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The Zombie Dunning School


I haven’t seen Lincoln and hence won’t comment on it directly for now, but I can say that this Kushner quote that Aaron Bady [via Corey Robin] found is…not encouraging:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

Uh, really? I’m not sure why we needed Lincoln, then, since D.W. Griffith has already told that story. And while I agree with Kushner’s apparent argument that Lincoln’s relative moderation allowed him to accomplish more than a more radical and principled politician in his place would have, we should also be clear that the Civil War Amendments were just the beginning of a transformation that still isn’t complete and barely got off the ground for many decades, and that transformation was not (to put it mildly) led by elite politicians.

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  • Hang on, Scott: Andrew Johnson was impeached in large part because of HIS handling of Reconstruction. I think it’s unfair to blame Lincoln here.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Who’s blaming Lincoln? Indeed, the fact that Johnson took over makes it pretty clear that the idea that Reconstruction would have succeeded if only the north had been nicer to the South is insane.

  • Rick Massimo

    Well, I just saw Lincoln last night, and fortunately for my gag reflex the overwhelming majority of the movie is about the combination of brass-knuckles and horse-trading it took to pass the 13th Amendment. There is a bit at the end about how Lincoln encourages gentle Reconstruction, but it’s pretty small.

    If you know going in it’s Spielberg, it’s quite good.

    • One of the Blue

      The bit at the end was just the second inaugural.

      The movie was ok, and Day-Lewis was excellent.

      To engage in a bit of counterfactualism, consider the following. Lincoln was a political genius, A. Johnson, a political doofus.

      Johnson worked against Congress to thwart Reconstruction. Lincoln’s track record suggests he would have wanted to work with and on Congress to control initiatives he thought impractical or “too radical.”

      My guess is that if Lincoln had lived, Reconstruction might have accomplished somewhat less, but that what had been accomplished might have have been more difficult to roll back.

      Question: would the Northern return to racism in the 1870’s have been as easy, if Lincoln had been alive to talk and perhaps battle against it?

      • Rick Massimo

        That’s a good question.

        I did know the bit at the end was the Second inaugural; I’m talking about the last scene with Grant.

        • StevenAttewell

          Well, that part was fairly accurate when it came to Lincoln’s philosophy about what to do with the former Confederate leadership and his preference for no treason trials.

          Which is a separate question from what to do about legal and political equality, access to land, dealing with terrorism, etc.

          • One of the Blue

            You’re both right. The last scene with Grant was about what to do (or not) with the confederate leadership and soldiery, and not about equal-rights policy following the war, the question I was addressing.

            One more counterfactual, just for grins. There apparetly was talk in the confederate hierarchy in 1865 about fighting on guerilla-style, rather than surrender.

            My guess is if that had happened, the outcome quite possibly would have been far more punitive against the defeated leadership than what acutally occurred.

            It’s possible such a thought moved the confederate leadership toward the surrender option, and possible such thought was communicated in various ways by federal leadership.

            • Jaime

              The book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the civil War makes the case that the James-Younger Gang’s depredations were almost entirely politically motivated. It’s a great book IMO; well worth checking out.

              • cpinva

                than it’s hogwash.

                The book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the civil War makes the case that the James-Younger Gang’s depredations were almost entirely politically motivated.

                they were motivated by the same thing every crook is motivated by: cash money. they were no “robin hoods”, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. they stole from the rich (whoever they might be), and kept it for themselves. that most of it happened to be from northern financial interests was simply coincidence, they’d as happily stolen from southern financial interests.

                if i wanted to, i could write a book postulating that hitler (not that i’m comparing the james/younger gang to hitler) was actually misunderstood, he was actually a progressive populist, who tried to save the jews (and every other despised minority), by placing them away from the angry aryan mobs, and things just got a little out of hand, without his knowledge. it would be hogwash too.

                • Halloween Jack

                  I think that we’ve already seen that Star Trek episode.

              • PJR

                It would be better to point to the early KKK than to James-Younger, no?

      • Halloween Jack

        One of the possibilities that has been voiced before about that particular What If? is that Lincoln may not have been able to do much of anything, not only because of the numerous challenges facing anyone taking on the job but because the man himself was almost used up. There are numerous unanswered questions about Lincoln’s health, some of which are purely speculative, and some of which might be answerable by a modern autopsy and/or DNA analysis which is probably politically impossible in Illinois, which venerates him as no other state venerates a single person.

