Complaining about a defamatory error in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln” — the false depiction of Connecticut congressmen voting against the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery — U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney has started a controversy. It’s not just over whether the movie’s contrivance goes beyond ordinary artistic license but whether Connecticut deserves admiration at all in regard to the struggle against slavery.
A history professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Matthew Warshauer, argues in a newspaper essay that Connecticut does not deserve such admiration. But to make the argument Warshauer grossly misquotes Courtney.
About the vote on the 13th Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865, Courtney wrote to Spielberg: “Even in a delegation that included both Democrats and Republicans, Connecticut provided a unified front against slavery.”
Warshauer truncates this, removing Courtney’s reference to the congressional delegation, and denies what the congressmen did not write: that “Connecticut provided a unified front against slavery.” Warshauer’s point is that “Connecticut was hugely divided over fighting the war over slavery” and shouldn’t now “whitewash” its past lest it “fail to do justice to the still-lingering problems of race.”
This is straining to change the subject to the agenda of political correctness, which holds that no one and nothing imperfect can be admired until that agenda is fulfilled — as if perfection ever can be achieved in human affairs.
Yes, Connecticut was divided over slavery and the Civil War, but so what? That was better than the South, which almost fully supported slavery and the war to defend it.
Yes, Connecticut didn’t outlaw slavery until 1848, but the state enacted gradual emancipation statutes in 1784 and 1797 and had few slaves after that. By contrast, of course, the South had slavery until the Confederacy’s last breath in 1865.
Yes, at first Lincoln advocated not the abolition of slavery but only its containment, its exclusion from the national territories. He was sympathetic to sending freed slaves to colonize Africa. But even these positions acknowledged slavery as evil and so drew attacks. That’s what the presidential election of 1860 was about: whether to recognize slavery as evil and contain it. Connecticut voted in the affirmative.
Yes, far from abolishing slavery, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation accepted slavery on its own terms and, as a military order, liberated slaves as contraband property only in areas in rebellion.
And yes, slavery came to be opposed in Connecticut and throughout the North less because of any love for the oppressed than because of recognition that slavery devalued all labor.
But back then the slaves themselves had no trouble discerning their friends and enemies. Even today those slaves expose the problem of political correctness in denying the country anything to admire about itself: the problem of taking historical figures out of the context of their time. For the judgment of history is not whether those who made it were perfect but whether they were better than those they lived among and whether they strove or put themselves at risk for a world that might be better too.
Yes, as that politically correct professor says, there are still problems of race, but so what? There will problems of race as long as there is race and some people are mean and stupid — forever. All that can be hoped is that they will be diminishing problems.
Supporting Lincoln’s election twice and sacrificing mightily in the Civil War, Connecticut helped end slavery and can be admired at least for that. Besides, if the ascent of man continues, eventually almost everyone is going to seem quaint or even ridiculous. Those who would make imperfection a disqualification for heroism are ridiculous already.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.