ST. PAUL, Minn. - What is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to capture the essence of America's 16th President opened Friday in theatres across the country.
Steven Speilberg's "Lincoln" studies the last four months of the man often regarded as America's greatest President.
Lincoln's role in Minnesota history is more complicated than simply as "the Great Emancipator." A letter in Lincoln's own hand is part of an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. It is a letter condemning 39 men to death.
"One was reprieved at the last minute and so 38 were hanged simultaneously in what is today the largest mass execution in American history," said Dan Spock, Director of the Minnesota History Center.
The 38 were Dakota braves, the last of 303 Dakota who were ordered executed until Lincoln's letter approving the execution of only 38, in effect, commuted the death sentences of the others.
"He had to weigh his sense of compassion for the Dakota with the political reality that he probably could not afford to lose the State of Minnesota in the impending election of 1864," said Spock. "He was also a man of his time, a complicated guy, a very shrewd politician and he made decisions based on the political calculus of his day, and I think that is a lot of what this new film about him is going to reveal."
History Center Interpreter Suzanne de la Houssaye saw the film during an early preview. She commented that prior to that, she did not realize how narrowly the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, had been passed.
"I was encouraged by watching the film to then look up and read more information which I think, that to me was a really good sign about a film that is on history, that is makes you want to learn more about the time period and about the people," she said.
Spock said that Lincoln was "a man of his time" and far more complex than the iconic images of him in previous films.
"He was also a racist and did not actually seem to believe that slaves were equal to white men and so, this kind of colors his legacy, but I think we have to say that anytime he had an opportunity to turn the wheels toward emancipation and then later the abolishment of slavery, he took those opportunities," said Spock.
Spock pointed out that the 1862 Dakota Uprising, as significant as it is in Minnesota history, was a sidelight to the larger War Between the States, raging at the same time.
"Lincoln had a lot on his plate. His administration was completely preoccupied with the war. In 1862, they were really losing the war," Spock said.
"Lincoln" by Touchstone Films stars Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field. The Minnesota History Center exhibit on the 1862 Dakota War, including Lincoln's letter, is open to the public through September of 2013.
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