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170: Lincoln with Dr. Brian Dirck

How historically accurate was 2012’s Lincoln? To help us separate fact from fiction in the movie, we’ll be chatting with Dr. Brian Dirck, who is a Professor of History at Anderson University and author of multiple books on President Lincoln, including Lincoln and the Constitution, The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death and Lincoln the Lawyer.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:43

After a brief opening sequence with Lincoln talking to some Union soldiers, we get a time and place for the movies timeline. It’s January of 1865 at the White House, it makes it two months after Abraham Lincoln’s re election and four years since the Civil War started. And almost right away in the movies timeline, we find out that Lincoln wants to pass the 13th amendment that will abolish slavery. There are some people in the movie who talked about how he’s using his war powers like a dictator, twisting meetings and ignoring court rulings. And as the movie explains it, Lincoln thinks the Emancipation Proclamation could be ruled illegal by the courts once the war is over. Since issuing the proclamation was sort of a gray area, as far as the Constitution is concerned, by pushing the limits of the War Powers. How well did the movie do setting up President Lincoln’s attempts to abolish slavery with the 13th amendment?


Dr. Brian Dirck  02:32

I think it’s one of the best parts of the film, I think they do very, very well. There is a scene that I’ve used in my classes and some of my colleagues have used, he’s talking to his cabinet. And he gives a long talk about that, you probably know which one I’m talking about where he says, you know, this is what I did. This is, you know, these are the questions and I thought they did an excellent job with that. Because it was, in fact, a problem. When Lincoln passes the Emancipation Proclamation, or writes it rather in 1863, people forget that Roger Tawny was still the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, the author of the very racist Dred Scott opinion, as well as four of the justices who had backed him on that. So there was a five judge majority, that were just itching to kill emancipation. He was late, he was terrified that emancipation would end up in the supreme court because he knew he would lose. So yeah, that’s a very interesting issue that they got. Absolutely right. And I love how the film portrays the fact that nobody really knew what war powers were in 1863 or 6465. I mean, we had never fought a major war, to this point that really tested those boundaries. I thought the film did an excellent job. Absolutely.


Dan LeFebvre  03:52

Was that Lincoln’s first attempt in that the timeline, the movie there in 1865, was that his first attempt to try to abolish slavery?


Dr. Brian Dirck  03:59

Oh, no, no, no, it’s a process. Lincoln is a very complicated figure in that regard. Personally, he was always anti slavery. I never saw one word he ever said in favor of the institution. But when the war broke out, he said, and he’s quite right about this, he said, I think slavery is a terrible idea. But I don’t have the constitutional authority to really do anything about it. But then the war hadn’t started yet. But then then when the war starts, that puts this in the neighborhood of war powers. And he’s speculating about how he could use war powers. He also got behind efforts to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, because he had power to do that, since that’s, you know, the gut seat of government and he puts a lot of weight in to try and get that done. And he puts a lot of weight into trying to get the border states like Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, even things like five slaves in Delaware, but they were still there. And he’s and he’s trying to do that, too. So he had been doing this for quite some Some time.


Dan LeFebvre  05:00

Oh, wow. Okay. In the movie, one of the founders of the Republican Party named Preston Blair, he goes to Richmond and convinces the Confederate leadership to send three delegates to discuss peace with Lincoln. Those three delegates, according to the movie, our senator RMT, Hunter, Judge, john a Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of War, and the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stevens, was there really a delegation from the Confederate States of America sent with the purpose of negotiating a peace?


Dr. Brian Dirck  05:31

Yeah, yeah, there was. And the movie got that quite right. And in fact, he got those three men. Exactly right now, exactly, exactly what role Francis Blair actually played. Here’s a little fuzzy. We know he was a conservative Republican who had connections that he could have used in that regard. And we know he was making those efforts. This is one of those parts in the film where we know what happened, but of course, movies have to fill in specifics. So they put the scenes in that, you know, may or may not have happened, but it’s totally plausible. Um, yes, they did have very much those men. The film gets that part quite correct. And in fact, Alexander Stevens had broken with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Davis was saying, We’re not coming back. I don’t care what you guys do, of slavery, I don’t care, we are going to be independent. Whereas Stevens basically denounced his own boss and said, I think we all talk to these people and see if we can salvage something because the wars lost. So they got that absolutely correct. Oh, yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  06:33

There’s an interesting concept that I wanted to ask you about, because it seems like President Lincoln in General Grant in negotiating a peace, they run up against this idea that if we actually negotiate a peace, that might actually recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation, because they’re coming to the table, like, Oh, these are two separate nations. I think there’s even a line in there where general grants like I need to remind you, there’s only one country and we’re both citizens of it, you know, something like that. Was that a difficult point for these negotiations going on?


