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Michael K. Erickson
Tuesday, February 26 2013

What’s Missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln?

By Michael K. Erickson Notify me when this author publishesComment on Article
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How would Lincoln judge the movie bearing his name? In telling the story of how the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in America, Spielberg's Lincoln emphasizes the venerable president’s renowned political gifts. After all, the movie is based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But if Lincoln were with us today, would he agree that his “political genius” was the driving force behind the end of slavery? Some critics have panned Lincoln for overemphasizing the sixteenth president's role. And Lincoln himself might agree.

In an 1864 letter, Lincoln downplayed his own role in the Civil War. “I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity [wisdom]. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Instead, he acknowledged a Divine hand. “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong . . . impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” The purpose of Lincoln’s 1864 letter was to explain his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. That story did not make it into Spielberg’s Lincoln—admittedly, there’s only so much one movie can do—but it shows much more about how slavery really ended.

This is that story.

A Covenant with God

This past January 1st was the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. With the stroke of a pen, Abraham Lincoln made "forever free" 500,000 Black Americans then living in Union-occupied territory of the Southern Confederacy—effectively shattering the real and figurative chains that had held them in bondage as human slaves. The Proclamation also set in motion events that would eventually free the remaining 3.5 million American slaves, culminating in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, as portrayed in Spielberg's Lincoln.

Lincoln's proclamation changed the course of the Civil War and American history. A war for Union became also a war for Liberty. An army to quell a rebellion became also an army of liberation—and added to its ranks ever swelling numbers of former slaves turned liberators. In private reflection, Lincoln described the Proclamation as the “central act” of his administration and “the great event of the nineteenth century.” It was the single, greatest exercise of presidential power in American history. There’s not even a close second. No other executive action before or since has had such a profound influence on so many Americans or so far reaching consequences for the history and destiny of the nation.

And he did it to keep a covenant with God.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln called his cabinet into a special session and announced his final decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase’s account, Lincoln explained his decision as keeping a “promise to myself,” and hesitating a little, “to my Maker.” Lincoln might have been the last person that the pious (some say self-righteous) Chase would have expected to decide a momentous policy based on a promise to God; Chase actually asked Lincoln to repeat what he had said. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles corroborated Chase’s account that Lincoln had made “a vow, a covenant” and wrote that Lincoln understood recent events as an “indication of Divine will . . . to move forward in the cause of emancipation.”

The Days of Miracles?

What had prompted Lincoln’s vow? And what recent events did he interpret as an “indication of Divine will”?

September of 1862 did not begin well. In its early days, Attorney General Edward Bates described Lincoln as “wrung by the bitterest anguish—said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” In June, a massive Union army was within sight of the church spires of the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia—and perhaps the end of the war. But it was driven back in July, and at the end of August another Union army was crushed a few miles outside of Washington D.C. in a demoralizing loss. Lincoln was troubled enough by that turn of events, but the situation then worsened. Fresh from victories, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland, threatening to cutoff the Federal capital from the North and win European recognition for the Confederacy. Sometime in those dark days, Lincoln made his vow that, “as soon as [the Rebel Army] should be driven out of Maryland,” he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Several days later, on September 13, with little news about the Confederates’ whereabouts in Maryland, Lincoln received a delegation of ministers from his home state of Illinois. They urged him to issue a proclamation emancipating the slaves because, as they argued, there could be “no deliverance from Divine judgments till slavery ceases in the land.” In response, Lincoln assured the ministers that it was his “earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter” and even promised them, “if I can learn what it is I will do it!” But how to learn it was the difficulty. “These are not . . . the days of miracles,” Lincoln mused, “and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.”

That same afternoon, Union General George McClellan was deliberating over a peculiar paper that had made its way up the Union chain of command. In the morning, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found three cigars wrapped in a curious piece of paper labeled Special Order No. 191—the Confederates’ detailed battle plans. A Union staff officer then confirmed the handwriting of General Lee’s adjutant—quite remarkably, they had known one another before the war. Known to history as the “Lost Orders,” the Union interception of the Confederates’ precise battle plans constitutes one of the greatest security breaches in military history. One historian described the odds against this sequence of events as “a million to one” and another wrote that the circumstances “stretch the workings of chance to their limits.”