        Of particular interest is his use of a nineteenth-century drug called “blue mass“, which sounds like a type of LSD but is actually a rather toxic mercury compound. If the name reminds you of the blue meth from Breaking Bad, well, it has been blamed for some of Lincoln’s mood swings; see also the rumor that JFK was prescribed amphetamine injections to partially counteract his Addison’s disease, and may have been influenced by them during the Cuban missile crisis.

  • Newsouthzach

    If you know going in it’s Spielberg, it’s quite good.

    I disagree. I knew it was Spielberg going in, but I had expected much better from Kushner. The film had all the rhetorical subtlety of a boot to the skull — particularly the bit with the representative taking the bill home to his mistress. Yes, I get it, slavery bad, fine. But if I had wanted to listen to people In funny clothes make pompous speeches at each other for 3 hours, I would have gone to see Atlas Shrugged.

    • “The film had all the rhetorical subtlety of a boot to the skull — particularly the bit with the representative taking the bill home to his mistress.”

      That was bad, but Sally Field speaking directly into the camera near the end to tell us all how mean we’ve been to Mary Todd Lincoln was worse. There were other Spielberg School of History elements that were pretty grating, but on the whole I wasn’t bored, and Day-Lewis was as good as advertised.

      • John

        I thought the worst bit was the black soldier at the beginning reciting the end of the Gettysburg Address.

        • newsouthzach

          Plenty of worst bits to go around, it would seem, each more execrable than the last.

          • Halloween Jack

            If the above are as bad as it gets, then nothing in the film even remotely puts it in the league of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

  • ploeg

    For as much as one can fault the Ken Burns series, it made quite clear that emancipation proceeded at least as much from radical initiative and historical accident as it did from Lincoln’s deliberate acts. It’s also odd that one would focus on the 13th Amendment, as the heavy lifting was done in 1862, and even Missouri and Maryland had abolished slavery by early 1865.

    • A movie on the passage of the 15th Amendment would have been a lot more interesting since it came about because Congress was forcing the South to accept black male suffrage while northern states were consistently rejecting the idea. But then you wouldn’t have been able to attach Lincoln to it.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I also agree that a movie about Lincoln and Douglas would have been potentially very interesting — it’s a perfect vehicle for exploring the relationship between political compromise and radical demands.

        • John

          Douglass, you mean?

          • Scott Lemieux

            Yes, Douglass. I’m not sure a movie of guys debating would be as interesting; the 1860 campaign could make a decent HBO movie.

      • ACM

        So I’m not clear: is the gripe with the subject of the film (passage of 13th Amendment), or the fact that that subject necessitated more black agency in its telling? I can buy the latter point, but only up to a point. That story was, and remains, a largely white story. If the former point is the problem, then I guess don’t see the movie. I too would have rather there been a movie about the passage of the 15th amendment, but this one was pretty fun anyway. Spielberg has his emotional weaknesses, but he also has his strengths. Both are on display here.

        As for the politics of the movie, it basically comes off in the vein of Eric Foner and David Brion Davis, who, respectively, create heroic, 2-dimensional black characters and celebrate the white abolitionists ad nauseum. Yeah, it’d be nice if the next film adaptation of this period was based on something by Steven Hahn, but this was no Dunning School portrait of 1865–the Kushner quote notwithstanding. Robin admits that. But it should be said again: the problem here, if there is one, is that it’s more 1980s and 1990s History, not 2000s.

        • ploeg

          With the needed caveat that I haven’t seen the movie yet, having a movie about Abraham Lincoln that focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment through Congress seems akin to having a romantic comedy that focuses on the acquisition of the marriage certificate. If you had to choose a limited period of time to cover, this would not seem to be a particularly fruitful period of time to choose. And as I stated before, emancipation was practically accomplished by the time that the 13th Amendment made its way through Congress. The importance of the 13th Amendment was to enshrine in the Constitution what had been already been accomplished.