Dr. Brian Dirck  07:07

Absolutely. I yeah, I as you might have been able to tell I have a very positive take on this film. And this was one of those dicey political and constitutional issues during the war, that usually Hollywood kicks to the curb in favor of something more simple. But they didn’t in this case. I mean, this is this is exactly what was going on. For example, Lincoln, hardly ever referred to the Confederacy, as the Confederacy always called them, the so called Confederate States or the American states in rebellion, he was afraid to say, but confederacy because that, you know, gave legitimacy to the Confederacy. And that was indeed a problem. That’s why now there’s a bit of a problem I have with the film, in that it seems to suggest there is some flexibility maybe on some of these issues, but there wasn’t Lincoln, but Lincoln basically said, you will come back, and you will not have your slaves. And we will get we can negotiate everything else. But we’re not negotiating that. And that’s where there were two or three attempts by southerners to try to negotiate a peace. And every time they brought up separation, Lincoln just basically said, we’re not talking about that you’re coming back or this is dead. So they got that quite right.


Dan LeFebvre  08:23

What was General Grant’s role in that? Because he kind of plays some some parts in those negotiations. Was he involved in that? Oh, sure.


Dr. Brian Dirck  08:30

Yeah, yeah. Because after all, he is you know, he’s on the front lines. The the men have to come through his lines. Brandt was very much the loyal soldier, D entirely agreed with Lincoln, on all of these issues, as far as we know. And there was never a disagreement between Lincoln and grant over bad issue, or really any other issue. I thought the film did a fine job showing grant as sort of Lincoln’s very able and unquestioning right arm at all of this.


Dan LeFebvre  09:01

One of the things I really enjoyed about the movie was how it depicted Abraham and Mary Lincoln as more than politicians, they depict them as people. We got to see this, especially as they struggled with the death of their son, William. But because of the timeline of the movie, we don’t really see how that happens. We can just see that they’re clearly torn up over especially Mary or Molly, as President Lincoln calls her throughout the movie. Can you give us some more historical context around what happened to William and how it affected his parents?


Dr. Brian Dirck  09:29

You could argue pretty strongly, this was the most traumatic thing that happened to the Lincoln’s personally during the war. You know, they had four children. Their oldest son was Robert Of course, he’s in the movie. And then they had a child named Eddie, who died in 1850. From consumption, tuberculosis use only like I forget how old like five or six. Then they had Tad and then they had Willie. Willie was a little older than Tad. He was, he was he was leaking favorite. Everybody said that Willie, of those four boys was the most like their dad. And they were very close. And we’re not quite sure exactly how this happened. Lots of theories, but both Willie and Tad contracted typhoid fever in 1862, which is caused by drinking tainted water that’s mixed with usually human waste. Washington DC was a pit back then we think they might have just accidentally ingested some water that was tainted. Tad is very sick, but he recovers. Willie lingers for a long time going up and down and up and down. And just torture just parents. You know, there, there were there were days when they thought he was getting better than they thought he was getting worse. And the really sad part is the day before Willie dies. He is offered by Dorothy Dix, a nurse to help take care of Willie. And he writes back and says, I appreciate it. But I think he’s getting better. You don’t need to worry about it. And the very next day the poor kid dies. I mean, I can’t imagine anything more painful.


Dan LeFebvre  11:01

Wow. Is there any example of how that might have actually affected them? politically? Because it seems like in the movie, they do a pretty good job of compartmentalizing, you know, being in which there’s some scenes where we see the president and married in private and they’re, you know, just totally broken up. And then all smiles, you know, on the other side of it.


Dr. Brian Dirck  11:23

You know what, that’s actually my latest book I just wrote last year called the Black heavens, Lincoln and death. I deal with that in that very issue. And I again, I think he just is really good, because it’s exactly what happened in private, Mary was really close to coming completely unglued. In fact, at one point, she’s been bawling for days on end, she’s crying her eyes out, Lincoln walks into the bedroom opens up the curtain points to the insane asylum in Washington, DC and says if you don’t get control of yourself, we may have to send you there. I mean, it’s that bad. But then in public, there’s no indication in public that she was that close to a mental collapse, you know, so they did a very good job of putting a public face on being able to stoically carry on, but in private, oh, my God, Mary was shattered. And and and Lincoln was pretty badly shooken. Up there were several days after Willie died, in which Lincoln simply could not transact government business, and then he kind of pulls himself together. You could argue Mary, never really recovered from Willie dying, you really could.


Dan LeFebvre  12:33

Wow. And then from the way it sounds like that happened. I mean, there’s got to be that guilt, especially if you turn somebody away like that. I mean,


Dr. Brian Dirck  12:40

yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of emotion going on there. There sure is. Wow.


