Tony Kushner's Real Source For "Lincoln"?

By

Tony Kushner today received an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for Lincoln. Lincoln is a superb film, and Kushner's script is (along with Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in the title role) the very best thing about it. He richly deserves the Oscar he will almost certainly win. But the nomination for "Best Adapted Screenplay" raises the question, "adapted from what"?

As has been widely noted, Lincoln isn't adapted in any meaningful way from its nominal source, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, which despite its many virtues dedicates only a few pages to the film's central narrative--the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. The claim that the film is based ("in part") on Team of Rivals mainly attests to the fact that Steven Spielberg purchased the rights to Goodwin's book before it was even, um, written. (This was in 1999. Goodwin was at the time a historical consultant to a multimedia event called The Unfinished Journey that Spielberg was preparing as part of Washington's millennium celebration. The deal was finally "inked," as they say in Hollywood, in 2001, four years before Team of Rivals was published.)

A good case can be made that Kushner's screenplay shouldn't be eligible for the "Best Adapted" category because it wasn't really "adapted" from anything. Kushner has made clear in interviews that he did quite a bit of independent research in preparing his script--enough so that the logical category to nominate it for would be "Best Original Screenplay." Goodwin probably helped him do the research; apparently she was involved in the project after the rights were purchased. So perhaps the screenplay credit should be "based in part on help from Doris Kearns Goodwin." 

But that begs the question of what, if not Team of Rivals, is Lincoln's principal source. The answer is almost certainly Michael Vorenberg's Final Freedom: The Civil War, The Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, first published by Cambridge University Press in 2001. Vorenberg's book (which I made my TNR "best book of 2012" pick) is widely recognized as the definitive history of the political machinations involved in passing the 13th Amendment, a subject that received scant attention prior to publication of  Final Freedom because most historians have tended to focus instead on the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln is known, after all, as the Great Emancipator, not the Great Manipulator of Congress Into Codifying the Executive-Branch Freeing of Slaves, Which Only Ever Applied To Confederate States, In A Constitutional Amendment That, After Lincoln's Death, Still Required Passage In State Legislatures. Vorenberg (who, incidentally, is an associate professor of history at Brown) writes in his introduction:

Historians have written much about the fate of African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation, but they have not been so attentive to the process by which emancipation was written into law. In part, the inattention is a natural consequence of the compartmentalization of history. Because emancipation proved to be but one stage in the process by which enslaved African Americans became legal citizens, historians have been prone to move directly from the Emancipation Proclamation to the issue of legalized racial equality. In other words, historians have skipped quickly from the proclamation to the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which granted "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws" to every American. Within this seamless narrative, the Thirteenth Amendment appears merely as a predictable epilogue to the Emancipation Procalamation or as an obligatory prologue to the Fourteenth Amendment. 

We all know different now, thanks to Lincoln. But before Lincoln there was Final Freedom, a book rich in narrative detail that Kushner surely feasted on.

After I touted Vorenberg's book in TNR's year-end books roundup, he sent me a lovely letter. "If my book helped add accuracy to the film," Vorenberg wrote, 

I can take some pleasure in that. Certainly there was plenty in the film that could only have come from my book. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or shocked. I guess I'm a bit of both.

Also, your suspicion that my contribution to the film, whatever it may have been, was 'uncompensated' is accurate....

Vorenberg emphasized in a later e-mail that he feels in no way resentful about any use of his book for the film, and that by "shocked" he means "pleasantly surprised, not horrified." There was, he points out,

No reason for me to expect compensation or credit from the film makers.  Films don't have to have footnotes, and it's hard to imagine how film makers could pay everyone who happens to have contributed to knowledge about a particular subject.

I asked Vorenberg for details in the film that "could only have come from my book." His reply:

I'll just give a few examples. With each one, by the way, the film makers took some understandable liberties with the facts. One episode involves the part of the film in which the Democrats try to bait Thaddeus Stevens into saying that the amendment grants "negro equality" in all respects, but Stevens sees through the gambit and responds that it grants only "equality before the law."  The film does a nice job dramatizing that part of my book, though it leaves out Samuel "Sunset" Cox as Stevens's primary antagonist in that part of the debate. The omission of Cox is understandable (a film can do only so much) but too bad, as Cox was a pretty interesting character, and he played an important role throughout the amendment debate.

The film also uses my book for the specifics on how Alexander Coffroth's vote for the amendment was most likely secured--the promise of a resolution in his favor in an election controversy. Again, the film takes some liberties--there's no evidence that Lincoln or Stevens was involved in the discussions with Coffroth--but again, such liberties probably made for better film making.

The presence of African Americans in the congressional galleries at the final vote is a fact that most likely though not necessarily comes from my book....

Also, the film probably relied on my book to understand the way that the debate on the amendment was intertwined with the trip by Francis Blair, Sr. to Richmond to speak with Jefferson Davis and the ensuing trip north by the three Confederate envoys led by Alexander Stephens. The relationship between the so-called peace efforts and the amendment was complicated (I say "so-called" peace efforts because, despite the machinations and protestations on all sides, neither Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis thought that a peace could be negotiated at this point), probably more complicated than any film could depict.  The film oversimplifies the connection between peace proposals and the amendment, but it does get at the important fact that these things were indeed connected.  

Clearly Kushner is well within his rights to help himself to narrative details that he found in Final Freedom and elsewhere. Nobody owns history. But even if Vorenberg isn't troubled, I find it (on his behalf) a bit disappointing that neither Kushner nor Spielberg has acknowledged what a valuable resource they had in Final Freedom. (I've sent an e-mail to Kushner and will add an addendum if he replies.) Perhaps the lawyers told them they'd better not. And I find it downright galling that when you go to Lincoln's Web site and click on "publishing" you'll find links to Team of Rivals; to a movie-tie-in essay collection called Lincoln: A President For The Ages to which Vorenberg did not contribute; to a couple of movie-tie in books about the making of the film; and to Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery In America, a book that Lincoln historian Harold Holzer published a couple of months ago as yet another tie-in to the film. You'll find all these books, and that's terrific, let's hope lots of people read them. But you won't find a link to Final Freedom.

Vorenberg, incidentally, is (like me) a Lincoln fan. "I'm glad that it got so many Oscar nominations," he e-mailed me, "and I suspect it will have many Oscar victories. The renewed press may help get even more people to go see it. I'm not making any plans to retire on my book royalties, but I'm happy that an interesting and important chapter of history is getting out to a broader public."

Update, 3:15 p.m.: Slate just posted a good piece on all this by Aisha Harris. 

Update, Jan. 11: Kushner returned my phone call and we spoke at length about all this. Click here to read what he had to say. Short version: Yes, he's read Vorenberg. Yes, he acknowledges it's the most detailed and authoritative account of how the 13th amendment passed the House of Representatives. But no, he disputes my conclusion that Vorenberg's was therefore his principal source. His principal source, Kushner said, was Team of Rivals. I don't buy that, but I think Kushner has addressed the matter satisfactorily simply in recognizing Vorenberg's contribution.

I have removed from the previous update a quote that Slate got from Kushner (through his assistant, it turns out) because Kushner has now answered the question himself and much more completely.

Loading Related Articles...
The Plank
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Show all 5 comments

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.