Script-doctoring Lincoln: Women’s History Edition
via We Are Respectable Negroes, which quotes from historian Kate Masur’s doctoring of the Lincoln script in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Masur wrote this in response to criticism of an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times in which she “pointed out the passivity and generic nature of the black characters in the film. I argued that the filmmakers’ “imagination” (to quote Spielberg) was one in which white men gave the gift of freedom to African-Americans.” In response to” those who insist that it would have required a PBS miniseries or a wholly different feature film to portray black characters with more complexity and to suggest that African-Americans played a role in their own liberation,” Masur offers the following “dreams and fantasies of my own.
Thaddeus Stevens could have talked about politics at home with his common-law wife, Lydia Smith, who was African-American. They might have discussed the tension between Stevens’s idealism and the president’s pragmatism; Smith could have given Stevens advice about how to handle himself during the House debate over the 13th amendment.
Robert Lincoln, strolling around Washington and mulling his conflict with his parents, could have come across a meeting of black activists who, under leadership of the editor Robert Hamilton of New York, had assembled in the capital to lobby Congress for emancipation and equal rights. Some of these men could have been among the group of African-Americans who filed into the House chamber to witness the amendment’s passage.
Keckley, in an effort to get the First Lady out of the house, could have taken Mary Lincoln to a meeting of her relief organization at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s most prestigious black church, where Slade was also a member.
A Northern black activist or two could have visited the White House to lobby for the amendment or to discuss which Democratic representatives could be persuaded to back the amendment. For that matter, Lincoln could have been shown discussing his dilemma with Slade.
Instead of showing Lincoln interacting with (passive) photographic images of slaves, the film could have shown him meeting actual fugitive slaves who had come into the city.
An escaped slave might have described her decision to leave home, her calculus of the risks versus the potential rewards, and her understanding of the war itself. The interaction might have been shown to touch Lincoln emotionally. (As it stands, Spielberg imagines that Lincoln decided to prioritize the amendment over peace talks, not because anyone or any thing persuaded him, but because he meditated on a Euclidean equation.)”
We Are Respectable Negroes concludes by asking those of us who have seen Lincoln “what changes would you make? Alternatively, are there any other historical docudramas which you are particularly fond of that did not live up to their potential? How would you play script doctor with them?”
Well, my first suggestion would be to have a scene where prominent female abolitionists visit President Lincoln and remind him that the 13th amendment was their idea. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the Women’s Loyal National League calling for the total abolition of slavery (which the Emancipation Proclamation had failed to do). Here’s a petition they circulated in early 1864:
Office of the Women’s Loyal National League
Room No. 20, Cooper Institute.
New York, January 25, 1864.
THE WOMEN’S LOYAL NATIONAL LEAGUE,
TO THE WOMEN OF THE REPUBLIC:
We ask you to sign and circulate this petition for the ENTIRE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY. We have now ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND signatures, but we want a MILLION before Congress adjourns. Remember the President’s Proclamation reaches only the Slaves of Rebels. The jails of LOYAL Kentucky are to-day “crammed” with Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama slaves, advertised to be sold for their jail fees “According to LAW,” precisely as before the war!!! While slavery exists ANYWHERE there can be freedom NOWHERE. THERE MUST BE A LAW ABOLISHING SLAVERY. We have undertaken to canvass the Nation for freedom. Women, you cannot vote or fight for your country. Your only way to be a power in the Government is through the exercise of this one, sacred, Constitutional “RIGHT OF PETITION;” and we ask you to use it now to the utmost. Go to the rich, the poor, the high, the low, the soldier, the civilian, the white, the black gather up the names of all who hate slavery all who love LIBERTY, and would have it the LAW of the land and lay them at the feet of Congress, your silent but potent vote for human freedom guarded by the law.
You have shown true courage and self-sacrifice from the beginning of the war. You have been angels of mercy to our sick and dying soldiers in camp and hospital, and on the battle-field. But let it not be said that the women of the Republic, absorbed in ministering to the outward alone, saw not the philosophy of the revolution through which they passed; understood not the moral struggle that convulsed the nation — the irrepressible conflict between liberty and slavery. Remember the angels of mercy and justice are twin sisters, and ever walk hand in hand. While you give yourselves so generously to the Sanitary and Freedmen’s Commissions, forget not to hold up the eternal principles on which our Republic rests. Slavery once abolished, our brothers, husbands and sons will never again, for ITS SAKE, be called on to die on the battle field, starve in rebel prisons, our return to us crippled for life; but our country free from the one blot that has always marred its fair escutcheon, will be an example to all the world that “RIGHTEOUSNESS EXALTETH A NATION.”
THE GOD OF JUSTICE IS WITH US, AND OUR WORD, OUR WORK — OUR PRAYER FOR FREEDOM WILL NOT, CANNOT BE IN VAIN.
E. CADY STANTON
SUSAN B. ANTHONY,
Secretary W.L.N. League,
Room 20, Cooper Institute,
How about you readers? What would you add?