Spielberg's Upside-Down History: The Myth of Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment

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by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Recently by Thomas DiLorenzo: Why the Totalitarians Among Us LoveLincoln

     

"Armies of scholars, meticulously investigating every aspect of [Lincoln's] life, have failed to find a single act of racial bigotry on his part."

~ Doris Kearns-Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 207.

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people . . . . I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race."

~ Abraham Lincoln, First Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ottawa, Illinois, Sept. 18, 1858, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln vol.3, pp. 145-146.

Steven Spielberg's new movie, Lincoln, is said to be based on several chapters of the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns-Goodwin, who was a consultant to Spielberg. The main theme of the movie is how clever, manipulative, conniving, scheming, lying, and underhanded Lincoln supposedly was in using his "political skills" to get the Thirteenth Amendment that legally ended slavery through the U.S. House of Representatives in the last months of his life. This entire story is what Lerone Bennett, Jr. the longtime executive editor of Ebony magazine and author of Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, calls a "pleasant fiction." It never happened.

It never happened according to the foremost authority on Lincoln among mainstream Lincoln scholars, Harvard University Professor David H. Donald, the recipient of several Pulitzer prizes for his historical writings, including a biography of Lincoln. David Donald is the preeminent Lincoln scholar of our time who began writing award-winning books on the subject in the early 1960s. On page 545 of his magnus opus, Lincoln, Donald notes that Lincoln did discuss the Thirteenth Amendment with two members of Congress – James M. Ashley of Ohio and James S. Rollins of Missouri. But if he used "means of persuading congressmen to vote for the Thirteeth Amendment," the theme of the Spielberg movie, "his actions are not recorded. Conclusions about the President's role rested on gossip . . ."

Moreover, there is not a shred of evidence that even one Democratic member of Congress changed his vote on the Thirteenth Amendment (which had previously been defeated) because of Lincoln's actions. Donald documents that Lincoln was told that some New Jersey Democrats could possibly be persuaded to vote for the amendment "if he could persuade [Senator] Charles Sumner to drop a bill to regulate the Camden & Amboy [New Jersey] Railroad, but he declined to intervene" (emphasis added). "One New Jersey Democrat," writes David Donald, "well known as a lobbyist for the Camden & Amboy, who had voted against the amendment in July, did abstain in the final vote, but it cannot be proved that Lincoln influenced his change" (emphasis added). Thus, according to the foremost authority on Lincoln, there is no evidence at all that Lincoln influenced even a single vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, in complete contradiction of the writings of the confessed plagiarist Doris Kearns-Goodwin and Steven Spielberg's movie (See my review of Goodwin's book, entitled "A Plagiarist's Contribution to Lincoln Idolatry").

Lincoln's First Thirteenth Amendment Gambit

There is no evidence that Lincoln provided any significant assistance in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives in 1865, but there is evidence of his effectiveness in getting an earlier Thirteenth Amendment through the House and the Senate in 1861. This proposed amendment was known as the "Corwin Amendment," named after Ohio Republican Congressman Thomas Corwin. It had passed both the Republican-controlled House and the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln's inauguration, and was sent to the states for ratification by Lincoln himself.

The Corwin Amendment would have prohibited the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery. It read as follows:

"No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State,, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State."

"Person held to service" is how the Constitutional Convention referred to slaves, and "domestic institutions" referred to slavery. Lincoln announced to the world that he endorsed the Corwin Amendment in his first inaugural address:

"I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution — which amendment, however, I have not seen — has passed Congress to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service . . . . [H]olding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable" (emphasis added).

Believing that slavery was already constitutional, Lincoln had "no objection" to enshrining it explicitly in the text of the U.S. Constitution on the day that he took office. He then sent a letter to the governor of each state transmitting the approved amendment for what he hoped would be ratification and noting that his predecessor, President James Buchanan, had also endorsed it.

Lincoln played a much larger role in getting this first Thirteenth Amendment through Congress than merely endorsing it in his first inaugural address and in his letter to the governors. Even Doris Kearns-Goodwin knows this! On page 296 of Team of Rivals she explained how it was Lincoln who, after being elected but before the inauguration, instructed New York Senator William Seward, who would become his secretary of state, to get the amendment through the U.S. Senate. He also instructed Seward to get a federal law passed that would repeal the personal liberty laws in some of the Northern states that were used by those states to nullify the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which Lincoln strongly supported. (The Fugitive Slave Act forced Northerners to hunt down runaway slaves and return them to their owners).

As Goodwin writes: "He [Lincoln] instructed Seward to introduce these proposals in the Senate Committee of Thirteen without indicating they issued from Springfield [Illinois]. The first resolved that u2018the Constitution should never be altered so as to authorize Congress to abolish or interfere with slavery in the states.'" The second proposal was that "All state personal liberty laws in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law be repealed."

So, go and see Spielberg's Lincoln movie if you must, but keep in mind that it is just another left-wing Hollywood fantasy.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe, How Capitalism Saved America, and Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today. His latest book is Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government.

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