Friday, November 19, 2010

Spielberg Selects Daniel-Day Lewis for "Lincoln"

The major news out of Hollywood today is that director Steven Spielberg has selected two-time Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis to star in his long-delayed film about Abraham Lincoln. The story has been announced on several sites, but I'm getting the information from this site courtesy of several Twitter followers of mine.

The actor Liam Neeson had long been the favorite to portray the nation's Civil War president, but he finally withdrew from the project earlier this summer, claiming he was too old at 58 to do the role. Day-Lewis is 53, which is closer to Lincoln's age of 56 at the time of his assassination in 1865.

The movie will apparently not be a biography after all as some have long assumed, but instead will be based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team Of Rivals, her best-selling account of Lincoln's clashes with his cabinet.

Today's news is apparently a huge surprise to Hollywood insiders, who figured Spielberg's "Lincoln" film was on the back burner with the withdrawal of Neeson. Additionally, Day-Lewis is considered to be one of the choosiest actors in Hollywood, frequently turning down scripts and going for years between acting roles.

I think Daniel Day-Lewis is a superb choice. His facial structure resembles that of Lincoln's, and his height (around 6'1") is close enough to Lincoln's. More importantly, is that Day-Lewis is a brilliant actor who does a great deal of research and preparation for his roles. He is a "method" actor who is known to stay in character even off camera while working on a film.

Spielberg is of course one of the greatest movie directors of all time. Let's hope, though, that he doesn't imbue this film with sentimentality or sappiness. One site I read has it that Disney's Touchstone label will be the distributor. Tony Kushner (Angels In America) will author the script.

With these three men teaming up for this film, there might be at long last an excellent film made about Abraham Lincoln. Filming is scheduled to get under way next year, with release in the final quarter of 2012. Let's hope it comes to fruition.

The New Battle Of Gettysburg

Seven score and seven years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln gave a brief two minute speech at the occasion of the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The 271 words he spoke in barely two minutes redefined our nation when it declared that all people are created equal, and that it stands as a symbol for freedom and democracy to the world. His Gettysburg Address is in my opinion his greatest speech, and is perhaps the single greatest speech in the English language. The story behind this speech is a poignant one, which you may read here.

Now we are engaged in another Battle of Gettysburg, only this time the fight is not between armies. Instead, the battle is between commercial interests who want to build a casino only 1/2 mile from the edge of the Gettysburg National Military Park, and those who consider such a project to be an insult to the memory of those who there gave their lives that our nation might live.

I was contacted this week by Mr. Jeff Griffith, a filmmaker who has produced and directed several videos to fight the proposed casino project. Mr. Griffith asked me to help publicize one video in particular, which enlists the talents of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, esteemed historian David McCullough, actors Sam Waterston, Matthew Broderick, and Stephen Lang, and Medal Of Honor recipient Paul W. Bucha as they recite the Gettysburg Address. The music for this moving video was contributed by multiple-Oscar winner John Williams.

Please take the brief two minutes to watch the video and help the fight against a casino coming to the edge of the battlefield where so many men who fought for freedom are buried. The organization leading this fight is nocasinogettysburg.org. Go and register your support!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Radio Interview About Lincoln

Earlier today I was contacted by a radio program host from Atlantic City, New Jersey, asking if I'd be interested in being a guest on his show to discuss Abraham Lincoln. After thinking it over, I've agreed to be on his show on Saturday November 13, 2010 at approximately 2:05 p.m. for most of an hour.

The host, Mr. Jesse Kurtz, hosts a weekly show on station WIBG 1020-AM in Atlantic City, where he discusses a wide range of topics. The focus of his show this week will be Abraham Lincoln in the first hour, and President Andrew Jackson in the second hour. He would like to talk about how the GOP of the 1860's compares with the party as it exists today. He's also planning on examining the Democratic Party in the same manner.

Although I've spoken in person about Abraham Lincoln to various groups, this will be my first time on radio. I'm both excited and a bit nervous. It will be a discussion between Mr. Kurtz and me, with unfortunately no call-in segment.

If any readers of this blog would like to listen to the show, here is a link for listening via the Internet. http://www.wibg.com/listen5.html

Once again, the date is this Saturday November 13, 2010. It's going to get underway at around 2:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you'd like to hear my voice and maybe learn a little bit about why I write about Abraham Lincoln, it would be great to have you "drop by."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: "A Renegade History Of The United States"

In a first for The Abraham Lincoln Blog, this post departs from the usual subject matter in order to review a new, controversial book about general American history. While Abraham Lincoln obviously holds a particular fascination for me, I am also deeply interested in nearly all eras which make up the American story.

I was recently contacted by a publicist from Free Press (a division of publisher Simon & Schuster, Inc.) to gauge my interest in reviewing A Renegade History Of The United States authored by Thaddeus Russell. The title alone intrigued me and when I received the press release, I knew I had to read this book.

Russell teaches American history at Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA) and has previously taught at Columbia University and Barnard College. He was raised in Berkeley, California. After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he achieved his PhD in History from Columbia.