          And also as I alluded to before, emancipation was as much forced on the political leadership of the North by events and by the actions of the slaves themselves as it was a conscious decision of the North’s political leadership. From the outset, slaves ran to the Union lines to volunteer their services to the Union cause. Nobody forced the slaves to do so; in fact, the Union initially sent the slaves back to their masters, regardless of what the consequences to the slaves might have been. However, it soon became clear that the Union could not afford to send the slaves back to work Confederate farms, build Confederate fortifications, etc., etc. etc., so the slaves were declared contraband. In time, it became clear that the war could not be brought to a quick end with whites fighting alone, but slaves would not work and fight and die for the North if they thought that they would be sent back to their masters afterwards. And as it was clear that the South seceded to preserve slavery, it was eventually seen as prudent to free all the slaves and remove any further inducement to secede. So yes, Lincoln emancipated the slaves, but he did not do so entirely or even mainly for the benefit of the slaves. The slaves themselves had a lot to do with what Lincoln ultimately did.

          • cpinva

            since every single seceding state had preservation of slavery, as the primary reason for secession, in their articles of secession, i don’t believe any guesswork is required here:

            And as it was clear that the South seceded to preserve slavery,

  • Bob
    • ploeg

      A Louis C.K. version in which Lincoln deals with his cabinet and the endless stream of office seekers would be worthwhile.

      A movie about Lincoln where Lincoln doesn’t tell any stories or anecdotes would be hard to take.

  • Barry Freed

    So now you’re saying Lincoln didn’t slay all those vampires?

    • Keaaukane

      That was his night job. Everybody deserves to have a hobby, and if it gets you out of the house and away from Mary…

    • It would have been cool if he did his job properly and finished off the whole Cullen family so we didn’t have to deal with this glittering fairy now.

  • Wow. What the hell is wrong with Kushner! That’s really awful. I guess he was captured by the propaganda he was reading?!?!

    Truly sad.

    • wengler

      This is pretty much the storyline that has been taught in schools for the last 60 years.

  • thusbloggedanderson

    Somebody kidnap Kushner and hold him in a remote cabin until he’s written his book report on Foner’s Reconstruction.

    • Lee

      Foner’s Reconstrution is the only book I have left from my freshman year in college.

    • cpinva

      as long as it’s anything not by doris kearns goodwin, one of the great historian hacks of our time.

  • Corey

    Saw the movie, thought it was Bad mostly for the reasons Bady does (although I think he probably overstates the pro-Obama message), but seriously, what else could you possibly expect from a big-budget Hollywood movie about an American icon? Lincoln will never be treated with subtlety in popular media because to do so would destroy the myth and guarantee a box-office flop.

  • Marek

    Tough crowd. I thought it was good, especially Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting, and particularly in view of the likelihood that this will be the only source of information for many people on the subject.

    • Steve LaBonne

      And I thought Tommy Lee Jones was wonderful as Thaddeus Stevens, and was given plenty to work with by Kushner despite the latter’s squishy statement quoted in the OP. So much so, in fact, that with the benefit of hindsight, anybody with an open mind would have to consider, after seeing the film, the possibility that Stevens was right and Lincoln was wrong about Reconstruction. (Certainly that’s my view. The Southnern elite should have been hanged en masse and the entire society rebuilt from the ground up- we’d be a far better country now if that had happened.)

      • Marek

        I agree. Plus, as usual, it’s unfair to criticize a movie on the grounds that you wish another movie had been made.

    • wengler

      It was good for a biography, since it narrowed its focus and didn’t engage in a lot of the genre cliches of venerating its hero above everyone else.

  • TT

    The good, humble, and decent Former Confederate Soldier has been a Hollywood staple for decades and decades. Usually it takes the form of a proud and relatively poor man who (of course) never owned slaves and may actually like blacks, but who nonetheless felt compelled to do his duty in the face of outsider aggression, cultural and peer pressure, et cetera. But the propaganda aim is about as subtle as a kick to the groin: to convince the broader American populace that compromise between North and South may have in fact been possible but for the North’s insistence that the South not only accept total military defeat but, as a result of pitilessly harsh Reconstruction, abandon its cherished and unique culture as well–the supposedly real reason for Southern resistance and veneration of the Lost Cause. (Of course, freed slaves being given the vote and starting to serve in Southern state legislatures had nothing to do with it….)

    • wengler

      They also push the storyline of the corrupt and mean federal government (The Outlaw Josey Wales).

  • I saw the movie yesterday and wrote a post on it at my place. Basically, I liked it, though I thought the way that it tried to place Civil War-era political disagreements in the context of modern-day debates.

    I agree that Kushner’s quote is silly, though the whole “Booth killed the South’s greatest ally” myth is much sillier. Johnson WAS the South’s greatest ally as President, and that didn’t really get them what they wanted.

