Lincoln: The Movie

I caught Lincoln last night, which I greatly enjoyed.  Spielberg’s directing, Kushner’s writing, and a first rate cast make it a truly enjoyable movie.  One test I have for a movie is how many times I look at my watch.  I have to admit, in a two and a half hour movie, I never looked once.

Of course, it is not surprising that I would love a movie about this period.  For the last several months, much of my work has focused on the 1860s — in particular, the adoption of the 14th Amendment, rather than the movie’s focus on the of the 13th.  Since I don’t know that much about 13th Amendment’s enactment, the big question for me is how much of the film is historically accurate.  Many historians have already weighed in on the question, and one can find the discussions of Kate Mazur, Harold Holzer, and Allen Guelzo, among others at the end of this Wikipedia entry.

Although he is not my favorite historian, let me then quote this short, but informative take from Eric Foner:

The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Moreover, from the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.

The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.

Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. djf says

    Foner’s comment is typical of the fashionable line of the last decade or so, that the slaves freed themselves and Lincoln and the Union Army were irrelevant to the end of the slavery. This line sounds to me more like politically correct ideology, rather than disinterested historical analysis.

    Foner says here that the Emancipation Proclamation “declared” free all the slaves in areas still in rebellion as of its effective date (1/1/63). Of course, not one of those slaves actually was freed until his or her area came under Union control. And it was not clear that the EP would be upheld by the Courts in postwar litigation. Which is precisely the point made in the movie.

  2. Alec Rogers says

    Anyone’s who has ever studies the Court’s handling of war power sees that there is difference between the scrutiny given during the conflict with the outcome in doubt and thereafter. Indeed, I think the Court’s Civil War habeus corpus decisions can only be explained by their timing. Fear that courts would reassert themselves in this arena after the war was over, reining in presidential overreach, would certainly be reasonable.

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