Hollywood sometimes sacrifices fact on the altar of profit-making drama. But when it claims that entertainment is worth deprecating the reputation of the State of Connecticut — when it actually changes legally recorded history, sacrificing fact to portray a mood, then it is the responsibility of historians to require correction.
Rarely does the individual delve into, or even have the opportunity to consult original documents to form an opinion. So, realistically, we have to accept that the general public is influenced more by movies, books, and essays than by individual research.
The producers of the movie “Lincoln” have portrayed Connecticut’s Congressional delegation as voting against passage of the Thirteenth (Emancipation) Amendment when, in fact, in 1865, all four delegates voted in favor.
An old maxim states that history is what historians say it is. So, to the general public, we now have Connecticut stripped of its 1865 support of national unification and abolition.
When challenged by current Connecticut Congressional Representative Joe Courtney, “Lincoln” producers stated they changed the facts to “clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.”
In trying to see the logic of that statement, I must have missed something. Did the actual event lack drama?
Mr. Courtney requests correction of the script before this Oscar-nominated film is issued on DVD. My own suspicion is that this will not happen. The cost of correcting the production’s error will trump the integrity of accuracy. So “history” will change. Connecticut will not.
There is much evidence that there was wide controversy over emancipation, even in Connecticut. But in Connecticut every public representation increased the commitment to equality, to wit:
- 1774 Connecticut (colonial) general assembly passes a law prohibiting the importation of slaves.
- 1784 Connecticut legislation grants freedom to slaves at age 25.
- 1797 Connecticut grants freedom to slaves at age 21 (310 slaves recorded in CT in 1810).
- 1839 Africans, kidnapped from ship Amistad by a U.S. warship, are imprisoned by the U.S. in Connecticut. Students in Connecticut universities convince ex-president John Quincy Adams to carry the Amistad defense to the U.S. federal courts. Meanwhile Amistad families are housed in private homes (yes, in Ridgefield, according to Congregational church minutes) for the trial’s duration.
- 1841 March 9: The Supreme Court of the United States declares the Africans of the Amistad to be “in a free state, where all men are presumed to be free, and were in the actual condition of freemen. The burden of proof, therefore, rests on those who assert them to be slaves” (10 Wheaton, 662 Mason, 459). An assertion the prosecution was unable to substantiate. The defendants are declared free to return to their native country(s).
- 1848 Connecticut abolishes slavery altogether.
- 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
- 1865 Connecticut Congressional Representatives vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Does this sound like a state whose representatives would vote against abolition?
Will Hollywood justify changing history by labeling it “historical drama”?
Josette Williams, a former Ridgefield selectman, is a longtime student of history.