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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Accuracy of the Lincoln Movie

At The Washington Monthly, Mark Kleiman writes that the Lincoln movie -- an otherwise great picture -- made a hash of House procedure:
In my case, what wasn’t to like was the utter unrealism of the legislative scenes. The film shows Members addressing each other rather than the Speaker, using proper names rather than, e.g., “the gentleman from New York,” Members insulting each other in ways that would have led to their words being “taken down” (barring them from further debate for the day), Members making personally insulting references to the President (ditto), and motions being made and seconded, and then acted on as if agreed to, without either a vote or a unanimous-consent request. In a film about a piece of legislation, wasn’t the parliamentary part as well worth getting right as the clothing and the carriage design?
I don’t suppose one movie-goer in a hundred will know the difference, and perhaps some of those who know won’t mind. But the ritual of the House has its own rhythmic dignity*, and it’s a shame to see it misrepresented so badly.

[Was procedure then really the same as procedure now? Challenged on this point by a movie-going companion, I looked it up. Here’s the actual transcript of the final day’s debate from the Congressional Globe, the predecessor to theCongressional Record. Yes, it was “Mr. Speaker” and “the gentleman from Ohio.” What’s remarkable is how little the process has changed in a century in a half.]
The movie shows Lincoln talking to his cabinet:
  I signed the Emancipation Proclamation a year and half before my second election. I felt I was within my power to do it, however, I also felt that I might be wrong about that, I knew the people would tell me. I gave 'em a year and half to think about it. And they re-elected me. And come February the first, I intend to sign the Thirteenth Amendment.
 USD law professor Mike Rappaport writes:
On Facebook, someone criticized the Lincoln movie for inaccuracy on the ground that the President said he wanted to sign the 13th Amendment, but presidents don’t sign amendments.
But the movie is correct: Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment. The interesting question is why?
I can imagine various reasons. Here are three possibilities: First, Lincoln didn’t want to take a chance that the courts would hold his signature was necessary and so signed it out of an abundance of caution; second, Lincoln wanted to affix his name to symbolize his personal connection to the Amendment; third, President Buchanan had signed the proposed Corwin Amendment in 1861 (which would have protected slavery), and so Lincoln wanted to mirror that action for the amendment abolishing slavery.

Harold Holzer served as a consultant to the movie.  He thinks it got the big picture right, but acknowledges:
To be sure, there is no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie. First Lady Mary Lincoln, for example, never planted herself in the House Gallery to observe the final tally on the amendment. (Michelle Obama may routinely attend the State of the Union address each year, but such a visit would have been unthinkable in 1865.) Nor did congressmen vote by state delegations—a device that conflates the traditions of national political conventions with those of the House of Representatives. (Until the advent of machine voting, the House voted alphabetically by name; this I know from experience—I once worked for Representative Bella Abzug, number two on the roll call, and it was always a challenge to move her considerable frame from her congressional office to the House floor in time to answer the roll right after James Aboureszk.)