Kentucky and Kentuckians are all over new movie about Lincoln

“I hope to have God on my side,” Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1861, “but I must have Kentucky.”

Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, makes it clear that the 16th president needed his home state up to the very end of the Civil War.

Kentucky is all over this terrific drama. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Lincoln, who was born in what is now Larue County, and Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln of Lexington. Field even spent time in Lexington to prepare for her role.

Early in the film, Lincoln is seen talking with two black soldiers who mention they enlisted at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. A constant presence in the movie is the ticking of a watch that Lincoln owned — recorded at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where it is part of the collection.

The movie focuses on Lincoln’s quest in 1864 and 1865 to abolish slavery, in border as well as rebel states, by expanding his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. To do that, he needed to get the Senate-passed amendment through a divided House of Representatives.

A pivotal vote Lincoln needs is that of U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman of Owensboro, who is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a California-born actor who affects a convincing Western Kentucky accent. At this point, even Kentucky history buffs in the audience are scratching their heads. George Helm Who?

Michael Stuhlbarg portrays George Helm Yeaman. AP Photo by Peter Kramer

Yeaman, then 35, was born in Hardin County, the nephew of former Gov. John L. Helm. A talented lawyer, Yeaman was Daviess County judge before being elected to the General Assembly and then Congress.

Yeaman was a Unionist. But the two major parties in Congress were Republicans and Democrats, although their personalities were the opposite of what they are today. Democrats were more conservative, Republicans more liberal.

Many Democrats supported slavery, while most Republicans, including Lincoln, opposed it. The so-called “radical Republicans” even believed in racial equality; at the time, no political idea was more radical than that.

Yeaman disliked slavery, but he feared that abolition would destroy Kentucky’s economic and social structure. On Dec. 18, 1862, he gave a lengthy speech in the House denouncing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“I protest against it as a violation of the Constitution and the liberties of my country,” Yeaman said. “I protest against it as unwise, uncalled for, tending to widen the breach rather than to hasten the conclusion of this war.”

“Yeaman was reflecting the views of his constituents,” said Aloma Dew, who taught Civil War and Reconstruction history at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro and wrote The Kentucky Encyclopedia’s entry about Yeaman.

Most of Yeaman’s constituents supported both the Union and slavery. “He felt that the power to confiscate private property was unconstitutional,” Dew said, adding that he also thought blacks were unprepared for freedom.

In the movie, Yeaman, serving as a lame duck after being defeated for re-election in 1864, is first shown giving a speech against the proposed 13th Amendment. He warns that ending slavery could eventually extend the vote to blacks and, even more horribly, to women. The House erupts in jeers.

This speech leads Lincoln’s operatives to think Yeaman can’t be bribed with a government job, which they were using to win the votes of other lame duck opponents. But the president decides to try to persuade him anyway.

Calling Yeaman to the White House, Lincoln tells him how his father, Thomas Lincoln, moved the family from Kentucky to Indiana and then Illinois because “he knew no small-holding dirt farmer could compete with slave plantations.”

“I hate it too, sir, slavery,” Yeaman tells Lincoln. “But we’re entirely unready for emancipation.”

Lincoln replies that the nation is unready for peace, too, but will have to figure it out when the time comes.

Days later, when called upon to cast his vote, Yeaman first mumbles, then shouts his “Aye!” to the shock of amendment opponents. He becomes a key swing vote for abolishing slavery.

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson appointed Yeaman as ambassador to Denmark. In that role, he negotiated the sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States, only to have it rejected by Congress. (The sale was later consummated in 1917 at more than three-times the cost.)

Yeaman resigned his ambassadorship in 1870 and settled in New York. The former congressman who had opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on constitutional grounds wrote several books about law and government and taught constitutional law at Columbia University.

President James Garfield reportedly offered Yeaman an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was assassinated in 1881 before he could follow through. With his wife in failing health, Yeaman moved to a country home in Madison, N.J., where he died in 1908.

Spielberg’s movie offers insight into the central role of Kentuckians in the Civil War, including a nod to a reluctant hero who might otherwise have been forgotten.

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