The Devil’s in the Details

This past week we saw yet another flurry of complaints about issues of historical accuracy in the movie Lincoln.  Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney took exception to the movie’s claim that two members of Congress from his home state voted against the amendment in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. This finding has caused quite a tempest in a teapot, with Courtney writing director Steven Spielberg directly in an effort to correct the matter.

Courtney is correct. The film, which also managed to botch exactly how the roll is called in the House of Representatives, was seriously off on the matter of how Connecticut’s representatives, including Democrat James English, cast their votes (English’s decision was a matter of some celebration in some quarters and surprise in others). One must add, however, that Courtney ought not to make too much of this, given the opposition of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles of Connecticut to measures seeking to protect black freedom during Reconstruction. Moreover, Welles himself observed on this very day in 1866 that “in no State has mere partyism shown itself during the War to greater disadvantage than in Connecticut. Party and party organization rose above country, or duty. In fact party was a substitute for country” (diary, February 7, 1866). English, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1866, supported Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction; he lost to Joseph R. Hawley in a closely contested race in April 1866. Does that mean that in a battle over Reconstruction and black rights, a rather significant number of voters in Connecticut were on the wrong side of history? I’ll leave it to Congressman Courtney to answer that question.

What do we make of this error? Not much. Sure, Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and the film’s historical advisers flubbed this one, but it’s a minor point that has no impact on the larger story. Had they chosen simply to focus on New Jersey, they would have seen a divided delegation that was at the heart of the negotiations to secure the passage of the amendment, which, after all, was a theme of the movie. After all, slavery was still legal in New Jersey in 1860; in 1864 the state went Democratic, and four of its five members in the House were Democratic.

That not all white northerners supported emancipation should be obvious by now, and no reputable historian denies that (although certain people, looking to construct strawmen, claim otherwise). Nor does any reputable historian claim that all white northerners (or even a majority of them) were racial egalitarians. Any careful student knows that one can’t speak of “the North” as a unified place politically, given the deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans (as well as among many Republicans), just as those folks to speak of “the South” when they really mean “white southerners” ignore race as well as the presence of southern white Unionists (it is no accident that the same people tend to make both mistakes).

Thus one wonders exactly what this worshipper of Confederate heritage from “occupied Virginia” meant when he posted this on a Yahoo discussion group. “The Great White North”? No, just strongly Democratic New Jersey, where both houses of the state legislature were controlled by Democrats in 1863. The bill in question passed the state assembly, but died in the state senate, so what exactly does this bill tell us? That Democrats in New Jersey were racist white supremacists? What a surprise. But only somewhat who was ignorant or an idiot would see New Jersey during the Civil War as representative of the North. Another bill, looking to deport blacks who entered the state (as opposed to current residents) passed the lower chamber in March 1863. Here’s a breakdown of the vote. Note that the overwhelming majority of the New Jersey State Assembly at this time was Democratic. Again, the state senate did not pass the bill, so it never became law. For more, look here.

No surprise … after all, this isn’t the first case of finger-pointing we’ve seen from those white southerners intent on evilizing northerners or the United States as a while. One hopes this sort of nonsense at least makes them feel good about themselves. After all, it’s heritage, not history.

In short, things are a bit more complex than someone might claim they are, whether it’s a congressman from Connecticut defending the reputation of his state or another whiny Confederate heritage advocate seeking to strike once more against his self-constructed strawman.


5 thoughts on “The Devil’s in the Details

  1. Michael Confoy February 7, 2013 / 2:28 pm

    And similar laws about free blacks existed in several northern states before and into the war. The idea that this is not discussed in history books is silly. I only know this from reading history books.

  2. rcocean February 7, 2013 / 7:54 pm

    Its poetic justice that the Southern slaveholders who started the war ended slavery. Had the South not seceded slavery would no doubt have ended peacefully with compensation in 20-30 years, but the fanatics -who brooked no compromise – ended up with nothing. I never understood why New Jersey – of all places – was so Pro-southern, anti-black and sympathetic to slavery. I’ve read many Irishmen moved there from New York City and Philadelphia but that can’t explain all of it.

    • tonygunter February 8, 2013 / 9:01 am

      “I never understood why New Jersey – of all places – was so … sympathetic to slavery.”

      Tradition? New Jersey was still technically a slave-holding state by the start of the Civil War. The last 16 slaves in New Jersey were freed in 1865 by the 13th Amendment.

  3. Mark Anema February 17, 2013 / 9:45 pm

    Mr, Simpson,
    Your writing would improve if you left out the phrase “any reputable historian.” This is a sophomoric cheap shot at any historian who disagrees with you.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 17, 2013 / 9:54 pm

      Dear Dr. Anema:

      Open wide so we can examine what I said in context.

      “That not all white northerners supported emancipation should be obvious by now, and no reputable historian denies that (although certain people, looking to construct strawmen, claim otherwise). Nor does any reputable historian claim that all white northerners (or even a majority of them) were racial egalitarians.”

      Now, if you were correct, and I said this simply to take a cheap shot at any historian who disagreed with me (as opposed to an observation about what historians agree on), it seems to me that you would be able to name a historian who believes that all white northerners supported emancipation and that all white northerners were racial egalitarians.

      So name one.

      Otherwise, I’d have to assume that your comment was nothing more than a sophomoric cheap shot made by someone ignorant of historical scholarship but eager to take a potshot.

      We’ll wait for your response.

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