During the tumultuous three months before he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln employed the type of machinations that would have been the envy of any of today’s political operatives. Eventually, as portrayed in the Academy Award nominated movie "Lincoln", he was able to persuade recalcitrant Republicans and Democrats to pass the 13th Amendment.
The Civil War was coming to end with a victory by the North the likely outcome. Lincoln realized that then his goal of ending slavery was much less likely to happen and could even mean freed African Americans would be enslaved again, once the war was over.
“Lincoln did what he had to do,” said Harold Holzer, Senior Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was named the first Roger Hertog Fellow at the New York Historical Society. “It took unfathomable courage and a little bit of willingness to do unsavory things to get it done.”
Holzer should know about Lincoln. He’s authored, co-authored, and edited 43 books about the 16th President and was chosen by Steven Spielberg as the Content Consultant for his film "Lincoln". Spielberg also selected Holzer to write “Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America” (Newmarket Press for It Books 2012; $16.99), the companion book for the movie written for teachers and young adults.
Despite all that has been written about Lincoln, Holzer said Lincoln’s maneuvering the passage of the 13th amendment was in many ways like an asterisk to all his other great accomplishments.
"It was lying there around the edges," said Holzer, adding that it took Spielberg’s knowledge of what makes a great story to turn that time period into the central theme of the film. Only 65 pages of the 550 pages of award winning screenwriter Tony Kushner’s original screenplay portrayed Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment.
“Tony Kushner wrote a screenplay which encompassed several things, and Spielberg said 'I want to focus on the 13th amendment,'” Holzer said. “His instinct was absolutely right.”
As a historian, Holzer said he is deliriously happy about the film and the way Daniel Day Lewis captured Lincoln’s personality. But when Spielberg first approached Lewis about the project, he turned it down. Six years would pass before Lewis relented and another year before proceeding with the film as he reached deep into the character of Lincoln in order to accurately portray him. This intensity also meant that Holzer never got to see Lewis filming.
“Daniel Day Lewis really wanted to focus on his work alone with Spielberg,” said Holzer. “He portrayed Lincoln in a way that I don’t think will ever be replicated.”
The film’s estimated domestic gross total as of Feb. 10, 2013 was $173,607,000; foreign was $47,356,000. It is, Holzer says, probably the most successful Civil War movie besides "Gone with the Wind".
Asked if he could live in any moment during Lincoln’s life, Holzer said, “Everyone who likes Lincoln goes to the Ford Theatre to stop the show or to hear the Gettysburg Address. Out of all of them I would hear the Cooper Union address in 1860, his first speech in New York. The audience expected an illiterate backwoodsman and instead they got a learned orator.”
Last November 19, on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Holzer introduced Spielberg to 9,000 people attending the National Soldiers’ Cemetery for the annual Dedication Day.
“What he said that morning put the issue of history filmmaking into sharp perspective,” said Holzer, quoting Spielberg as saying, “We can’t remember everything. History forces us to acknowledge the limits of memory. It tells us that memory is imperfect, no matter how much of the past we’ve covered. It’s not the job, and in fact it’s a betrayal of the job, of a historian to promise perfect and complete recall of the past, to promise memory that abolishes loss. One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines, like history, must avoid.”
Now Holzer is completing “The History of the Civil War in 50 Objects” to be published the May by Viking. One of those objects is a copy of General Grant’s terms of surrender given to Lee Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, which is held at the New York Historical Society.
“Why would they have it?” asked Holzer rhetorically. “Because the man who transcribed it, Eli Parker, lived in New York and his widow donated it.”
After the signing, Lee shook hands with everyone present. Eli Parker was present at the courthouse that day, a Native American who was educated as an attorney and had worked as engineer for the U.S. Treasury Department. Lee stopped, mistaking Parker for an African American. Seeing his mistake, he said to Parker, who was a lieutenant colonel, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker later stated, “I shook his hand and said, 'We are all Americans.'”
“Of these simple things history is constructed,” said Holzer. “Just like the story of Lincoln and the 13th amendment.”