Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Historical Oops

13th Amendment Vote
I recently read about the mistake made in Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. It seems that the writers were not as careful as they should have been concerning  the vote on the 13th Amendment.  In the movie, two Connecticut Congressman were reported to have voted against the amendment.  This surprised  Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney who quickly checked the facts.    He said an Internet search confirmed his suspicions that the movie was historically inaccurate.  He also asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate, and it reported that all four Connecticut Congressmen backed the amendment in a January 1865 vote.

Rep. Joe Courtney
Representative Courtney wrote to Spielberg asking for the error to be corrected.  He cited the voting record by the state's congressional delegation and noted the state's role in emancipating millions of blacks.  He asked, "How could congressmen from Connecticut – a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War – have been on the wrong side of history?"   The vote for Lincoln in the 1864 election was close with 51.4% of the state supporting Lincoln.  New York state only gave Lincoln 50.5%. 

Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner fired back. “We changed two of the delegation’s votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them”  He added, “In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House. These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.”  Mr. Kushner is right on the closeness of the vote which passed the House by 119 to 56 or 68%.  The Senate vote was 38 to 6 or 86%. 

Kushner explained, “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.”

Kushner writes that he is proud that Lincoln’s “fidelity to and illumination of history has been commended by many Lincoln scholars.”  The screenwriter disagreed "with the congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is 'paramount' in a work of historical drama. Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history.”

Mr. Kushner's comments are another example of how people have become adept in making excuses.  I do not understand why they chose to alter the facts when they were easily available.  Perhaps Mr. Kushner's is using the Hollywood definition of "fidelity." 

There also seems to be some confusion about whether Lincoln was present at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference.  In the movie Lincoln was not at the meeting on February 3, 1865.  However, the historical information I examined said he was there.  Even the New York Times says he was there.  What's the deal?

Several nights later I watched a History Channel program on Lincoln.  The program made two glaring errors.  The first said that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the slaves in the states. The document only freed slaves in those states and areas of those states in Confederate control.  The second was describing the casualties at Gettysburg as deaths.  In the Civil War casualties included killed, wounded, captured, and missing.   These are hardly little mistakes.

Now before I am called out as being a perfectionist, let me confess to be as guilty as any writer of the goofs.  Try as I will to check all my facts, I do miss things. 

Some will call these errors poetic license or capturing the essence.  We heard these phrases from Robert Redford's The Conspirator.  Still mistakes that involve rewriting history  should have never seen the light of day and need to be corrected.  Careful editing and vetting of articles, books, and scripts can eliminate most. 

However, Hollywood sometimes thinks that they are above all of the rigors scholarly research.  That may be true of fiction and "based on a true story" movies, but not motion pictures wrapped in "historical accuracy" that might find their way into classrooms. 

I liked Lincoln very much, but I wish Spielberg had run a historical "spell-check" on the content.    

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