Professors who do cool things: Michael Vorenberg, the unsung hero of ‘Lincoln’?
In an article on The New Republic website, Timothy Noah suggested that Brown University superhero history professor Michael Vorenberg and his book, Final Freedom, were likely the “principal source” for the Oscar-nominated Lincoln. Vorenberg’s book is widely regarded as the most comprehensive account of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which is the main focus of the film.
Noah also expressed dismay that Lincoln‘s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, and the film’s producers had not publicly recognized Vorenberg’s contribution. Lincoln’s promotional materials and final credits state that the film is based “in part” on Team of Rivals, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also served as a historical advisor to Kushner. The problem, according to Noah, is that Goodwin’s book provides only a brief description of the most important historical events in the film—in particular, the legislative battles surrounding the 13th Amendment.
Vorenberg’s Final Freedom, which was a finalist for the 2002 Lincoln Prize, has been commended by many historians for demonstrating the crucial role of 13th Amendment in the abolition of slavery. Both scholarly works and popular narratives had often given the Emancipation Proclamation the principal role, though the wartime measure affected only those Confederate territories in active rebellion and outside of Union military control. It was the 13th Amendment—which, as the film shows, was from far from a foregone conclusion—that formally abolished slavery in all of the United States. (Yes, like almost everyone else at this school, I took Vorenberg’s blockbuster “Civil War and Reconstruction.”)
When reached by Noah, Kushner confirmed that he had consulted Vorenberg’s book. “I admire [Vorenberg] enormously as an historian,” Kushner said. “His book is fantastic.” Kushner also said that Final Freedom offers “a very detailed and as far as I know the only finely detailed account of the congressional battle.” However, Noah says that Kushner would not call Vorenberg’s book the “principal” source for the film.
Vorenberg’s work may have factored less heavily into Kushner’s original script, which ran 500 pages long. Discussing the drafting process, Kushner recounted an unexpected call from the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, who suggested zeroing in on 70 pages of the script. “What if we focus just on the month of January and the passage of the 13th Amendment?” Spielberg proposed. Kushner agreed—a choice that surely gave Vorenberg’s work more prominence in the film.
What exactly did Kushner borrow from Vorenberg? The Brown professor gave The New Republic a few examples: the attempts by Democrats to bait Thaddeus Stevens into endorsing complete “negro equality” (rather than mere equality before the law), a much more controversial notion that might have sunk the amendment altogether; Republican efforts to secure one Democrat’s vote by promising to decide an election controversy in his favor; and, perhaps the bit that people who have seen the film will most easily recall, the presence of African Americans in the audience as Congress finally voted on the amendment.
But Vorenberg—that classy, classy man—declined the opportunity to bash the film’s producers or historical advisors for the oversight. “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,” he told Noah.
“If my book helped add accuracy to the film,” Vorenberg added, “I can take some pleasure in that.”
Sam Knowles ’13 served as editor-in-chief of Post- Magazine from 2011–2012.