Lincoln Movie Underplays James Ashley’s Role



Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie about the great president’s struggle to get Congressional approval for the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, gets 53-year-old Ohio History teacher Paul LaRue’s approval for bringing American history alive.

But LaRue nonetheless is disappointed with its portrayal of James M. Ashley, a home-state U.S. Representative who led the floor fight on the amendment’s behalf. LaRue has made greater recognition of Ashley a veritable crusade in recent years.

“He’s made off to be weak or a little doltish, as if the process is going on and he’s not a part of it,” LaRue said. “He was a true believer but the movie really comes up weak on Ashley.”

As teacher at the public high school in the Buckeye State’s southwestern city of Washington Court House, LaRue is always looking for projects to inspire and educate his senior classes. And back in 2009, he thought he had a good one: Ohio, belatedly embarrassed that one of its two representatives in the U.S. Congress’ National Statuary Collection — 19th Century Governor William Allen — had racist beliefs, decided to replace him. (His statue had been on display since the 1880s.) A state legislative committee began looking for alternatives.

Ideas flowed in — the Wright brothers, the deaf Cincinnati Red star William “Dummy” Hoy, Thomas Edison, Olympian Jesse Owens, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and many more.

But LaRue was aware that objections to Allen, a Democrat of the period, centered on his opposition to President Lincoln and the Civil War, as well as to national abolition of slavery.

So he got his class to champion Allen’s mirror opposite — Ashley, a Civil War-era Republican from the Toledo area. He was such a strong Lincoln supporter that he served as the President’s floor manager for passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. He was so committed to abolition he was a conductor on the underground railroad in the Portsmouth, Ohio, area. And in Congress, he authored legislation to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia.

He even attended the 1859 Virginia execution of abolitionist John Brown, following his raid on Harper’s Ferry, offering consolation to his wife. The Toledo Blade newspaper has online a portion of the letter he wrote his family about the experience. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, that the old man is gone, what will be said of him? Who shall reconcile the conflicting statements? What will be the verdict of history? All concede to him courage of the highest order, and many even here admit his honesty of purpose. That he had no desire for wealth, is evident from the fact that every dollar he could control was expended in getting Slaves to Canada. Simple in his manners, and with but few wants, he lived only to help the helpless. However much I condemn and lament, as I most sincerely do, his attack on this place, I cannot but admire his heroism, his straight-forward independence, and his undoubted courage.

The presentation by LaRue’s class was so impressive that the state committee short-listed Ashley among the ten finalists for Allen’s replacement — and then let Ohio Historical Society put the list to a public vote in 2010. He then finished last with just 386 votes to Edison’s 12,132. (Edison was born in Milan, Ohio.)

“When the committee narrowed list to ten and he made it, to us that was like winning the Super Bowl,” LaRue said. “They then had Ohioans vote and he finished dead last. People just don’t know who he is.”

LaRue was hopeful Lincoln might change that. But Ashley, as played by David Costabile, is a very secondary character in the movie, coming off on the weak side of bland. It’s as if he’s following Lincoln’s orders and assembling votes without any great sense of moral purpose. Yet, as LaRue points out, “There was a certain religious zeal to his views on abolition.”

LaRue has “heavily thumbed through” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the book on which Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner based the film, and acknowledges her coverage of Ashley’s role is minimal. “I saw James McPherson was a consultant and David Blight a consultant. Along with Doris Kearns, those are best of the best of historians, so who am I to say? But I just can’t believe they knew that much about Ashley.”

His hope — short of getting Spielberg to film a sequel called Ashley — is to launch a website to educate people about the forgotten Ohio abolitionist. He has the material from the class project. “I would like to have The Real James M. Ashley website,” he said. “We’ve got all the pieces and parts. We’ve got all the information.”

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