Dan LeFebvre  12:45

Yeah. I couldn’t I couldn’t even imagine. Yeah. One of the scenes that we see in the movie, where they are putting on a happy face, we see Mary Lincoln talking to Thaddeus Stevens, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And in their discussion, Mary jokes about how he doesn’t need to convene another subcommittee to investigate her. But then she goes on to talk about how the White House was a pigsty when she and the president moved in. She mentions there being tobacco stains on the carpets, mushroom sprouting from the ceilings. Is it true that Mary Lincoln had a big impact on the upkeep of the White House like the movie implies?


Dr. Brian Dirck  13:20

Sure did. The house is falling apart when the Lincoln’s moved in? wallpapers peeling? I don’t know about the mushrooms specifically. But hey, why not? It makes perfect sense. Right? You know, actually, it’s too bad that couldn’t have gone into that because it’s actually a fascinating story. because Congress appropriated a significant sum of money. I forget the exact amount that should have been well able to renovate the house. Okay. So she convinced people Yeah, but he’s to be done. But Mary has extremely expensive tastes. She’s not going to go buy carpet from Walmart. She’s going to go buy coffee from Neiman Marcus. Okay. I mean, she is just buying just a crapload of stuff. blows the budget completely up. And then she panics because he’s like, Oh, my God, I’m like, I’m like thousands of dollars over bill. What if he finds out Oh, I am really in trouble. She persuades some congressmen and congressmen his aides to cover the deficit by hiding the money and military appropriations bills, which would have been a scandal of epic proportions if it had ever been found out. In fact, she was scared to death that he was going to lose the election in 64. Because then they were gonna find out about that. She’s like, Oh, my God, what am I gonna do you know? So Oh, yeah, yeah, she did renovate the White House, but it just about cost her politically pretty badly.


Dan LeFebvre  14:44

Wow. And I could only imagine how that would just add on to all the other stuff that was already going on for her and just add extra amounts of stress.


Dr. Brian Dirck  14:51

We can at one point, I actually found out he didn’t find out the whole thing he he died before he found out how bad this was, but he did see a bill or something. And he says to marry, he loses his temper and says, you’re going to have to stop spending money for flub dubs for this damn bold house or something along those lines, it’s just a great moment in their marriage.


Dan LeFebvre  15:15

If we head back to the movie, there’s quite a few arguments that we see made by politicians, both for and against the 13th amendment. And one of them that stood out to me because it’s repeated multiple times. But it’s interesting, because it’s the same argument used on both sides, people for the amendment think it could eventually lead to the right to vote for black people, while people against the amendment mock the idea of the right to vote for black people as if it’s some horrible thing that’s going to be inevitable if the amendment is passed, and they’re using it as fear tactics. How well did the movie do showing these arguments that were made before and against the 13th? amendment?


Dr. Brian Dirck  15:49

awfully Well, again, that’s generally speaking, quite accurate. Now, again, it’s a film. movies have to, as I’m sure you’ve know, your podcast, they have to fill in things that we just generally know about. So you know, I mean, you watch the movie, and maybe maybe that particular Congress may or may not have made that particular argument. But generally speaking, that’s very true. What we’ve got to remember is, the the constitution had never been amended like this before. Okay, the bill of rights is passed in 1787. It was amended the 11th and 12th amendments, I always tell my students, you get an A for the semester, if you can tell me out of your memory, what the 11th and 12th amendments are, because nobody knows they’re procedural for like votes and stuff. Okay. This is the first time in American history we had ever mended the constitution for a deeply moral issue, like the 13th amendment. And it was extremely controversial. There were people who said, You don’t get to do this, because you’re basically throwing shade at the founders. You’re saying the founders screwed this up. And we all know they’re perfect. So you’re saying that they’re, they’re flawed? Oh, my God, we can’t do that. You know, so there’s that then there was a very deep racist argument against this. It’s exactly the way the movie portrayed it. If we give them their freedom. Next thing you know, they’re going to get the vote. And next thing, you know, they’re going to be buying the house next door. Next thing, you know, they’re gonna be dating my daughter. I mean, there’s all kinds of racist arguments that the modern year is disgusting. I mean, if anything, the movie, kind of toned it back, there are things that are just horrible that were said during that time period about this amendment that way.


Dan LeFebvre  17:28

Wow, I didn’t even think about that being just a brand new concept almost of adding that type of an amendment. Yeah,


Dr. Brian Dirck  17:35

in an urban done.