According to Russell, "college students are normally taught a history that is the story of struggles between capitalists and workers, whites and blacks, men and women." Text books and traditional professors teach that our "freedoms" were achieved by the Founding Fathers, handed down by the U.S. Constitution, further fought for in the Civil War, and finally guaranteed by WWII and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

A Renegade History turns this traditional story on its ear. In this book, Russell claims that most of our true freedoms come from the "renegades," the people who lived on the fringes of American society. He states that slaves, immigrants, gangsters, prostitutes, pirates, drunks and "flamboyant gays" (or "drag queens") challenged the conventions of their day with the way they lived. They were the ones, claims this compelling book, that implemented real change in America and created the country that we know today. If it weren’t for them, we’d have no jazz, legal alcohol, weekends, birth control, Hollywood, and civil rights. In short, the struggle for freedom really occurs between these "renegades" and those who try to control society through laws, unwritten rules, social norms, and "polite behavior."

I wrote earlier that this book is controversial. For example, Russell claims in this book that white Americans envied enslaved blacks. He presents statistics which show that white farmers worked longer and harder hours than slaves. Whereas white Americans wore simple "homespun" clothing which reflected "sensibility," it was the slaves who wore bright colors. White America was told through societal pressures that dancing was evil and even a mortal sin, while slaves performed their traditional dances, while singing joyously. In Russell's view, this "freedom" that slaves had was the main reason why minstrel shows were immensely popular during the days of slavery. The minstrel shows allowed whites to experience, even briefly, the "freedom" that slaves had to "let go." And yes, Lincoln supposedly enjoyed the shows at times, too.

According to Russell, many of our sexual freedoms, including birth control, come directly from prostitutes from the earliest days of America. I won't delve into most of the facts concerning this topic he presents in that chapter of the book since this is a site used by many students. But a family-friendly example I will use is the fact that more than 100 years ago, only prostitutes wore red dresses. Now, even First Ladies such as Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama were that color as a fashion statement.

Still another section of A Renegade History which is controversial points how out closely related the New Deal era under the (Franklin) Roosevelt administrations was to the Nazi and fascist regimes in Europe. He points out that even posters urging Americans to work for the collective good of society were very similar to those used in Nazi Germany. Russell writes that its absurd to fail to recognize the similarities between America and socialist/fascist Europe in the 1930's, but is also careful to point out that it's equally ridiculous to state that they were identical. After all, the United States did not round up millions of people in death camps in order to exterminate them. Of course, the U.S. did round up thousands of Japanese-Americans for fear that they supported Japan, and put them into "relocation camps."

Closer to our own era, Russell has yet another contentious point of view about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. In his view, it wasn't the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which achieved most of the rights eventually granted to African-Americans. Russell uses ample evidence to show that it was the more violent actions, such as riots, which achieved the freedoms.

Russell is quick to point out that he is not advocating a "renegade revolution." In the foreword to the book, he writes "Were the heroes of this book to take control of society, it would be a living hell. No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected. The social guardians are enemies of freedom, but there is no claim here that they are morally wrong."

Not only is A Renegade History controversial, Thaddeus Russell himself is as well. In a recent article on the Huffington Post internet site, Russell tells the story of why he was fired by Barnard College, a sister institution of Columbia University. Apparently, his very ideas challenged the "status quo" of the history department, and he was let go. His students call him "Bad Thad" due to his demeanor, use of language, and indeed, his "radical" approach to American history.

I loved this book. It is absorbing, well written, and thought-provoking. Above all, it is never boring, as far too many books about American history can be. The reader may not agree completely with some of Russell's points, but he presents them in a manner which forces the reader to rethink all he or she has learned about American history. That is the hallmark of an excellent, intelligent book. Very highly recommended.

"Bad Thad"? The history field needs more like him. And the history book genre desperately needs more works ike A Renegade History Of The United States.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Presidential Election of 1860 150th Anniversary

It was 150 years ago today that Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President Of The United States on November 6, 1860. The Presidential election of 1860 was contentious to be sure, but it remains the most momentous vote in our nation's history, because it began the chain of events which led to the U.S. Civil War.

The major issue facing Americans as they voted that day in 1860 was, of course, slavery. For decades the slavery debate had been simmering in the country, but it had boiled over in the preceding few years. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous Dred Scott decision, in which the court ruled that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery anywhere in the states or U.S. territories, indeed that slaves themselves were technically not persons as recognized by the law. Then in 1859, John Brown's raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) where he hoped to cause a slave insurrection, further fanned the flames of the slavery argument roiling the United States.

As the election of 1860 approached, the major political parties held their conventions. The Democrats met in Charleston, S.C. on April 23 and almost immediately split into two parties, the Northern and Southern Democratic parties. The issue even within the party was slavery. The Northern Democratic delegates wanted the notion of "Popular Sovereignty" in which people in a U.S. territory (such as Kansas and Nebraska) would hold a vote to determine if slavery would be permitted or not. The very idea of the people deciding was anathema to Democratic delegates from the Southern states, and those delegates walked out of the convention. They wanted the Federal government to protect slavery where it already existed and to guarantee the right for its spread into the territories, no matter if the majority of the people wanted it or not.

