The film currently taking America by storm begins with a black Union cavalryman pausing from the slaughter of the Civil War to recite the Gettysburg Address by heart as the president who gave it trudges past through the mud.
And it ends with Abraham Lincoln in quiet triumph, his work done in seeing slavery banned throughout the nation, and the Confederacy of the American South brought to its knees.
Breaking off from a discussion with colleagues about giving blacks the vote, Uncle Abe — played by Daniel Day-Lewis — heads off to a night at the theatre with Mrs Lincoln, and a fateful encounter with assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic about the 16th President of America’s triumph over slavery, won a commanding 12 Oscar nominations last week and is leading the field for this year’s Academy Awards, with Day-Lewis hotly tipped for the best actor accolade.
Weaned — as every U.S. schoolchild is — on the notion of Lincoln as a towering, morally spotless leader in America’s history, the Oscar grandees are unlikely to vote against it: it seems almost treasonous to stand in the way of this lump-in-the-throat, desperately worthy celebration of the man who has been dubbed the ‘Great Emancipator’.
Unfortunately, say historians, its portrayal of America’s most revered president is about as accurate as the notion that an ordinary soldier could have recited the Gettysburg Address from memory when the speech only became famous in the 20th century.
Not only, they say, has Spielberg’s lengthy drama grossly exaggerated Lincoln’s role in ending slavery, but it has also glossed over the president’s rather less likeable qualities.
Very definitely a man of his times, say historians, Lincoln was — certainly by today’s standards — a racist who used the N-word liberally, who believed that whites were superior to blacks and who, having jumped on the emancipation bandwagon rather late in the day, wanted to pack the freed slaves off to hard new lives in plantations abroad.
To say you might not pick up on any of this from the almost saintly portrayal in the film is putting it mildly. Critics have been mesmerised by Day-Lewis’s compelling performance. Meanwhile, political commentators have even dared hope the film might restore Americans’ shattered confidence in their political leaders.
The film is based on a best-selling biography, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which Barack Obama has revealed he read during his first term as president.
Spielberg bought the film rights to the book before it had even been finished, and handed it to a screenwriter, Tony Kushner, who considers Lincoln to be the ‘greatest democratic leader in the world’.
It focuses on just four weeks near the end of Lincoln’s life when, in January 1865, he twisted arms and used underhand political tactics to persuade Congress to approve the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thereby formally abolishing slavery across the nation.
Both Spielberg and his screenwriter have insisted this film is the definitive account of the defeat of slavery. ‘We were enormously accurate,’ said Kushner.
‘What we’re describing absolutely happened.’
Sadly, historians have been less impressed than the critics by such assurances. One after another has risked breaking step with national sentiment by declaring that Lincoln wasn’t quite the great liberator after all.
‘As cinema it’s very, very good. As history it leaves something to be desired,’ says Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Lincoln and slavery.
He said the film severely distorts how slavery came to be abolished by concentrating solely on what politicians were doing in Washington.
For the 13th Amendment, he points out, originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign by a formidable group of abolitionist feminists called the Women’s National Loyal League.
Spielberg portrays the president as the devoted foe of slavery, but Professor Foner says Lincoln occupied the middle ground on the issue.
Privately, he expressed his ‘dislike’ for it, but in public stressed that he didn’t want to abolish it, but only stop it from spreading.
Preserving the Union, he said in a key speech, was far more important than emancipating slaves.
But his position changed and he hardened in his opposition to slavery, especially after he saw the strategic advantages of freeing the millions of slaves behind enemy lines, many of whom could then come and fight for his Yankee army.
Other historians have taken a much harder line on Lincoln, pointing out his opposition to inter-racial marriage and even to blacks serving as jurors.
Historian Henry Louis Gates has called him a ‘recovering racist’. Other African-American experts on the period agree.
Lincoln told racist jokes, enjoyed black minstrel shows and had no time for the arguments of hardened abolitionists that the races were equal under God.
During a famous 1858 Senate debate, for instance, Lincoln spoke of a ‘physical difference’ between blacks and whites that ‘will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality’.
He went on: ‘There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race.’
As for giving them the vote, Lincoln only saw it as desirable for the more ‘intelligent’ blacks.
Spielberg’s film depicts Lincoln as ready to use every power at his disposal to free slaves, but the reality was that he envisaged a fate for them that sounded little better than their life on the cotton plantations of the South.
He supported so-called ‘black colonisation’, backing unsuccessful schemes to send willing freed slaves to new lives — still toiling in the fields under blazing suns, of course — in countries such as Haiti, Panama and British Honduras.
Supporters say he only did it to persuade Congress to agree to freeing the slaves, but new evidence from, of all places, the National Archives at Kew in South-West London, suggests not.
Even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 — which announced that all those enslaved in Confederate territories would be freed for ever — he approved plans in tandem with the British to set up freed slave settlements in what are now Belize and Guyana.
What really seems to have annoyed African-American historians in particular about Spielberg’s film is its portrayal of Lincoln as the great white emancipator freeing the helpless blacks.
(Curiously, the director got into similar trouble from some fellow Jews over Schindler’s List, about the courageous German businessman Oscar Schindler’s rescue of concentration camp inmates).
‘This is not mere nit-picking,’ history professor Kate Masur wrote in the New York Times. ‘Mr Spielberg’s Lincoln helps perpetuate the notion that African-Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.’
In fact, not only did 150,000 black soldiers fight in the Civil War, but some freed slaves became crucial members of the abolition groups who were pushing for emancipation decades before Lincoln took up the cause.
Passionate abolitionists such as the freed slave Frederick Douglass, newspaper editor William Garrison and heiress Angelina Grimke were the real heroes and heroines of the struggle to end slavery, but their names are largely lost to history now. They don’t even get a mention in Spielberg’s version of events.
Also absent is Harriet Beecher Stowe, a clergyman’s daughter and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is a fierce attack on slavery and the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
If you are searching for the single person who really brought down slavery in the U.S., say many historians, you need look no further than her.
But with some 16,000 books written about him — including 20 published in just the past few months — Americans remain obsessed by Lincoln. It’s not hard to see why.
‘He saved the American Dream and he lived the American Dream,’ explains one historian, Harold Holzer, who has been involved in no fewer than 42 books on the great man.
Raised in a log cabin in Illinois with very little education, Lincoln rose to the highest office in the land and took the helm of a teetering nation in its hour of need.
And there are few more tragic and dramatic moments in U.S. history than Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday, just five days after winning the Civil War.
He was undoubtedly a remarkable president who kept the U.S. intact and presided over the end of slavery.
Whether he deserves the unadulterated hero worship of Spielberg’s Lincoln seems rather more questionable.