizational equality without being admitted to full social equality first. This kind of reasoning appears in the writing of both racial/ethnic minorities and whites; it pops up in the Jewish emancipation debates in Britain, for example, where both Jews (e.g., Grace Aguilar) and Christians (e.g., T. B. Macaulay) resort to it.

Our definitions of racism cannot be usefully applied here, but it is perfectly possible to say that by nineteenth-century standards so-and-so is "prejudiced." The real problem with discussing Lincoln is that his opinions kept shifting in response to circumstances; pinning him down at any one point would seem to be a historically dangerous move.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:26 PM on March 19, 2001


The left wing (short haired women, bed wetting liberals, uppity coloreds, flamboyant homosexuals, lazy mexicans, ) are always trying to bring down the great republicans like Lincoln and Reagan. You folks better thank sweet God in heaven, we republicans pull you off your drowning life-raft of liberalism.
posted by RightWinger at 1:33 PM on March 19, 2001


it's far too easy to put into his mouth any words anyone wants to

Who's putting words in anyone's mouth? Certainly not Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the movie isn't even out yet.

In fact, the article itself says that "by modern standards he was racist," so they're acknowledging that he would not have been considered so in his own time. (I will not use "presentist," it sounds absurd.) It should not come as a surprise to anyone that he thought blacks were inferior.

As for the outrage on the right that someone is making an unflattering movie about Lincoln, get over it. His personal problems don't diminish his accomplishments.

Besides, the guy was president over 130 years ago. It's time for Republicans to stop taking credit for him. The party today has little if any resemblance to the party of 1860 or 1865. If Lincoln had been born in 1950, he wouldn't be a Republican today.
posted by anapestic at 1:41 PM on March 19, 2001


"manic depressive" - Many historians have claimed he himself had bouts of severe depression. Whether it was chemcial, or the result of the extraordinary pressures of the War (or a combination of both) is impossible to say.
Most historians note the only eyewitness testimony to Lincoln's depression come from his former law partner, and his two secretaries. The only incident they mention are Lincoln's understandable depression at the time of his son Tad's death

2. "dysfunctional" - Mary Todd was clearly insane, his children were stricken with illness. How could there not have been some dysfunction in that household.
Exactly.

3. "racist" - The "R" word is a pretty serious stone to hurl at the "Great Emancipator", but freeing the slaves was pretty much a political move necessitated by the war. It was not something he had planned all along. I think it would be very hard to find anyone from mid-19th century America who would pass today's "racism" litmus test.
Agreed. Still, if we're judged by our actions, Lincoln's clearly were more progressive than most of his political peers (save the abolitionists). In fact, there is much historical evidence to support that John Wilkes Booth murdered Lincoln predominantly because of his fears that Lincoln would give freed slaves the vote.

4. "{Lincoln]nearly lost the American civil war" - that's pretty much undeniable. The Union campaign was fraught with nearly as many blunders as....well, as Al Gore's.
True, however most of the fault lies not with Lincoln, whose instincts on what needed to be done were remarkably sound for a man whose only military experience was 3 months as a militiaman. Lincoln's generals -- most notably McClellan -- were all remarkable inept.

Part of the appeal of Lincoln, at least for me, is that he wasn't a superhero--that he managed to save the Union despite his (sometimes extraordinary) shortcomings.
True Civil War scholars: Am I wrong?

Not at all. But Lincoln was much more complex than most give him credit for. Politically, he was brilliant, taking the country as far as he could at each stage of the war, and eventually leading it to the conclusion which freed the slaves. The only historical parallel would be FDR's adept steering of the American public from its pacifist standing to its ready-for-war posture from 1939-41.
posted by darren at 1:50 PM on March 19, 2001


U571 has to be up there. It's basically accurate except for this little detail about which country was which...
posted by muppetboy at 2:06 PM on March 19, 2001


> The left wing (short haired women, bed wetting liberals,
> uppity coloreds, flamboyant homosexuals, lazy
> mexicans,) are always trying to bring down the great
> republicans like Lincoln and Reagan. You folks better
> thank sweet God in heaven, we republicans pull you off
> your drowning life-raft of liberalism.

Ahhh, a breath of fresh air...

I was starting to think this discussion was showing too much intelligence...
posted by TheShovel at 2:12 PM on March 19, 2001


"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

-- U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864
posted by muppetboy at 2:17 PM on March 19, 2001


Another troll with no e-mail address. Funny, though. I could swear I recognize that rapier wit. Is it you, Ed?
posted by gimli at 2:54 PM on March 19, 2001


"If she were a president, she'd be..." Aww, forget it.


Schwing!
posted by dfowler at 3:12 PM on March 19, 2001


You mean that Abraham Lincoln wasn't the same guy as portrayed in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure? He seemed so well-rounded. Damn. I'll bet their presentation of the times of Socrates was a bit dodgy, too.

But seriously, I second Titanic as a good example of ropey recounting of history; more on the boat, less on FringeBoy!
posted by captainfez at 3:10 AM on March 20, 2001


Dust. Wind. Dude.
posted by darren at 5:40 AM on March 20, 2001


San Dimas High School football rules!
posted by jpoulos at 6:49 AM on March 20, 2001


I guess the truth is too boring.
posted by norm at 8:31 AM on April 6, 2001


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