April 13, 2011
By Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA
Is it possible to produce a credible film about the Civil War without mentioning slavery? I’ve now seen The Conspirator (opening this week across the country) twice, and I’m still not sure. This very question provides one of the many elements that make this film such a superb vehicle for teaching and for public conversation on the Civil War. And remember: for the next five years there will be a lot of public conversation about the Civil War.
The Conspirator focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, a Washington boardinghouse keeper accused of participating in a conspiracy that successfully assassinated President Lincoln, produced an attack on Secretary of State Seward, and failed to implement a planned assassination of Vice President Johnson. The film is the firstborn of The American Film Company, which “produces feature films about incredible, true stories from America’s past.” Specifically, The Conspirator claims to be “based on actual events. Care has been taken to ensure historical accuracy. Names, places and events may have been changed for creative license purposes only.” Many historians will quibble here and there about that creative license, especially scholars who know more than I do about the details. My concerns have been about one big issue: slavery.
The word is never mentioned in the film. Nor are we told that Mary Surratt was a slaveholder (she owned at least two). Nor is there any implication that the War itself was about slavery. We hear a lot about “our cause” with reference to the Confederacy. When Mary’s son John observes, “if this cause ain’t worth fighting for, what is,” the implication is that the “cause” has something to do with southern honor. One might infer this again when Mary tells her attorney, a heroic Union Army officer, that “we are the same,” after she asks if he had ever deeply believed in a cause beyond himself, and he points to his war record. Mary’s daughter bitterly refers to the “cause” as “pointless.”
It was not pointless. The Confederacy was deeply committed to a principle: the right of one human being to own, buy, and sell another. This was the point of secession in the first place. The soldiers who fought for either side might not have thought they were fighting over slavery (though the thousands of African American soldiers in the Union Army knew this very well), but secessionist leaders knew it, Frederick Douglass knew it, and by the time of his second inaugural in 1864, Lincoln knew it.
So, does the film have to tell us this, or even give us a hint about it? By eliding the issue, and casting Secretary of War Stanton as a vengeful zealot reminiscent of a Dunning School historiography that no professional historian takes seriously anymore, does the film perpetuate persistent ideas about a noble South defending its honor?
I don’t know. I first thought it did. But the second time around, and especially after stimulating conversation that itself points to the quality of the film, I questioned whether it would have been possible to raise the issue of slavery without detracting from the film’s purpose. I paid more attention to what the film was trying to accomplish, especially to its brilliant and evocative treatment of the legal issues that stand at its center in a way the Civil War itself does not. What matters, in the end, is that The Conspirator raises these questions. And by doing so, it cogently, provocatively, and accessibly offers historians not only a fruitful resource for the classroom, but an enticing opportunity to engage public culture through reviews, blogs, and letters to their newspapers.