Remembering: Free At Last? January 31, 1865


The 13th Amendment Passes Congress 148 Years Ago Today


The current box office success Lincoln explores how the 16th President navigated the US Congress and his own Cabinet towards an enduring measure that would abolish slavery in America.

In Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of  Abraham Lincoln we see a side of the rail-splitter previously in the shadows.  In the film at least, Lincoln descends from his memorial throne chair and is portrayed as profane, direct and purposeful.

He is also depicted as a “great White savior”.

It is wonderful to see Lewis as Lincoln spinning one of his famous yarns as War Secretary Edwin Stanton looks on, obviously exasperated.  Lincoln employed jokes and stories to sometimes make a point but just as often as a tactic to change the subject and to avoid making a decision.  He curses and laughs and because of it comes alive as a real person.  The Kunhardt’s, chroniclers of Lincoln, once said, in part, that Lincoln “sounded like a backwoodsman, even in high hat.”

Eric Foner, in his Pulitizer prize winning book The Fiery Trail points out that Lincoln’s position on slavery as he reentered politics in the late 1850′s was one even a racist could love.  Lincoln wished only to keep slavery out of new territories.  For Lincoln, it was OK where it existed; keeping it from new territories would mean that Blacks would effectively be corralled in the east and south away from whites pushing westward.

For a long time Lincoln was committed to the “colony” movement where freed Blacks would be exiled to Central or South America or back to Africa.  He could envisage Blacks as free but not as US citizens enjoying the rights of man.

To the extent that the film further morphs Lincoln into even a pseudo-abolitionist, it is an error.  It has been fashionable to trash his Secretaries William Seward and Salmon Chase as being presidential wannabees, too big for their britches and scheming to weaken him.  Whatever that truth may be, Seward and Chase were dedicated abolitionists who represented fugitive slaves for free and in Seward’s case, he and his wife Francis gave them money and safe haven in their home.  Lincoln as Illinois lawyer represented a slave-owner to help him get his “property” back.

Still, on this day, the greatness of Lincoln endures perhaps because of the consistent scholarly view that despite his sometimes tepid actions he was inwardly moving ever forward, willing to question–ponder–learn–change.  We seem to wish to “over credit” Lincoln perhaps because of his undisputed compassion and kindness.  Worse things could happen.


Where greatness is concerned, Lincoln had a contemporary partner and it is fitting that he should have the last word.  Frederick Douglass, slave, writer, intellectual, leader, and abolitionist had a complicated relationship with Lincoln as he pushed him to do more sooner.  Douglass may linger in the shadows but his moral legacy now resides in the very house that Lincoln also occupied.


“Mr. Lincoln”, said Mr. Douglas, “was not only a great president, but a great man.”


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Eric Lamar

January 2013
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