  • StevenAttewell

    So I saw the movie, and honestly, I think it was pretty good. The schmaltz at the beginning and end was not great, but I thought it did a good job of focusing on the conflict between principled radicalism and pragmatic centrism while giving both sides their due, and importantly showed that there was an evolving Lincoln right up to the end (the bit where his cabinet are talking to him about black suffrage and Lincoln smiles when he hears that Stevens A. didnt like that he was in favor of black suffrage only for some blacks and B. wanted a better speech).

  • Barry Freed

    Why is everyone acting so surprised when Spielberg’s first blockbuster movie was about a great white?

    • DocAmazing


    • Halloween Jack

      Now I’ve got a mash-up going in my head with John Wilkes Booth playing Quint. Oh, dear.

  • MacCheerful

    I think Bady is too sanguine as to the counterfactual as to the consequences of the 13th Amendment not passing when it did or not passing at all.

    The theory of the movie is that if the war ends and slavery is not legally abolished than it will continue as a legal regime in those states who wish it, definitely Kentucky and Missouri and perhaps, depending on postwar Reconstruction, in the rest of the South.

    Now it may be true that slavery as a practical matter would be hard to maintain given the number of slaves who took efforts to secure their own freedom. But “hard to maintain” is not the same as “impossible to maintain” and the slaveowners, even of the Union states, had every interest in trying to maintain some legal status of servitude and, after the war, some political leverage in doing so.

    Lincoln was making the bet that the Radical Republicans might not have the clout, of their own, after the urgency of the war, to completely abolish slavery by constitutional amendment, and the presence of at least some conservative Republicans tends to support that idea.

    So sure, the movie was incomplete regarding how slavery ended in America, and it is making a political argument on the value of moderation over radicalism. But I don’t think Bady has really refuted the argument.

    • ploeg

      Slavery in Maryland was abolished by constitutional convention in 1864. The governor of Missouri abolished slavery by executive proclamation on January 11, 1865. Certainly encoding emancipation in the Constitution was a good thing, but for the most part, the 13th Amendment merely acknowledged what had already been done. As the root cause of the ACW, slavery was spent and discredited, and nobody in any authority saw any point in spending any more money or treasure to support it.

      • MacCheerful

        While on the other hand, the states of Delaware, New Jersey and, particularly, Kentucky, refused requests to end slavery and refused to ratify the 13th amendment.

        And an executive proclamation by a Missouri Governor, during a time of war, like a proclamation of a president during a time of war, is subject to change later by legislatures.

        Just because slavery was discredited did not mean there was not a large constituency of white people in the South and border states who wanted to keep it or something like it going. Lincoln had no real idea of what the post war political situation in the South was going to be, and was trying to put returns to slavery (or peonage?)out of reach.

        Again, Kusher addresses this point in the movie in his scene with the Missouri couple seeking their post road who were not particularly keen on the 13th Amendment. I don’t see that it’s been refuted by Bady

        • ploeg

          If you were a DE slaveholder in 1865 and I were your slave, and I decided to run off to PA or maybe MD, how are you going to get me back? Who’s going to help you catch me? Who’s going to report my location to you? If you by some chance figure out where I’m at, considering how many emancipated slaves there are (with some of them being war veterans), how likely is it that the authorities will help you nab me and send me back? If you don’t get help, how many people is it going to take for you to grab me and haul me back? (These questions are not meant to be rhetorical, but are simply meant to illustrate how hard it would be to maintain slavery without general support, forget about active resistance. Perhaps you succeed in dragging me back; I just run off somewhere else at the next opportunity. It’s a lot easier for me to run off when I can go to any number of places and just blend in with the other freed slaves, and the US Marshals aren’t out to get me.)

          I don’t dispute that it was appropriate and even necessary on some level to wipe the books clean of slavery by passing the 13th Amendment. But one can hold such a viewpoint and still observe that it would have been well nigh impossible to undo what the Emancipation Proclamation did. Grant was right when he wrote in August of 1863:

          The people of the North need not quarrel over the institution of Slavery. What [Confederate] Vice President [Alexander H.] Stephens acknowledges the Corner Stone of the Confederacy is already knocked out. Slavery is already dead and cannot be resurrected. It would take a standing army to maintain slavery in the South if we were to make peace today, guaranteeing the South all their former Constitutional privileges.