Dan LeFebvre  17:36

One of the major points in the movie centers around the Confederate delegation from Richmond that we talked about as they’re coming to discuss peace. And the way the movie explains it, there’s kind of this this time rush, because a lot of people seeing the passing of the amendment as a way to abolish slavery really, to end the war. But if the Confederacy is willing to negotiate peace, then there’s no need to abolish slavery. I don’t remember their names, but there was, you know, there’s a couple in the movie that come to visit Lincoln, and they’re like, Oh, you know, of course, we’re gonna support the amendment. And it’s like, well, what if the war ends? Well, if that’s the case, then no, we’re not going to support the amendment right? Was that something almost this this rush of between the goshi ating peace and the 13th amendment? It’s going to be either or.


Dr. Brian Dirck  18:26

I think it was true. But I also think the movie in order to make a dramatic plot point, tended to exaggerate that. Yes, there were people who felt that way. Okay. But as you can tell, I really loved this movie, but I do think they push that too far. Okay, because that that yes, I mean, there were people that thought that way. But were they really kind of get this messed up a little bit, I think is suggesting that the choice was that Stark in 1865, that we’re either going to get slavery back, or we’re going to get the amendment one or the other. The fact is, slavery was dead. Everybody knew slavery was dead. And Lincoln himself had said, the incidence of the war have killed off slavery, there’s no way this thing’s gonna survive. It really no reasonable person believed that slavery could be reimposed. Therefore, most Confederates were doing what they suggest in the movie they’re doing saying, you give us our slaves back, we’ll come back into the union. Some were saying that, but most were not. And I’ll tell you Jefferson Davis, the prison that confederacy was absolutely not saying that. In fact, he was saying, I don’t care what you do. We’re not coming back. That’s all there is to it. So the Confederacy itself was very divided over whether it was going to come back or not, was some people like Alexander Stevens saying, Let’s sue for peace to get the best deal? We can. But most everybody thought slavery was gone by that point. I


Dan LeFebvre  19:54

guess I didn’t realize that that was almost already determined.


Dr. Brian Dirck  19:58

Yeah. I just got By that point, I mean, what do you got? You got contraband, contraband, runaway slaves, you got contraband camps with literally hundreds of thousands of slaves who have run away, and you’re never going to get them back to their plantations, you’ve got what is it 140 hundred 80,000 black men serving in the Union Army, you’re never gonna take their guns away, put them back, the movie tends to suggest that this was a viable option that you were going to reimpose slavery, as some people may have felt that way. But the vast majority of people, even people that were very racist, were like, Hey, man, this is dead. This thing is never coming back.


Dan LeFebvre  20:36

If we head back to the movie, there’s another part where we get to see the Lincoln’s as, as people, and this is when one of Lincoln sons Robert joins the army, much to his parents regret. When that happens, we see Mary put her foot down, she pretty much threatens her husband, she’s like it, she believes the amendment is gonna end the war. But she also doesn’t believe Secretary of State Seward is going to get the votes necessary to pass it. So as she turns to at one point, and I don’t remember the whole conversation, but there’s a line where she’s like, now that Robert involved in the war well into you, sir, you will answer to me if you don’t get the necessary votes, right.


Dr. Brian Dirck  21:11

That was one of my favorite scenes. Yeah. Oh, yeah. I like married. Whoa, whoa, damn, girl. Okay, you you tell him how this is gonna work, man. No, I you know what? No, there’s no evidence that that conversation ever took place. Now, again, this is another example of generally speaking, they got the facts, right. But they fill in details to do what they want to do is dramatic license. Yes, Mary was extremely opposed to Robert going into the army, and she put her foot down, would not let him in list. He Robert was extremely upset. Lincoln was extremely upset. The movie gets that right. All right. But as far as I know, Mary never tied the 13th amendment to her son going into the army the way she does in that scene. Now, that’s not to say it couldn’t have happened. I like the scene, though. Even if it is taking some liberties, because it shows that Mary Lincoln is a politically active, astute woman. And that’s exactly what she was. And I like that, you know, it shows Mary not as just a, you know, first lady who just worries about decorating the White House way too much. Okay. She had opinions about emancipation, she had opinions about the war. And she voiced them much to the chagrin of a great many men back then you said women shouldn’t do that. So in that sense, I like that scene. But I don’t know that it ever happened. And there’s no evidence of it.


Dan LeFebvre  22:32

Okay. Okay. Whether Were there any moments like that, that Mary did put her foot down with Lincoln and made it made him go personally try to do something because and after that scene, you know, of course, we see him in the movies like, Okay, well, I guess I’m taking over for Seward, and I’m going around trying to get the votes.


