I am pleased to see that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have given a thumbs-up to the recent PBS Lincoln documentary, “Looking For Lincoln”, narrated by Henry Louis Gates. The reviewer takes pride in the way in which the SCV is portrayed as well as the emphasis on the challenging of various “Lincoln myths.”
For the first time in memory, almost all the coverage was positive. In the rare worst case it was neutral and not negative. Our flags and symbols were prominent. If every one of us went out flagging for a whole day we couldn’t have nearly shown our colors to as many as the millions watching. Our people were shown were well dressed, with attractive personalities and articulate messages including delegates in the scenes at the reunion.
The reviewer is no doubt correct to note that the SCV was allowed to state their position on Lincoln, but this should not be confused with any tacit endorsement of that position by the producers or even Gates himself. The goal of the documentary was to survey the way various groups, and at different times, have remembered and commemorated Lincoln. It was not Gates’s purpose to criticize any one interpretation.
More interesting is their assessment of how the documentary handled what the SCV assumes to be a deeply ingrained set of Lincoln myths. The SCV and other heritage organizations have been outspoken in blaming academics for not addressing these myths:
The bottom line is the program attacked the Lincoln myth and presented so many of the negatives in Lincoln’s life that have been avoided by historians for years. This includes some who appeared on the program and now exposed by having to admit there is a Lincoln “myth”. They also chide each other for not viewing history in light of the times, rather than viewing it, as they often do, as if the events were today.
The program further gives us an opportunity to see to it that it is and used by schools throughout the country to help overcome the problem of children being misled on the life of Lincoln and the causes of the War Between the States. Is also serves as an introduction to the Sons of Confederate Veterans by the SCV being portrayed in a favorable light. Dr. Gates has assured me he wholeheartedly endorses this idea. In his case, he has convinced me he is interested in the truth as defined in the program, though he continues as a devoted Lincoln fan, blemishes and all.
This is a bizarre thing to say given that Henry L. Gates as well as others featured on the program, including Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Harold Holzer, and James O. Horton are all academics and have been arguing for a more sophisticated interpretation of Lincoln for well over twenty years. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand academic historians have challenged every aspect of the Lincoln myth out there, especially his position on slavery and race. Actually, the more you think about this passage the more confusing it is. I am not aware of any high school history textbooks that fail to follow the outline of Gates’s documentary. In other words, most texts distinguish between Lincoln’s views on race and slavery and do a pretty good job of explaining the complex set of conditions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation – the very core of Lincoln mythology, according to the SCV.
I think what this reflects is how far removed the SCV – as an organization – is from a mature understanding of Lincoln/Civil War historiography. They think that “Looking for Lincoln” somehow reflects a new direction in scholarship when all it really is is an entertaining/educational overview of what most historians have come to believe about Lincoln. The straightforward historical interpretation of Lincoln that emerges is a synthesis of the last twenty-five years of scholarship. Maybe if the SCV took the time to get beyond their meaningless generalizations regarding professional historians and took the time to read their books they would see this. Welcome to 2009.