History teachers have an incredible challenge: to take people and facts and events that deservedly have become legend, bigger than life, and to present them in such a way that they are not worshipping at the throne of memory. Washington, Jefferson, Madison…
The conundrum is how to teach to the greatness without falling into the trap of forgetting the man. The warts, the strengths, the pain, the triumph, the courage, the grit and often the sheer cussedness not to give up which eventually puts these men (and women) onto a path–the historical stage–which will shoot them into the historical heaven of memory.
Over the weekend, I watched the movie Lincoln. Was it great because Daniel Day Lewis—one of the most precise actors of our day—moved with such exactness and accuracy? His eyes wide in honest consideration, his hands touching each person Lincoln met with gentle sincerity, his feet dropping in the awkward lanky gait. Was it the writing? Each carefully chosen story Lincoln told—all without a doubt historically accurate. Or the surprising insight into Civil War Washington politics? Was it the relationship between Lincoln and his Cabinet, Lincoln and Tad, Lincoln and Molly (who knew Mary was called that?), Lincoln and Grant, Lincoln and Robby? Was it the costumes, the sets, the music?
No, what made it great was the film’s distinct focus.
The real main character.
Somehow, however, I think a movie called: “The 13th Amendment” wouldn’t have done very well.
For those uninformed, or unfamiliar with such “inconsequentialities” of our history—the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States—once and for all time.
And though I sat in a theater filled with history teachers (and their loved ones who most likely appreciated history—why else would they have come early on a Saturday morning to a VERY long movie), I felt sorry for them all because they had not been on a year and a half journey which took me to that moment.
A year and a half ago, I stood in the temporary Gilder Lehrman archives studying a document, trying to decipher the lacey lettering on a broad page. The first thing I recognized was a signature at the bottom. A. Lincoln.
The second thing I recognized was the word “slavery.”
What was this? I was asked.
Wanting to be brilliant, my heart beat a little harder. My palms sweated. My mind buzzed. I couldn’t think. Was I actually staring inches from the great man’s signature?
Is this the Emancipation Proclamation? I asked. (Foolishly.)
Look again, I was told.
Like a distant scene coming into focus, my 19th century mind, unraveled the words and I realized I was reading the simple, clear 13th Amendment.
It seems that whenever an amendment is passed, a set of souvenir copies are made. These are set out on the desks in Congress and everyone who voted for the amendment signs them and then the copies are given out as a remembrance. And I was looking at one of those actual, signed, official, souvenirs copies. Utterly illegal but real.
Our government has a magnificent concept which keeps each branch from getting too much power—checks and balances. Each has its own job, its own responsibilities. And it is not the job of the Executive to approve or disapprove amendments to the Constitution.
Remember, the first thing I recognized was A. Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln understood that the passage of the 13th Amendment was so significant, so life and country altering that he went to the House and put his hand to that paper. Placed his name on it for all history to see. Wrongly. Illegally. And appropriately.
Last summer I sat in the very room where the Emancipation Proclamation was written. I stood on the porch and imagined the Lincoln’s lawn covered with military tents. I drove along the very drive where Lincoln made the daily journey from his summer house to the White House that bitter summer when his Molly stricken with grief could not face Washington and the vipers.
I believe my eyes were the only ones in that theater to have seen that incredible, historic, illegal document. I know my ears were the only ones to have heard the Gilder Lehrman archivist teach the story. And while I wasn’t the only one to have felt the power at the Summer Cottage, I was the only one who had also stood last spring in the Gettysburg Cemetery and spoke to strangers about the importance of Lincoln’s message—because those words have been burned into my soul through teaching about them.
Bits of this and pieces of that all wove together allowing that extraordinary film to bring me unexpected knowledge. I saw the anger, heard the desperation and felt what was sacrificed by men like Lincoln, his Cabinet and abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens to bring about the successful passing of this amendment.
And it’s the bits of this and pieces of that which will make a difference to my students. Not dates, not names, not places but choices and actions, grieving and courage. Not the legends but the people living their lives, doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.
To borrow from the writers of that film when the Speaker of the House chose to cast a vote supporting the amendment and was told that his action was not usual, he replied: This is not usual—this is history.