With the collapse of the Democratic convention in Charleston, the Northern delegates met again in June at Baltimore, Maryland. There they nominated U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had been Lincoln's chief political rival for many years. Lincoln and Douglas had of course held a series of debates (7 in all) across Illinois two years earlier in 1858 as they debated the slavery issue during the U.S. Senate campaign. Douglas went on to win election to the Senate, but the debates thrust Lincoln into the national spotlight. The photo below is of Senator Douglas. Nicknamed the "Little Giant" (he was just 5'4" tall), he was a masterful politician and an early suitor of Mary Todd Lincoln.
The Southern Democratic delegates met at the same time also in Baltimore and nominated as their candidate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who had been James Buchanan's vice-president. Breckinridge was the youngest-ever U.S. vice-president, serving at just age 36. He strongly supported the demands of the Southern Democrats for the protection of slavery throughout the U.S. territories. The photo below shows Breckinridge.

Another political party appeared on the scene in 1860. Calling itself the Constitutional Union Party, it's sole goal was to preserve the Union. Baltimore was a popular convention city in late spring 1860, and the delegates from this party met there as well. The Constitutional Unionists did their best to appeal to both sides of the political debate. It nominated a former Speak of The House, John Bell of Tennessee. It's only platform point was to adhere to the Constitution. Below is a photo of John Bell.

The Republican Party met in Chicago in May 1860, in a huge structure called "The Wigwam." Lincoln was not the front-runner or favorite to win the nomination. That designation fell on William H. Seward of New York, a former Senator and Governor of that state. Lincoln's handlers or "men" were brilliant behind the scenes and out-manoeuvred Seward's. For example, Lincoln's supporters had counterfeit admission tickets printed for entry into the Wigwam and packed the building with "Lincoln men" when Seward's were out attending other functions. By the time the Seward supporters returned to the building, they found their seats already occupied. The first ballot of the convention had Seward in the lead, but without enough to reach a majority. Finally with much effort and a lot of "horse trading" Lincoln's supporters enabled him to clinch the nomination on the third ballot. The photo at the beginning of this article shows Lincoln as he appeared in summer 1860, just after the nomination.

According to most historians, the election of 1860 ended up becoming almost two contests: Lincoln vs. Douglas in the Northern states, and Breckinridge vs. Bell in the Southern states. In fact, Abraham Lincoln's name was not even placed on ballots in nine states in the South.

Douglas broke with tradition and actively campaigned around the country (until 1860, candidates for President did not campaign on their own behalf), wearing himself out so much that he would die on June 3, 1861. He toured the Northern states to be sure, but he also traveled throughout the South. There he asked the Southerners to accept any outcome of the election, even if Lincoln would be elected. Of course, his pleas went unheeded as a state of extreme agitation existed in the South, increased by harsh attacks by the Southern newspapers on Lincoln, even months before the election.

The results of the 1860 presidential election revealed that for the first time in U.S. history, the country had divided along sectional lines. Lincoln won the Northern states while Breckinridge won most of the Southern states. Bell carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Poor Stephen Douglas won just the state of Missouri and 3 electoral votes in New Jersey. It comes as a surprise sometimes to people when they first learn that Lincoln won just 39.9% of the popular vote in the 1860 election. His three opponents combined to earn approximately 1 million more votes than he did!

Of course, as we remember from the 2000 presidential election, a president doesn't win based on the popular vote. In the 1860 election, Lincoln was the clear winner in the Electoral College, outdistancing those electoral votes earned by his three opponents combined. Below is an excellent image which shows the election map of 1860. Lincoln states are in blue; Breckinridge states are green; the states Bell won are yellow; and the states Douglas won are in aqua.


It's said that when Abraham Lincoln discovered that he had been elected the 16th President Of The United States on November 6, 1860, his face suddenly showed a heavy burden and concern, almost as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He walked slowly back to his home, gently awakened his wife Mary, and simply said "Mother, we are elected."

Within weeks of Lincoln's election, the firebrands in the South began agitating for secession from the Union. Lincoln himself was nearly silent, not giving any speeches to try to calm the tempers which were running rampant throughout the country. Instead he preferred working behind the scenes in numerous letters to friends and supporters throughout the country.

Unfortunately, Lincoln's election 150 years ago today became the catalyst for the greatest war ever fought by the United States of America. In a sense, today also marks the sesquicentennial of the beginnings of the Civil War era.

Over the next few months, indeed, four and one-half years, won't you follow along with The Abraham Lincoln Blog as we remember the important events and anniversaries of Mr. Lincoln and the Civil War? There are countless fascinating facts and stories to tell. I would be honored if you joined me for the journey.

 
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