I finally got around to seeing Lincoln last night and thought it lived up to all the hype and accolades received. Since the movie opened, there have been many articles written devoted to whether or not the film was historically accurate – especially since the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, went to extraordinary lengths to capture the accuracy of the events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Despite some documented inconsistencies, one important fact cannot be overlooked. The constitutional amendment to end slavery in America barely received enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass. The amendment required a 2/3 majority and passed 119-56 with 8 abstentions. As the central theme of the movie, the drama focused on the vote and the securing the votes of 20 members of the opposition to cross party lines to pass the act.
As a student of history, I watched in fascination. The vast majority of Americans receive a cursory overview of our nation’s history. Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, war ends, Lincoln killed, reconstruction acts passed — all very neat and tidy. As a historian, I found myself being agitated a bit that I was not thoroughly versed in these events and how close a vote on such a simple issue as ending slavery was.
I mean, this is a no brainer right? How on earth were there 56 representatives – predominately from northern states — found to be sitting on the wrong side of history? Without a doubt, these men gave passionate speeches in the debate in defense of the continuation of the institution of slavery.
The entire scope of the 13th Amendment was incredibly simplistic:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation
That’s it – nothing more.
It also made me appreciate how great men (men in those days) could rise to the occasion and do great things. Not just great things – the right things. Persevere on the side of right. We’ve had such people in government over the course of our history – the right people at the right time – with the will to overcome opposition, and be on the right side of history.
But what about those that occupy the chairs on the wrong side of history? Where are they to be found? What is their legacy? Does history judge them for taking the wrong position? Is there an accounting?
Think back to major pieces of legislation passed by our elected representatives – those people we put in to office to express our will. In retrospect, with the clarity of hindsight, can you imagine anyone that stood strong against issues such as
The 15th Amendment:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude—
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
44 Congressman and 13 Senators opposed
The 19th Amendment:
Section 1. – The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. – Congress shall have power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the provisions of this article.
89 Congressmen and 25 Senators opposed.
Collectively, we’ve somehow managed to do right in our history, even if we’re slow to arrive there.
But it’s apparent that in that moment in time, the clarity of the big picture is obscure. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history, yet, the numbers are what they are.
It’s why I believe that opponents of equal rights for homosexuals are standing on the wrong side of history. It’s easier to see with certain crystal clarity when the issue is rights-based. As a country founded on the principles of individual rights, this one is a no brainer, except for the many that oppose it.
On other issues, the certainty becomes more opaque. I don’t think the Affordable Health Care Act rises to the level of either historic or great legislation. It will likely go through several revisions, and rescissions before it works for average Americans. How about gun control? Abortion? These are big issues where both sides believe they stand on the right side of history. Time will eventually be the judge. What issues do you see as the BIG ones where people are standing on the wrong side of history?