When you saw our theme for this week – public history – you may have been tempted to roll your eyes. If you’ve ever had to sit through a TV show or movie with a historian, you know how we nitpick everything, from costumes to character arcs. Allow me a thousand words to explain why we get like this.
Just yesterday, this tweet reminded me of a kerfuffle from a few years ago.
If you don’t remember, or this never flitted across your radar, Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2, my representative) criticized Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for the film Lincoln, for his depiction of two Connecticut congressmen voting against the 13th Amendment (to end slavery) when the entire four-person delegation had actually voted for it. Kushner initially ignored this, then responded that these changes were done for the purposes of storytelling, glibly remarking that he hoped no one was surprised to learn that he’d invented dialogue too.
There are two reasons why this particular situation and others like it bother historians. The first is that there was no reason to do this. Kushner was enormously fortunate in actually having documentation of how people voted. Most historians dream of having the kind of primary sources Kushner had to work with here.
There were people who voted against the 13th Amendment; he didn’t have to make that up. That he chose to anyway is frankly baffling to historians who sort through scraps, who read against the grain of institutional records, and who do the hard work to make the lacunae part of their analysis.
That Kushner could have this material and still argue that his changes were acceptable and even necessary leads to the second reason why this instance and others like it are so frustrating for historians.
Kushner and Spielberg’s response suggests that for all of their heartfelt words about the momentous story they were telling – the story of Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment – they failed to grasp just how momentous the story was. Courtney’s statement accused the filmmakers of putting Connecticut “on the wrong side of history,” but even that framing is problematic.
What bothers me about this decision and its repercussions goes beyond a concern with the “legacy” of Lincoln, Connecticut, or these particular congressmen. It’s not about being able to claim people in the past as “the good guys” who weren’t on the “wrong side of history.” It’s about understanding and recognizing that the past is a real place, full of real people who made real decisions.
The War Amendments were not easy or insignificant votes. Voting to end slavery, to restore citizenship to black Americans, to recognize that black men had the right to vote, to recognize due process and equality before the law were not easy things. If they were, the intervening years would not be littered with constant attempts to undermine these three amendments, many of them successful and continuing to this day.
More pointedly, these votes were not without consequence in “the North,” where slavery in Connecticut was within the living memory of lots of people, where cloth factories and insurance companies depended on its continued existence, where black men had been stripped of their right to vote decades before, and black Americans had been stripped of their citizenship only a decade prior.
In response to Courtney’s criticism, Kushner argued: “None of the key moments of that story — the overarching story our film tells — are altered.” But each vote in that roll call was a key moment – a real person who existed. A real person who came to a conclusion on that vote in a society built – physically and culturally – on the idea that some people were not people, but bodies to be owned as property. In a society built on the idea that some people deserved the bounty – the cotton, the sugar, the loaves of bread, the children – created by the labor of the people they held as property.
In voting to amend the Constitution to end chattel slavery, every man who said “yea” in that chamber was living a key moment in his life. Without those votes, without the self-emancipation of enslaved black men and women, without the political pressure of free black men and women and white allies, “the overarching story” doesn’t exist. Casting a vote to end slavery was not just some routine vote or craven political calculation for everyone in that chamber. For some, it was a vote they had long dreamed of casting. It was a vote to change the fundamental structure of American society.
In doing history, we claim the power to bring people back from the dead. They can’t stop us. Their stories are in our hands. Some say we should do history to learn from our mistakes, to understand how we got where we are. Sure, maybe. But doing the work of history can ultimately do something much more profound: it can cultivate humility in the historian herself.
That’s why historians nitpick. Because the story is in the details, and the details are the lives and choices of people we are bringing back from the dead. We nitpick because it would be so easy to embrace the power we have over these lives, to make these people into whatever we want them to be, whatever makes a good story, whatever makes us feel better about our own historical moment.
We nitpick the work of others, and we nitpick our own work, to stay humble, and to remind ourselves that even as we bring people back to life, we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. If we’re lucky, that dust will be in an archive, and someone will tell our stories one day – with humility.