Matthew Pinsker: “Lincoln” and History

As the new Steven Spielberg movie has reignited our national passion for our 16th President, The Recovering Politician today begins featuring a series of posts from one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic: Dr. Matthew Pinsker, a Lincoln scholar, Civil War historian and college professor based at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA (and of course, longtime Friend of RP).  For the last five years, Pinsker has personally trained more than 2,500 K-12 educators on Civil War and American history topics, and he has also been directing the House Divided Project, a digital effort designed to help classroom teachers use the latest technologies to promote deeper study of the American Civil War during its 150th anniversary.

Here is his first column, cross-posted with Quora.com, with permission of the author:

It’s a mistake to worry about whether “Lincoln” the movie is historically accurate.

It’s historically inspired and inspiring but by definition any work of art that blends fiction (such as invented dialogue) with fact should never be considered “accurate.”

Spielberg himself acknowledges all this when he describes his movie as a “dream” and as a work of “historical fiction” (see his Dedication Day speech, November 19, 2012 at Gettysburg for a good example).

That doesn’t mean that the movie has no use in the history classroom or for the lifelong history student. “Lincoln” the movie creates an unforgettable historical mood or experience that almost no actual history of the period can match.   It truly feels like “writing history with lightning” (Woodrow Wilson on another powerful movie, “Birth of a Nation”).

But accurate history sticks to the evidence and Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner don’t.  When they want to convey the complicated dynamic of the Lincoln household, they take that responsibility seriously and consult several leading historical studies to create a layered account but at the end of the day they simply invent the most compelling scenes such as a bitter bedroom argument between First Husband and wife or a stunning scene where Abraham Lincoln slaps his oldest son (which, by the way, would NEVER have happened).

They also condense, conflate and simplify the politics behind the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which is the focal point of the movie.  Just compare the Spielberg/Kushner interpretation to the best academic account of the subject (“Final Freedom” (2001) by Michael Vorenberg) and you realize how many corners the movie has to cut and nuances it has to ignore.

Professor Matthew Pinsker

Watching the movie, for example, it’s easy to forget that Lincoln was pushing for approval from a lame duck Congress where his numbers were worse than they would be in the newly elected Congress.

Why would he do that?

The movie also struggles to portray the details of the lobbying effort (relying heavily on invention, imagination and more than a little corny comic relief).  Yet this movie probably does better on this difficult subject than any other American film.

So, accurate?  No. But excellent anyway?  Absolutely.  In other words, don’t go to this movie (or any historical movie) to learn the facts.  Go to imagine the experience and to enjoy the illusion that a great filmmaker can create.

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