A spat began last week between Democratic Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney and playwright Tony Kushner over a detail in the latter’s screenplay “Lincoln”. The moment in question comes as the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, narrowly passes the House of Representatives. In the film the Connecticut delegation votes against the Amendment. In reality, all of Connecticut’s congressmen voted in favor. Rep. Courtney rightly feels that this choice defames Connecticut, placing it as he says, “on the wrong side of history”, he demands that the scene be corrected prior to the film’s release on DVD. Mr. Kushner, in a rather snarky reply in the Wall Street Journal, defends his “historical drama”, implying that the falsehood about Connecticut serves a higher narrative purpose, to show how close the vote was in the House.
The first, rather glaring, historical inaccuracy in the scene is that Kushner has the House vote by state, which it very rarely does, and did not do in voting on the 13th Amendment. Mr. Kushner does not explain why he made this choice, but he does explain, in part, why Connecticut was given the handlebar mustached villain’s role of pro slavery state. It turns out that Lincoln won the state of Connecticut by a very narrow margin in 1864, and was not as Courtney claimed, “solidly pro Lincoln”. So to Kushner, the historical record is not telling the whole truth about Connecticut, and if he has to make up a few facts and few fictional politicians to show the Nutmeg State’s true colors, so be it. But was Connecticut a pro slavery state? Or an almost pro slavery state? The broader historical record shows emphatically that it was not.
In 1858 Connecticut elected Republican, William Buckingham as Governor. Buckingham was a strong supporter and personal friend of Lincoln. He was a proponent of the 13th Amendment, and after it passed the congress, brought the issue to a ratification vote by the Connecticut legislature. In addition to the state’s anti slavery Governor, the entire congressional delegation voted in favor of the 13th Amendment, as noted above. So who were the pro slavery political voices or forces in Connecticut for whose sins Kushner paints the state in the stars and bars? An 1894 biography of Governor Buckingham helps us answer that question:
“The Democratic leaders promised that no opposition should be made to the passage of the resolution provided the yeas and nays were not called, Under this agreement, the resolution was passed nem.com., the Republicans voting aye and the Democrats maintaining the stipulated silence. In the Senate, the roll was called and the twenty-one Republican Senators voted yes. So Connecticut cast her vote for the abolition of slavery without a dissentient voice.”
WITHOUT A DISSENTIENT VOICE! So Kushner invented Connecticut congressmen to oppose the 13th Amendment when in fact, no politician of that state from either party ever cast a single vote against it during any part of the process. But why? In order to show how close the vote was, as Kushner claims? Surely he could have made it clear that the Amendment only passed 2/3rds of the House by two votes without defaming Connecticut.
The most plausible reason why Kushner cast Connecticut in the role of pro slavery state has to do with the progressive historical impulse to impugn the motives the of the pro Union North and to reveal their complicity with slavery in general. This is not a new idea, it is not even new in entertainment. We see this theme in the musical 1776’s song about the triangle trade (Molasses for Rum for Slaves) and more recently in AMC’s Hell on Wheels in which a lovable ex confederate soldier is much nicer to freed blacks than the nasty Irish ex Union soldiers. In a very general way this view of history is perfectly accurate, many in the north were certainly racist, and many cared much more about preserving the union than freeing the slaves. But Kushner is not dealing in generalities here. His choice of Connecticut is quite specific and quite telling. By choosing a state in New England, the region of the country most associated with the abolition movement, Kushner spreads the evil of pro slavery sentiment as far north as plausibly possible. Certainly to have Massachusetts or New Hampshire vote against the 13th Amendment would have been too absurd even for Kushner, Connecticut he could get away with. Or so he thought.
Kushner is right to say that “historical drama” need not bother with making sure every fact is correct, conversations are invented, motives are guessed at, but with this freedom comes responsibility. For better of worse, Lincoln with its big budget and superstar director and actors, will provide many people with their most comprehensive understanding of Lincoln and the 13th Amendment. There are far better targets for Kushner’s dramaturgical ire, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Delaware all actually voted against ratifying the 13th Amendment. But none of those states provide the opportunity to stain the New England region with sin. Kushner ought to take heed of Representative Courtney’s request and restore the State of Connecticut to its rightful place, as a stalwart force in favor of the abolition of slavery.