Armed with the plans, the usually cautious McClellan surprised Lee with a rapid advance. The resulting battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 would be the single bloodiest day in American history—almost four times the American casualties of D-Day. Seventy five years earlier to the day, America’s founders had signed the final draft of the Constitution. Their work would govern the “new nation, conceived in liberty” for centuries to come, though it would take a civil war to give “a new birth of freedom” to all Americans.

God Had Decided This Question


  1. I recently watched a documentary on the discovery channel titled the real Lincoln. It gave another completely different account of Lincoln actions regarding the slaves. A book by Thomas dilorenzo is also came out with the same title and was very critical of Lincoln's reign and his motives for war. The book has its critics too but the documentary is well worth a watch. It talks a about the north and southern states expansion west as a critical decision in lincoln wanting to free the slaves as they would have a advantage over the North if they used slave labour. Anyway it opens up a real can of worms!
  2. Many thanks for this wonderful, insightful account.
  3. On his second trip as a young man to New Orleans Lincoln witnessed a slave sale. "Again and again the hammer fell. Husbands were separated from wives, parents from children, brothers from sisters. Lincoln witnessed the scene with a horror words could not express. His lips quivered and his voice choked as he turned to his companion and...said: 'If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I will hit it hard." In 1837 Lincoln attended a camp-meeting at Alton, Illinois where Dr. Peter Akers, a great Bible preacher of his day, preached for three hours on the theme that the "Dominion of Christ" could not come in American until American slavery was wiped out and the institution of slavery would at last be destroyed by a civil war. At the height of his sermon he cried out, "Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife may be standing in this presence." Lincoln was standing thirty feet away from Dr. Akers. On his trip home that night to Springfield, Lincoln remarked to a friend: "I never thought such power could be given to mortal man. Those words were from beyond the speaker. The Doctor has persuaded me that American slavery will go down with the crash of a civil ware." Then he solemnly said, "Gentlemen: you may be surprised and think it strange, but when the Doctor was describing the Civil War, I distinctly saw myself as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife." The next morning the told his law partner "I am utterly unable to shake from myself the conviction that I shall be involved in that tragedy." These quotes are taken from pages 77-79 of a book published in 1927 titled "Abraham Lincoln - Man of God" by John Wesley Hill. While Westward expansion was a volatile ingredient in the debate over slavery, there is no question that Lincoln believed that abolition of slavery and the emanicipation of the slaves was part of God's will for the United States.
  4. This article ( in the Deseret News from Sunday brings up a couple very good points that go along nicely with Mr. Erickson's article, including the fact that the film does not include any references to God, although Lincoln himself gave God credit for his actions, as cited in this newspaper article.
  5. Great article! Here are some words of Joseph Smith re: slavery" (I am not able to give the references here but I believe I am reporting the following accurately): When the Saints were immigrating to Missouri, a newspaper reporter asked Joseph Smith if the Mormons were abolitionists: His answer was, "absolutely not." He then continued with words something like this, The curse of slavery was pronounced by God when Noah cursed Cannan saying "a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." The curse of slavery was pronounced by God through his prophet Noah and only God can lift that curse. The prophet then admonished slave owners to be kind to their slaves. Joseph then continued. If slavery be an evil, then the people of the South will be the first to know about it, and they being moral people of integrity, it is their responsibility to correct the evil; not the people from the North.
  6. Mr. Walsh; The events surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation is properly the subject of a separate screen play, and movie. Your piece is a strong basis for it, but it needs to be written by a man of god, and probably filmed by one. The actions of god need to be understated in the presentation. Yours, Ed Wilson
  7. Many of the Founders and some subsequent deceased US Presidents appeared to Wilford Woodruff in the St.George Temple (the first dedicated LDS Temple on earth since Navoo), and demanded that their temple work be done for them. I believe President Lincoln to be among them. I do not know where these men get their recommends but President Woodruff''s response clearly implies that he believed they were both worthy and authorized. That satisfies me as to both their mortal callings and their standing with the Lord.
  8. What an inspiring article with equally inspiring comments. Thank you. Is it any wonder why I turn to Meridian Mag. for value & even inspiration.

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