‘Lincoln’ Lies: The Real Story Behind a ‘Bought’ Vote


Boston, MA:  Boston Garden, Abolitionist US Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) whom a South Carolina Representative tried to murder on the floor of the Senate.  4/25/13
Boston, MA: Boston Garden, Abolitionist US Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) whom a South Carolina Representative tried to murder on the floor of the Senate. 4/25/13

     I liked Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ when I saw it.  I would like it more in retrospect had I not heard so many promotional paeans to its accuracy.

     I’m working on a blogpost prompted by Rick Beard’s essay on Clement L. Vallandigham, the leading Peace Democrat (‘Copperhead’), in the New York Times superb Civil War blog, ‘Disunion’.

     Beard made me curious about the role Walton Goggins plays in ‘Lincoln’, that of a lame duck Democratic Representative who sells his vote on the 13th Amendment for the postmastership of Millersburg, Ohio.  Writes Emmanuel Levy in his Cinema 24/7 blog:

 Among those whose vote changes at the last minute is Ohio Congressman Clay Hawkins, portrayed by Walton Goggins, best known for his roles on “The Shield” and “Justified.” Hawkins was a Democrat who didn’t support slavery but felt it might be politically dangerous to vote for the 13th Amendment. Says Goggins of his dilemma: “For some, it was about morality—but my character was also faced with the threat of death if he went along with this vote. He had to take into consideration everything that was going on in the country, maybe the possibility of a peace offering by the Confederates and on top of that his personal safety, and finally doing what, in his heart, felt right.”

     I’ve known some Ohio politicians Spielberg and his writer, Tony Kushner, might have used for Hawkins’s role models.  But not from Millersburg or that part of central Ohio.  Seventy miles east, a hundred miles south, maybe, but not in Amish country.

     And, selling out for a postmastership in the days when they were patronage positions, changing hands when the Presidency did, seemed a stretch.  The character Lincoln says Hawkins was selling out cheap.  Right.

     Hence, I wasn’t surprised today to find Hawkins was made up.

     This Matthew Pinsker points out in a useful post, ‘How the “Lincoln” Movie Invented Its Lobbying Scenes’ on Dickinson University’s terrific Civil War website, House Divided.

 There was a single lame duck Democratic congressman from Ohio who switched his vote in favor of the antislavery amendment in January 1865 but his name was Wells A. Hutchins and he did not receive any post-war patronage appointment in the federal government. Nor was he much recognizable in the character of Clay Hawkins. In real life, Hutchins was a reasonably tough, independent-minded Democrat who had voted to support the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862 and who had backed the Lincoln Administration on several controversial issues during the war, including the suspension of habeas corpus or civil liberties –an issue that was especially unpopular among Ohio Democrats. Understanding this background helps explain why he was a lame duck in 1865 and why he was a natural target for supporting the amendment. It had nothing to do with hunting, drinking or patronage.

     As I’ll post later, Prof. Pinsker’s accurate summary of the background holds some allusions that deserve expansion.

     Hutchins was born and raised near Warren, Ohio.  As a young lawyer, Hutchins moved nearly 300 miles into Ohio’s deep south to Portsmouth on the Ohio River across from Kentucky.  It was Portsmouth he represented.

     A fascinating profile of Hutchins in a turn of the 20th century history of Adams County, Ohio, reveals he was one of two democrats in his home county, Scioto, to vote for a state constitutional amendment in 1867 granting negroes the right to vote.  From his return to Portsmouth in 1865 until his death there in 1895, he practised law successfully, apparently as a plaintiff’s lawyer specialising in suits against railroad companies.

     (Caveat: County histories of this type make terrific reading, but their biographies often were influenced by whether the subject or his/her family subscribed for a copy of the finished volume.  Hutchins’s does not seem to fall in that category.)

     Portsmouth and Scioto County supplied the models who came to my mind for Walton Goggins’s role.  That much, Spielberg & Kushner got right.  The implicit slur on the memory of someone more likely for a ‘profile in courage’ diminishes their movie.