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Lincoln Scholar at Washington and Lee Praises New Lincoln Movie

If anyone learns about Abraham Lincoln only by watching Steven Spielberg’s highly praised new film, “Lincoln,” Lucas Morel thinks they would be “miles ahead” of previous generations in their understanding of the 16th president.

Morel, the Lewis G. John Term Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, is a Lincoln scholar who has written one book on the president and is working on a second. He is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, and he teaches an annual seminar, Lincoln’s Statesmanship.

“Some people get disturbed that kids and adults get their history from the movies,” said Morel. “But with this Lincoln movie, if that’s all they were to get on Lincoln, they will come away with an accurate understanding of Lincoln’s political cunning, his personality, his temperament, his home life, his work as politician, how he dealt with his cabinet and how he dealt with his enemies and his allies.”

For Morel, one small scene demonstrates how scrupulously Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner did their homework.

“With all the scenes that must have been left on the cutting-room floor, they included this little interlude where Lincoln is talking to telegraph operators from the War Department about the concept of self evidence in Euclid’s geometry,” Morel said. “That the filmmakers would think to include that is, in my view, really remarkable, because it is so very telling about Lincoln’s turn of mind.

“Here’s a man who had less than a year’s schooling in his life but who was an autodidact, who taught himself over and over. He trained his mind because he wanted to get off the farm. We have it in Lincoln’s writing that, as a congressman, he read Euclid’s Elements. Learning Euclid as a congressman, rather than reading, say, the Federalist Papers, was Lincoln’s way of sharpening his best tool. Kushner found the right telling examples. I’ve read more than my share of Lincoln, and this is fine, fine work.”

In Morel’s experience, some historical movies can be so conscientious about accuracy that they forget to tell a good story. In contrast, he points to the opening scene of “Lincoln.” “That first scene, with Lincoln talking to white and black soldiers, never happened,” Morel said. “But it’s still true in the sense that it showed the diversity of the soldiers’ admiration for President Lincoln — especially the black soldiers.”

While some commentators have lamented the absence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the film, Morel thinks that such a cameo appearance in a movie focusing on the 13th Amendment would have marginalized Douglass’ long-standing contributions to America’s progress. “There’s no question that Frederick Douglass deserves his own movie,” he said.

By focusing on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, noted Morel, the movie is able to portray Lincoln as both the great emancipator and the preserver of the Union. It does this by setting up the choice that Lincoln had to make: end the Civil War soon, or get the 13th Amendment passed.

“I think Spielberg and Kushner do a very good job of showing Lincoln trying to do both of these things — trying to get that amendment passed, especially getting it passed before the war is over, so that when the war is over, slavery is on its way out,” said Morel.

Morel is not the least surprised that the movie has created a significant buzz and drawn big crowds. In fact, he missed his first chance at seeing it because the showing was sold out.

What is it about Lincoln that makes him a draw today? Unlike the other popular president, George Washington, it’s impossible to be neutral about Lincoln, Morel said, adding that Lincoln remains a lightning rod for public opinion. He has critics on both sides of the political spectrum, right and left.

“People are either high on him or they hate him,” Morel said. “Everyone recognizes, I think, that he did something incredible at our most delicate time as a country. The question is whether he kept the country together in a way that was sound, a way that was constitutional and consistent with what our forefathers intended.”

When students enroll in his Lincoln seminar each year, they bring what Morel calls a “sophisticated assessment” of the president. That is, they rarely accept the icon at face value. “Somehow they’ve picked up that Lincoln gets maybe two cheers, but not three,” he said. “They want to be hesitant in their appreciation for Lincoln.”

Morel has no such hesitation. He considers Lincoln not just a good politician but one of the greats. He wants students to come to their own conclusions, however, through a careful reading of Lincoln’s speeches as well as through what his contemporaries said and wrote about him.

“I’m hoping that whatever impressions they have of Lincoln when they get to the class, they will get context that will help them understand him,” Morel said. “Implicitly, I trust his words and actions make the case for him.”

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Jeffery G. Hanna
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(540) 458-8459

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