written April 2012
The Abraham Lincoln of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 seminal film The Birth of a Nation is both intimately familiar and frustratingly foreign to a modern viewer. “An infinitely thoughtful and suffering man” and a “father figure that must make unpopular decisions” are recognizable Lincoln qualities. Yet in the film’s world, in which the Ku Klux Klan is the paragon of virtue and African-Americans are at best lampooned props and at worst a symbol of animalistic evil, the proverbial Lincoln on screen becomes a quandry to be scrutinized. Formed from the Southern Myth apologies of Rev. Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s Lincoln assumes superhuman compassion and decency, a hero on par with the former secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay’s early caricature.
The Southern Myth predates the Civil War by several decades, the Swallow Barn(1832), by John P. Kennedy depicting the South as a golden, peaceful land. This romanticized take on the antebellum age came in vogue again by the 1880s “at the tail end of Reconstruction.” A young Griffith, born in Oldham County, Kentucky in 1875 to a former Confederate cavalry officer, he would have been naturally drawn to stories of treacherous carpetbaggers and scalawags.
The first mention of Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation is mere association, an intertitle that projects the coming “storm” as a matter of “threatened” states’ rights. The Republican presidential candidate himself is spared blames for these troubles; they are instead placed on “the new administration” broadly, while a newspaper headline fingers “the North” more generally. According to this version of secession, Lincoln is on the periphery of charged events, pulled to office by Yankee radicals, and once elected to be handled by Union war instigators. These narrative gymnastics thus introduce Lincoln as a fully benign yet oddly tractable figure.
Griffith’s genesis of the Civil War is printed on the film’s first fade-in intertitle: “The beginning of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” Moving then to mid-19th century, a conspiratorial relationship between “Abolitionists” and slaves is immediately presumed, linking them in a plot against the South. The Birth of a Nation dramatizes the destructiveness of such a relationship in the form of Speaker of the House Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) and his scheming mulatto maid, Lydia (Mary Alden), The Fort Sumter spark of Griffith’s retelling involves a mass Northern “weakness” brought on by listening to such black corruptions, including the incitement of Southern slave happiness, “that is a blight to the nation.”
Without further explanation of the crisis, Lincoln’s first on-screen appearance (played by Joseph Henabery) takes on a menacing tone. Key to this, his advisers are shown encircling the president, nodding while one reads the “first call for 75,000 Volunteers” proclamation, emphasizing Lincoln’s put-on position. These “several gentlemen” cluster tightly behind the president, waiting for his signature. A pen is even offered to Lincoln so he does not have to take it up himself. The Cabinet, by implication, is comprised of other men like Speaker Stoneman, pushing the nation into war, seemingly against the desires of Lincoln himself. Henabery plays the president as torn over this decision, melodramatically dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief once the officials have gained his signature, then resorts to prayer with seeming foreknowledge of the violence to come. Griffith’s aim to keep Lincoln free from blame comes at a cost; Lincoln is painted as a pawn in the pocket of his own administration and supporters, and a terrible leader for allowing a war he believes in so little. Robert Lang points to Griffith’s “extraordinary synthesis of potential incompatibilities” in this Lincoln’s makeup. The explanatory intertitle states the war action will “enforce the rule of the coming nation of over the individual states.”
Mercy is Lincoln’s most pronounced trait in The Birth of a Nation. In Henabery’s longest sequence, Lincoln is out by Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell), the mother of a wounded Confederate officer, Ben Cameron (Henry Walhatt). The young officer is condemned to be hanged. Griffith wisely gives Lincoln some backbone at this point, depicting him first “in a lively exchange” with a supposed Northern man for unknown reasons that “Lincoln gestures angrily at… to leave.” Clearly Lincoln does possess principles, and is not afraid to state them forcibly. Lincoln however rejects Mrs. Cameron’s request once, and then again, standing by the same firm footing. At the further urging of Elise Stoneman (Lillian Gish), the mother is eloquent enough of her son’s suffering that Lincoln finally relents and pardons Ben Cameron. This act symbolizes the larger Southern Cause as Prodigal Son to Lincoln’s forgiving father motif. This familial reunification also occurs away from sight of the outcast Nothernman, suggesting Lincoln’s regional favoritism and true yearnings. This is Griffith’s statement scene about Lincoln. Now nearing the end of the war, Lincoln is in no mood to side with Union sentiment, as it has been only the harbinger of such destruction. Lincoln, as the oppositional leader against the South, cannot so readily and publicly make emends to the South, as personified by Mrs. Cameron. However, Northern sympathies. in the form of Elise, is ready to make peace, giving Lincoln license to forgive the South as he had always wished. The empathetic leader not only can visualize suffering but can pardon the enemy, giving the South future peace of mind for their secessionist role. Finally, is the South, via Mrs. Cameron’s near-embrace of the president, that wishes to welcome him back to them. The thankful South then takes her battered men home, saying “Mr. Lincoln has given your life back to me.”
