Lincoln Film: 13th Amendment – Protagonists Debate Slavery and Race Issue

January 24, 2013

Steven Speilberg’s movie Lincoln  portrays the 16th president’s actions to have the Thirteenth Amendment adopted to abolish slavery, end the Civil War, and reunite the country.  Passage of the Amendment required passage in the House of Representatives. What captured my attention pursuant to the Amendment’s passage was focused mainly upon the acrimonious debate between Fernando Wood , Lee Pace acting, and Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones acting the role. Their dramatic confrontational firebrand rhetoric and acrimonious debating style displayed that underlying the discussion was assumed the prevailing view of most people regarding race, all colored people slave or free. The scene has Stevens’ politically crafty reply to Wood’s and his colleague George Pendelton’s insistent questioning whether he endorsed social equality for African-Americans:  I don’t hold equality in all things, just equality before the law, nothing more”.   Viewing the movie twice I wished to be sure of Stevens reply.  Who were these debate protagonists and  what was their stance on the race question? Both Wood and Stevens were important personages with whom I became familiar in graduate school.

Fernando Wood was leader of the New York Tamanny Hall Democratic political machine, erstwhile mayor of New York, member of Congress 1863-1865.  As mayor he supported the Confederacy and suggested New York secede from the Union to continue the profitable cotton in place to maintain  revenues needed for patronage. The war was viewed as War of Northern Aggression and he considered national union with slavery as essential. The political cost, in Wood’s view,  of having New York citizens fight for a war to end slavery as too costly. During the Civil War he proved to be an obstructive political problem for Lincoln.  George Pendelton , Wood’s colleague,  an enraged lame duck Ohio antiwar Democrat from Ohio joined the fray. He had been nominated for vice-president in the election of 1864 as a peace Democrat running with war Democrat George McClellan

Thaddeus Stevens, congressman from Pennsylvania, was a key leader of the Radical Republican faction, himself a radical abolitionist, and a consistent opponent of slavery. Two decades prior to the Civil War he fought against what was seen as the Southern Slave Power blocking the progress of liberty.  The “abolition of slavery became his primary political and personal focus”. (Wikipedia) He actively had supported the Underground Railroad aiding runaway slaves to safety in Canada. Stephens advocated total war and was opposed to restoring the Union with slavery preserved. Emancipation of the slaves as war aim was essential to weaken and destroy the Southern slavery economy and, thus, undermine the rebellion.  Steven’s shared leadership in the passage of the 13th Amendment that assured outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude. Later as the Radical Republican leader during the Period of Reconstruction he fought for securing justice for the Freedmen. Stevens was instrumental in drafting prior to his death 1868 both the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing rights of citizenship for the Freedmen and also the Reconstruction Act of 1867. He was buried in an integrated cemetery.

Protagonist’s Debate Rhetoric

Fernando Wood:  “Estimable colleagues. Two bloody years ago this month,  his Highness, King Abraham Africanus the First – our  Great Usurping Caesar, violator of habeas corpus and freedom of the press, abuser of states’ rights – (brief interlude)  Radical republican autocrat ruling by fiat and martial law affixed his name to his heinous and illicit Emancipation Proclamation . . . He claimed as tyrants do, that the war’s emergencies permitted him to turn our army into the unwilling instrument of his monarchical ambitions and radical Republicanisms abolitionist fanaticism!  His Emancipation Proclamation has obliterated millions of dollars worth of personal property rights and ‘liberated’ the hundreds of thousands of hopelessly indolent Negro refugees, bred by nature for servility, to settle in squalor in our Northern cities! But all that is not enough for this dictator, who now seeks to insinuate his miscegenist pollution into the Constitution itself!” (after a brief interlude)  George Pendelton interjected addressing Thaddeus Stevens: “what is natural, in your opinion? Nigghas casting ballots? Niggrah representatives? Is that natural, Stevens? Intermarriage?” Thaddeus Stevens replied to the racist rhetoric of Wood and Pendelton with simple and savvy political reply:  “I don’t hold equality in all things, just equality before the law, Nothing More.”  (cfr. tumblr.)

The racist view of Wood and Pendelton is blatantly proclaimed in their political rhetoric, namely, “abolitionist fanaticism, heinous and illicit Emancipation Proclamation, hopelessly indolent Negro refugees, bred by nature for servility, miscegenist pollution,  and intermarriage”,  finally,  political and social rights contrary to nature. Had Thaddeus Stevens responded with  radical abolitionist racial views in their fulness advancing Negro political ,social, and racial equality that would have placed passage of the 13th Amendment in peril. It should be kept in mind that most whites north or south had the view that Negroes slave or free were racially inferior and without merit as to social or political equality with whites.  Enough to simply state:  just equality before the law, nothing more.

Interpretive observations – see Spielberg gets Lincoln Wrong by Kelly Cabdele, LA Review of books.  Spielberg’s movie epic Lincoln  has generated debate among historians and journalists.  Despite Lincoln’s great accomplishment there is considerable debate as to historical accuracy and limited context of the film. Especially notable is the virtual inviisibility of the blacks as having a fundamental role in their own liberation. “Despite Lincoln’s great accomplishment historians overturned long ago a Lincoln- centered view of emancipation. The destruction was a process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda . . . how slaves accomplished their own libertion and shaped the destiny of the nation”.

Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,

4 thoughts on “Lincoln Film: 13th Amendment – Protagonists Debate Slavery and Race Issue

  1. To those who say that the movie didn’t show enough black folk, my replies are: 1. In the first scene, there are more black soldiers than white ones. The introductory scene shows a black corporal who had memorized the Gettysburg Address. When the Confederate emissaries arrive, again the film depicts a black majority of Union soldiers in Virginia. In reality, at the end of the war there were about 180,000 blacks in the Union army; about the same number of white boys from slave-holding states (every Confederate state had one or more regiments of white troops in the Union army), and probably about a million and half or so total soldiers. I think Spielberg got it about right – if anything, he over-emphasized their role. In any event, the main contribution that blacks made to the Union victory and the abolition of slavery was in the military, so Spielberg was reasonably historically accurate in that regard. 2. The movie shows Frederick Douglass’ son, who was a veteran of the 54th Massachusetts (see the movie “Glory”) watching the House vote. 3. The movie also shows former slave Elizabeth Keckley in the balcony watching the House debate; in reality she never went nor would she have been admitted to the balcony (not because she was black, but because she was a she). She also pointed out that she had been beaten as a slave, which was historically accurate.

  2. Fred, You noted how many referred to: “The War of Northern Aggression.” That interesting reference to the Civil War reminds me when back in 2003 when I visited the CSA Hunley submarine in Charleston, SC. During his introduction just prior to leading us to the holding tank, the guide said with a straight face that the Hunley was sunk during “The War of Northern Aggression.”

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