Dr. Brian Dirck  22:48

Not that we know of really, in fact, what was really happening was that Mary hardly saw him. She actually had far many more complaints that he was so bogged down in the war, that even though they lived in the same house, she wouldn’t see him any she didn’t. I mean, she did I guess. But again, this is we have to come infer this stuff. You know, we have eyewitness accounts, Elizabeth Keckley, who’s a character in the movie wrote a book about behind the scenes in the White House, talks about them having conversations about politics, but she’s not very specific. So we don’t know what exactly she’s telling him to do. We do know that Mary, did support emancipation, she actually believed that it was a good idea. And we do know that she told him that, Lincoln, but this is again, where the movie just carries things, you know, plausible, but not documented direction, if that kind of makes sense.


Dan LeFebvre  23:47

Yeah, creative, creative licensing. Essentially, a lot of movies do that. When it comes time for the vote itself in the movie, we’d see that there’s an attempt to postpone it. And that happens when Mr. Pendleton from Ohio addresses the house to let them know about the Confederate delegation trying to negotiate the peace. There were rumors of it circulating around but he claims to have proof of this. And then there’s a motion to actually postpone the vote until President Lincoln himself can address this issue of the delegation. There’s a scene there where we see guy watching from the balcony W and Bilbo runs the note from the Capitol building over to the White House delivers it to Lincoln, he reads it and then writes down a response. And then we don’t actually see the response until he’s back, you know, runs back to deliver it to Congress and on the floor. It’s read says, so far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, nor are there likely to be, which is true since Lincoln had we saw earlier in the movie, he had ordered the peace commissioners to be taken to Hampton road, Virginia no further specifically told them to not bring them into DC. So technically, it’s not a lie. Also, not really the whole truth. How much of that actually happened?


Dr. Brian Dirck  24:57

Technically? Yes. Okay. Um, There were rumors that the commissioners were in the city, Congress does delay the vote to find out if they were in the city. They did send someone to the White House to ask Lincoln. Lincoln said no. But we don’t know. What was in his reply the backshell document in the movie, we don’t know if that was actually in the note, we just know. He said, No, they’re not okay. We also don’t know the movie suggests, as I read, I saw his Lincoln being the shrewd politician who can, you know, can plays chess and sees this may be becoming an issue, and therefore tells them not to go to DC? We don’t know if that’s true. I certainly plausible that he saw that this could be an issue. But all we know is that Lincoln had them come to city point no further, it could just as easily be though, that he did that. Because again, he doesn’t want to confer legitimacy on the Confederacy if he had allowed them to come to DC. That is a de facto representation of them as being diplomats of an actual country, which he never said they were. So we don’t know what’s in Lincoln’s head, the movie supplies something in his head that may or may not have been there.


Dan LeFebvre  26:12

Okay, filling in a lot more of the details, then it sounds like,


Dr. Brian Dirck  26:15

Yeah, absolutely. In a plausible way. I’ve been involved in various projects like this one or the other. And basically, My take is always, you know, as long as it’s reasonable that it could have happened, let’s cut movies, some slack, they have to have dramatic storytelling. And they don’t have enough information, to be able to say things that need to be said. So I didn’t have a problem with that at all.


Dan LeFebvre  26:40

Well, if we look back at that scenario, with a historical lens, the impression I got was that the movie very heavily implies Lincoln was prone to bending laws to get things kind of to go his way we talked about with the the War Powers and things like that. Is that true? Did he kind of purposely negotiate thing? I mean, I guess that’s politics. But


Dr. Brian Dirck  27:03

well, I remember when the movie came out, 2012 I remember there were political commentators, not stories, but political commentators, who said, This movie is valuable, because it shows people who watch it, that democracy is a messy business. You know, there’s that great scene between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, where Lincoln says, you have to have your compass pointed true north. But if you get lost in the swamps, you never get there. Man, I love that, man. That’s a very good way to put it. As far as the general points you’re raising is concerned. Whenever I talk about this or write about it. The point that I emphasize is, every single legal and constitutional issue almost is brand new. It’s not so much that there were these rules that everybody knew what they said, and Lincoln skirted them or played with them or whatever. For example, nobody had ever tried to declare martial law before. Really. Oh, I mean, General Jackson did back in the war of 1812. And he got sued for it. Okay. I mean, nobody ever tried to do a lot of the civil liberties things that he had to do. Certainly nobody ever tried to emancipate slaves the way he did. Nobody knew what war powers were. I mean, the courts had never ruled on this, because there had never been a war that really tested these issues. I think you’re right, he does bend rules, but also point out the rules are been the ball because they are just really vague, and nobody quite knows what they say.


Dan LeFebvre  28:27

Right? It’s inevitable at that point. If they’re so vague, then at some point, there’s going to be something that has to set those set a precedent for that.


Dr. Brian Dirck  28:35

Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, Lincoln is setting back in many ways during the war, we write the first US code of legal conduct under his administration during war. First time really that the that anybody’s even considered the idea about African American rights being a federal issue, because prior to this point, it was hardly ever a federal issue. I mean, so many things are just utterly unprecedented here.


