The wrong side of history

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To gear up for Lincoln’s Birthday, we watched Steven Spielberg’s award-winning “Lincoln” (2012), which caught us by surprise the first time around.

The film is not a biography. It’s a telling of Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. And it is meticulous in its attention to historic detail. Mostly.

One part shocked us–and other Nutmeggers–the first time around. In the roll call, two (fictional) Connecticut representatives vote against the amendment. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who represents the state’s 2nd District, said all four delegates voted in favor:

After checking the congressional record … Courtney said he found that the state’s entire congressional delegation voted for the amendment abolishing slavery. He cited the “yea” votes of House members Augustus Brandegee, of New London; James English, of New Haven; Henry Deming, of Colchester; and John Henry Hubbard, of Salisbury.

Ct. congressman: ‘Lincoln’ got it wrong, News Times, Charles J. Lewis, Feb. 5, 2013

He was right. Zoom in to see for yourself:

This reproduction of The Congressional Globe from January 31, 1865 shows all four Connecticut representatives voted in favor of the 13th Amendment. Source: Library of Congress.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner responded that the changes were made for dramatic effect. To make the roll call a nail-biter, he needed the first two to be “no” votes. He also changed the roll call from alphabetical order by last name to alphabetical by state. That put Connecticut at the top of the list.

Courtney said he understood but hoped Spielberg would fix the error in time for the release on DVD. It’s still streaming that way today.

Writers often have to decide which is more important: literal accuracy or historical truth. That’s my problem with “Margery.” Where do you draw the line? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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