Rev. Thomas Dixon, whose writings inspiring The Birth of a Nation,crafts a Lincoln that is even more enamored with the South. In The Clansman, Lincoln once physically removes a Notherner from his midst, and for that moment at least losing his aura of perfection, warning the man “I will not bear insult!” Further, Lincoln reveals himself to Mrs. Cameron to be at heart a “Southern man,” to her surprise. Mrs. Cameron comes to amount the Civil War to Southern impulsiveness and a misunderstanding of Lincoln’s “true” nature, declaring “If only we had known you in time” conflict could have been avoided
Lincoln’s Southern virtuousness established in the film, Griffith squares the president off against Speaker Stoneman, the film’s villain. Unassuming and politely attentive, Lincoln is a model of Southern hospitality as Stoneman “makes an impassioned statement, and Lincoln responds by shaking his head. Lincoln cannot abide a conquered, punished South, as Stoneman requests, giving an echo of his second inaugural address by saying, “I shall deal with them as if they had never been away.” While this statement could be taken as another example of Lincoln’s gracious goodness, taken literally, it would mean Lincoln was content to return the rebellious states to the national fold, without pursuing any Reconstruction policies, politically or racially, that would have altered antebellum society. With Stoneman’s angry, defeated departure, Griffith’s Lincoln has temporarily saved the South from a fate of Northern rule by Union and former-slave proxy. In an understood, if unsaid agreeement, Lincoln aims to “with a fostering hand” actively refashion a white-dominated Southern society. Paired with the previous Southern clemency, Lincoln’s subsequent refusal of further hostilities allows for Griffith’s dizzying goal that Lincoln be “ claimed by the South as a hero.”
Yet this new utopia is not to be, as “tragedy” strikes, at it is this “fated night that the melodrama and logic of the film Lincoln as a figure worthy of Southern hero-worship hinges. Lincoln takes a final curtain call from his Ford’s Theater box, beloved and cheered for an extended period from the audience members below. Harebary then has little to do but be seated as let fate take its course, given only the action of reaching for a shawl to warm himself. This is at once a sign of Lincoln’s fated foreknowledge that death is at hand, and a symbol of Lincoln’s androgynous multifacetedness. The moment also allows for Lang an “Oedipal climax. We see the father figure cut down by a son of the South.”
Both the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Cameron family react to the assassination with horror. Speaker Stoneman “stands with his eyes closed, lost in thought to the coming repercussions. Ironically, the black maid Lydia’s one-dimensional deviousness cannot even pretend a mask of sadness, and “rubs her hands together” at the thought of the fall of traditional white culture. Without Lincoln as a protector of the white South, Griffith instructs, North could out their racially aligned Reconstruction plan into action. If this tyrannically-tinged point is missed, Lydia bluntly states “You are now the greatest power in America.” The Camerons are also stricken by the news, and have an equally-assured vision of future events due to Lincoln’s death: “Our best friend is gone,” Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aiken) laments, “What is to become of us now?”
Left out of the finished film yet marked out in production notes is a scene depicting that Dixon called “Lincoln’s solution,” in a never-to-be fictional letter to the New YorkGlobe. Thousands of African-Americans are then to be seen, boarding ships in New York City to Africa, never to return. In this way, The Birth of a Nation alights segments of the authentic Lincoln while also spinning the known world on its head, leaving the viewer in historical knots. When it comes to Lincoln, historian Richard Hofstadter has noted the versatility of Lincoln’s admirers and his unusually wide appeal, from “people who are hostile to slavery” to “sentimentalists who wanted to the restoration of, and regression to, a supposedly more secure past.” Lincoln’s death is ultimately convenient to this version of Reconstruction’s failures, and the film is a deep dig into the Lost Cause theory’s search for dignity in defeat. And D.W. Griffith understood that recapturing such standing meant getting Abraham Lincoln on your side.