Dan LeFebvre  28:57

Once the amendment actually passes in the movie, we see there are marches and singing in the street at the White House, President Lincoln himself finds out because we hear bells ringing across the city, it’s it’s a celebration, how well did the movie do showing the reaction to the amendment being passed?


Dr. Brian Dirck  29:16

Well, I mean, it’s one sided. It’s accurate. Yes, there were celebrations. I mean, you know, by 1865, I would argue, I think most serious Civil War scholars would argue that even though there is a great deal of racism in the north, even though Northerners are certainly not prepared to allow African Americans to have full political or social equality, there is a consensus in the north that slavery was an evil institution that needed to go and you got to remember this is all the 13th amendment does at this point is it is an institution that a great many Northerners believe, got their sons and their dads and their brothers killed on Babylon. Lincoln himself says in his second inaugural address, he says, everybody knew that slavery was somehow the cause of the war. And I think it’s true. So yeah, when this thing is passed, there was a national sense of relief. There are parades and celebrations. Now on the other hand, the movie leaves out, there are a lot of really angry people to me, among them john Wilkes Booth who was very racist. One could argue that when Lincoln endorses black suffrage, from a public speech from the balcony in the White House, booth is in the audience. And he says, By God, that’s the last speech he’s ever going to make him shot him a few days later. So yeah, the movies, not wrong. But for whatever reasons, it’s not showing that there were plenty of Americans who thought this was a horrible idea. And we’re convinced that you know, this is going to be a horde of black people moving north and stealing their jobs and whatnot.


Dan LeFebvre  30:51

I want to ask you about Thaddeus Stevens. I mentioned him a little bit earlier, Tommy Lee Jones, his character, and at the very end there, we see him taking the official bill, he takes it home, and then we find out that his significant other is a black woman. Is that why he fought so hard for racial equality for 30? Some years like the movie seems to imply,


Dr. Brian Dirck  31:11

first of all, the idea that they would have given Thaddeus Stevens, the original copy of the amendments observed, okay, I’m sorry, that’s Spielberg is pushing the envelope without one. Okay. It’s like, there’s no way Okay, that’s not okay.


Dan LeFebvre  31:24

I thought that was pretty easy.


Dr. Brian Dirck  31:26

Yeah, yeah, I get it. There were widespread rumors that badger Stevens was romantically involved with his African American housekeeper. But it was never proven. And to this day, we do not know if this was actually the case. Stevens is an outspoken proponent, not just of abolitionism. But simply quality. Veterans have a lot of enemies. It was a very common thing back then, if you’re a white man advocating for abolitionism, your enemies are gonna accuse you of sleeping with a black woman. Lincoln was accused of having a negro mistress or that Negro and air quotes, if they said back then, yet, which is, of course not true. These were rumors floating around, they may or may not have been true. But again, this is yet another thing where the movie is taking something that could have been true, and say, Okay, we’re going to show that it is true.


Dan LeFebvre  32:17

Politically, Did he really push as hard as as we see him in the movie trying to get the amendment passed?


Dr. Brian Dirck  32:25

No, yeah, of Stevens was absolutely committed to this. I love how they show the messiness again, okay, when he’s given the speech, and you know, he has to suggest that this does not imply full social equality, when that’s what he believed. I thought they did a fine job with


Dan LeFebvre  32:42

him. You alluded to this a little bit earlier. And at the very end of the movie, of course, we see Lincoln’s assassination. Well, I guess we don’t really see the assassination happened in the movie, we see Todd Lincoln watching a play in a different theater. The End somebody rushes on, announces that the President has been shot at Ford’s Theater. And then we do see a scene later on where you know, it’s 7:22am, April 15, he’s pronounced dead. Can you fill in a little bit of the holes there and give us a little more historical background on Lincoln’s assassination and what the prevailing thought on the motivation might be behind it.