          • MacCheerful

            Well, I am not sure I want to fight it out on this line all summer, but here goes.

            If the Delaware slave ran away from the Delaware slave owner and slavery was still legal I would expect that law abiding citizens, or slave catchers, might assist in getting the slave back to Delaware, either because they thought it was legally correct or for a price. So if I was a Delaware slave in counterfactual non-13th Amendment 1866 and I wanted to rest easy, I would be better off to keep running till I was somewhere I was sure it was too much trouble to get me back, say Maine or Canada. Which is a fair amount of work, and not every slave will be up for that kind of risk.

            Unlikely that Pennsylvania people would assist in my return? Perhaps among the abolitionists. But how many, really, were abolitionists? and how many would continue after a long bloody expensive war which in part they might blame on a black body?

            And if I am a Kentucky slave, I would probably fear worse luck from the people nearby, say in southern Indiana.

            And if I were a slave in Texas, in a non-13th Amendment world, my prospects are even dimmer.

            Two more points – It counts against me that the Radical Republicans had no problem pushing through a 14th and 15th Amendment, so perhaps worrying about their ability to accomplish a 13th is a little far-fetched. On the other hand, if the countefactual Reconstruction Congress thought that the problem was the lack of a 13th, perhaps they lose their fervor in fighting over that issue, and have less energy for a 14th/15th.

            And b) Andrew Johnson wouldn’t have spent the time and trouble Lincoln did to pass the 13th. Lincoln couldn’t forsee his own death, but he could be given credit for getting the job done sooner rather than later, and risk future events that might send it akilter.

            In short, slavery was mostly over by early 1865, but there’s large gulf between mostly and completely and standing at that gulf, as we know now, were a bunch of unreconstructed Southerners and Northern Democrats with no love at all for negroes.

          • cpinva

            best go read that proclimation again:

            But one can hold such a viewpoint and still observe that it would have been well nigh impossible to undo what the Emancipation Proclamation did.

            it only eliminated slavery in the states then in rebellion. once those states were no longer in rebellion, slavery was legal again, and slaves would once again be treated as chattel. a 13th amendment was absolutely required, to once and for all eliminate slavery as a legal institution, anywhere in the country.

  • cpinva

    now i am torn. i kind of wanted to see the movie, but was concerned that it would be kind of exactly what it’s being described as, a not particularly realistic portrayal of the man and the events he was the major player in. the quote from kushner certainly does nothing to allay my concerns, is he really that much of a blithering idiot?

    • Marek

      The Kushner quote isn’t reflected in the screenplay for the most part.

    • wengler

      Go see Red Dawn instead.

  • Bloix

    Since we know as a matter of fact that Southern whites defeated Reconstruction via a campaign of terror, and instituted race-based debt peonage, legal segregation, and state-enforced inequality as soon as Reconstruction ended, it is simply bizarre to contend that the 13th Amendment was an afterthought, that slavery was finally defeated by 1864, or that the slaves freed themselves. The slaves were freed by the force of Northern arms, and as soon as those arms were withdrawn, they were virtually enslaved again, as close as any Southern legislature supported by gangs of white-robed horsemen could provide.

    I read Bady’s piece and a purer piece of idiotic claptrap I have never seen. Without the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, literal slavery would have resumed within a few years of the end of the war.

    • jeer9

      +10 on the historical analysis.

      Where Bady’s analysis resonates somewhat is in its recognition that the film wants Lincoln as the cynical compromiser to be judged more favorably than the radicals like Stevens whose long-term views were the correct, if impractical, ones. Comparisons to Obama and contemporary politics abound.

      The film is well worth seeing, even if the agency of blacks is not emphasized enough for your taste. But then again, if Schindler’s List was a deeply disappointing work of art to you, maybe not.

    • Marek


  • Harold

    They are *still* trying to bring back slavery — via Walmart and prison labor.

  • Please note that the comment thread to Mr. Robins post(at Crooked Timber, no less)is despoiled by a distressingly large number of hand-waving apologias nearly as transparent as Kushners jaw-dropper.Questions of “Who’s a Racist!” aside, the fact that this crap is so deeply embedded in the cultural psyche that it could simply pop out of his mouth and not set off alarms tells you all you need to know about how these exculpatory myths can insinuate themselves into the even the well-intentioned. It’ downloaded into all of us. A lifetime of effort is required to excavate and neutralize even a fraction of the nonsense.

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