Dr. Brian Dirck  33:13

The movie again, does a good job. But as you point out, they don’t actually show anything about john Wilkes Booth, which totally makes sense. Why would you want to muddy up the storytelling by going off onto that tangent, you know, but you know, john Wilkes Booth, as I pointed out earlier, was a very pro Southern, very bigoted, of very, very racist man who had gotten together a kind of a cabal of barflies and misfits and ne’er do wells as he wandered around the bars of DC denouncing the Lincoln administration. His plan had was originally to decapitate the federal government in one night he was going to shoot Lincoln, one of his compatriots is going to shoot Andrew Johnson, one of his compatriots is going to kill William Seward is in the movie, and they’re all going to be shot and all that the other guys either chickened out and got drunk. The one guy almost killed Seward, but he didn’t succeed. Booth Oliver through a combination of just the fact that for whatever reason, they just didn’t take the assassination as a serious prospect. And when Lincoln went to the theater, I mean, they violated every modern Security Rule for profit prisons, you can imagine. They advertised in the papers exactly where he was gonna be that night. his bodyguard left the door open. I mean, he just he I’ve heard a couple rumors as to why the bodyguard left but basically he wasn’t even doing his job. Booth was well known in Ford’s Theater so nobody’s even gonna notice the guy’s an actor to theater. Yeah, there’s there’s areas whatever, so everything fell into place for him to go pull off what he pulled off. Now there’s a long standing debate in a modern Lincoln circles was booth in effect a confederate Agent and there are some scholars who believe that none less of a person to the Jefferson Davis himself basically gave the order for the hit. I don’t know if he can go quite that far. But one of his computers conspirators was john serrat, who was in fact, a confederate agent with a confederate Secret Service.


Dan LeFebvre  35:18

Hello. I’ve never heard that theory before that they actually potentially put a hit out on Lincoln. Wow, that adds a whole other


Dr. Brian Dirck  35:24

Well, that’s a theory. There’s no direct evidence of that beacon for myself. I’m skeptical. I know a bit about Davis, do I? I’ve wrote half a book on a while back, but um, I This doesn’t sound like Davis would town accountants that kind of thing. On the other hand, there could have been people farther down the food chain in the government who knew about both? My personal feeling is that they really wanted to kill Lincoln, are they really gonna get an alcoholic actor to do it? I mean, Surely there’s plenty other people out there that know how to do that better, you know, by that’s, you know, I don’t see it. I think he acted alone. I think Surat knew what was going on. But I don’t think anybody in the Confederate government actually thought he could get away with it.


Dan LeFebvre  36:03

The point of the alcoholic actor makes it. I mean it. That’s a good, good point.


Dr. Brian Dirck  36:09

I mean, come on me. You look at booth and you go, yeah, that’s my guy. That’s the guy. Yeah. Come on, man. I mean, there’s really no cheese.


Dan LeFebvre  36:16

Yeah. And it just seems like it sounds like everything just happened to fall into place correctly. And that’s not the kind of thing that you can plan for.


Dr. Brian Dirck  36:25

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  36:28

throughout the movie. There’s something about President Lincoln’s personality I wanted to ask you about and he, he tells a lot of stories. There’s, I’ll give you an example. There’s, they’re in this room where they’re talking about the the bombardment of Fort Fisher in Wilmington, North Carolina is going on. And Lincoln starts telling the story of Ethan Allen, and they attack on Fort Ticonderoga and 1776. And one of the guys nearby says, Oh, no, you’re not going to tell another story. Did Lincoln speak it almost speak in parables like that? It tells stories a lot like that.


Dr. Brian Dirck  37:01

accord eyewitnesses he did all the time. He was a shrewd politician. And he sometimes understood that stories could get his point across better than saying yes or no. The man in question in the academies, Edwin Stanton, Lincoln Secretary of War, who when Lincoln starts to tell these stories, stances like Oh, god, no, please, I guess. You can tell. He doesn’t like it. Yeah, yeah. You know what, that’s exactly the way Stanford was. Stanton was a very good Secretary of War, who often wished that Lincoln would just shut the hell up. When it comes to stories. It drove him nuts. So I that was they do their homework on that one, because that’s beautiful. Okay. And if you go back and watch that scene, there’s a part of the dialogue that lot people miss, where Stanton points to one of the maps in the wall and says, Hey, wait a minute, part of this is bird, if you let the kid in here, get to play. And Lincoln’s like, Oh, well, yeah, you know, I mean, I that’s perfect for Lincoln. Okay, so yeah, Lincoln often did that. There’s also the famous scene in the movie, where Lincoln tells the Melissa goings story about the woman he was defending as a lawyer. That actually was the case that he actually litigated. One of my books, I just studied Lincoln as a lawyer, he actually advocated the most goings case that all actually happened. And he did tell that story. So it’s not just that he told stories, the people who wrote the script and did the research. They very often found actual stories that he actually said, you know, something, something they made up and others, we’ve got documentation. So that’s actually one of the strongest points in the movie.


Dan LeFebvre  38:30

Wow, that’s great. And I love Stanton’s reply to it. He’s Yeah, it’s just uh Oh, here we go again.


Dr. Brian Dirck  38:38

Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah. Just Hi. Just hit and goes, God, please. No.


Dan LeFebvre  38:44

Something else I noticed about Lincoln was he seemed to walk around the White House a lot wrapped in a blanket. And I know, they don’t didn’t have, you know, central heating air like we do now. But it seemed like he was the only one that was constantly in blankets. I didn’t really notice anybody else. affected by the cold. Like that was what they were trying to imply like, was he ill or something? Was there something that he was always cold? Or?


Dr. Brian Dirck  39:09

That’s a really good question. There are eyewitness accounts that indicate that Lincoln did sleep well that he did get up at all hours because of the pressures on him. I got to admit right off hand. I don’t recall anyone specifically saying you walked around wrapped in a blanket. I know you he sometimes wrapped himself in a shawl when you went out into cold weather, that kind of thing. I would imagine that that was something that Spielberg or maybe even Daniel Day Lewis came up with just sort of accent his loneliness and his excellent TriCity. Yeah, that’s my feeling on that. But it is true that he did not sleep well. He looked haggard and haunted. The famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harry Beecher Stowe came to visit him during the war. And she said the link and she said, Mr. President, do you have any idea what you’re going to do after the war is over? And they she said Lincoln looked haggard gave a thin smile and said, I don’t think I’ll ever see the end of the war, the wars, killing me. And every single person that saw Lincoln said, My God, he looks awful. His skin is pale, dark soccer trend. Yes. If you take a picture of Lincoln in 1861, in 1865, it looks like the aged 30 years. In only four years. Yeah, he was one of our younger American presidents at that point. I mean, he was only in his 50s. But he looks like he’s in his 70s by the time it comes around. So I I think that’s what they’re doing with that.


Dan LeFebvre  40:40

Speaking of Daniel Day, Lewis, how overall How well do you think he did? just capturing the essence of Lincoln?


Dr. Brian Dirck  40:47

Well, I think I can speak for pretty much everybody who’s a lake and scholar. I’ve never seen another reaction to this, but we all just sort of collectively did a Wow. I mean, I think he did an incredible job, even down to the details of researching Lincoln’s voice. If you see how Lincoln’s been portrayed in previous films, they give him this stentorian James Earl Jones buffoon. Every eyewitness account of course, we have no recordings of his voice, but every I winced account said he had like a tenor voice. Dan de Luce even did that the mannerisms fit even things like his posture fit. I I have a hard time imagining anybody ever even equaling that performance. You’re originally the man who was supposed to play Lincoln was Liam Neeson when the movie was first being put together. Spielberg had gotten Liam Neeson to do it nice and dropped out because a Lisa lost his wife, whose wife died that same year, they’re going to begin production and Easton felt he was too old to play him. I think needs to we’ve done a good job. But thank God they got down Day Lewis because I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job.


Dan LeFebvre  41:58

Well, speaking of Spielberg, if you were directing this movie, is there anything that you wish they’d included that didn’t make it in?


Dr. Brian Dirck  42:05

I wish they had done something with Frederick Douglass. I really do. As a matter of fact, early drafts of the script, Cooper had been trying to develop a movie about Lincoln for years, he had a script that was going to be all about nothing but Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass, but he scrapped it because it didn’t work dramatically. I wish they would have put Douglas in because Frederick Douglass is such an important figure, just in the general move towards the 13th amendment. Douglass met Lincoln three times during the war. This is a rare occasion that a black man’s allowed into the White House to do anything other than serve drinks. There’s a famous scene at the second inaugural, where Lincoln has invited Frederick Douglass to the inaugural ball in the White House. And the guards won’t let Douglas in because he’s a black man. And Douglas finally forces himself in and then in the front of all of this Willy white crowd of the creme de la creme of a southern city like DC. Lincoln walks across the floor, shakes Douglass’s hands and says, Mr. Douglas, I’m so glad you’re here. Could you tell me what you thought of my speech today? I care about your opinion more than anybody else’s? It’s a beautiful moment in American history. I wish they would have found a way to stick that in.


Dan LeFebvre  43:21

Wow. Yeah. I would love to see that scene. Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on a chat about Lincoln. For someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about Lincoln, can you recommend one or two of your books to start with and where they can get a copy?


Dr. Brian Dirck  43:33

I wrote a book called Lincoln in the Constitution. If you’re wanting to know about the whole 13th amendment argument to short book, it’s a part of a series called The concise Lincoln library series. It’s pretty brief. But it’s designed for a general audience to understand the constitutional issues. So that’s where I write the most about this particular issue. If you’re interested in the whole question of how Lincoln was handling the death of his son, and marrying all that, my newest book is the black heavens, Abraham Lincoln and death. And it’s all about how Lincoln processed death and dying during the Civil War. So those are two good ones.


Dan LeFebvre  44:04

Great. I’ll make sure to add links to those in the show notes for this episode. Thank you. Thanks again so much for your time.


Dr. Brian Dirck  44:09

Well, thank you, I appreciate it.



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